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What can toilets tell us about change?

I know that’s an unusual title for a blog on change but I was spurred to the thoughts that follow by a recent trip that took me through a few airports on the way to a week of sunshine in the pacific (and yes Auckland Domestic you are not the best ‘welcome to New Zealand’ any tourist would have when they travel to the regions).

It was after one such toilet stop that I remarked to my partner that the gents was once again pretty average in cleanliness, facilities and appearance. My partner replied that the ladies was nice, with special scented ‘sticks’ and natural light as well as attractive wallpaper. For not the first time I commented that this seems to be the same story the world over (Disneyworld excepted), where the gents are often smelly, dingy and poorly equipped. We then had a conversation about whether it’s because women looked after nice facilities and men have messy habits so it’s not worth it (and I so love conversations with gender generalities sprinkled through them).
So what’s this to do with change? Well it got me thinking about the expectations we set and the standards we have in our organisations. It’s not new thinking to say that people act in line with our expectations of them. From the likes of Rosenthal onwards there has been research around performance being driven by not only perception but expectation. But I was reminded about how unconscious and unintended these messages can be. I don’t know whether my partner is correct that many places don’t put efforts into the gents because of a perception that Men are messy (disgusting was the word she used though), but I do know that in many change initiatives I’ve observed it is the unspoken, unintended and often unthought about actions of leadership that can bring your programme to a crashing halt.
From the manager that still asks for one specific report even though we’ve spent a fortune on a new information system to the comment that something is ‘just an HR thing so let’s get on with it’.
From senior executives travelling first class after a general travel embargo to reduce costs to managers referring to their pet behavioural expectations/model/process when we have shifted to a new set of values and associated appraisal system.
I’m sure you can think I’ve more now I’ve started a list, but if you can’t you may want to see if Richard Argyris book ‘the unintended consequences’ is available in your part of the world as I found this many years ago and a lot of what he reported there struck a chord with me.
As a change agent it’s something I was often alert to and the words ‘what was the outcome you were looking for with that action/decision’ often became a forerunner to an ‘unintended consequences’ conversation. Whilst it’s something I think leaders need to be aware of in everything they do I think that change agents need to act as leaderships conscience. This is because it’s not easy to step outside your own head all the time, but it is easier to observe and think ‘does that match what we set out to achieve?’, ‘is that re-enforcing our new approach or undermining it?’, and ‘is that unintentional or a buy-in issue’.
And as our toilet stops prove its not the big ticket items that really establish perceptions, it’s the small and often necessary that set the tone for your organisation.

No change in change

Over the last decade I found that I was writing regularly for not only for thechangefactor about all things organisational change related but also about leadership and people insights for altris. At times it felt like a veritable outpouring which also included two books. But in the last few months I’ve slowed down a lot to a bare trickle. Have I dried up? People have asked me and others have gently commented . So have I dried up and got nothing to say? Well the truth is I’m doing everything I ever did and that was watch clients in action and reporting what I saw (no names mentioned to protect the innocent), but now as I watch I’m saying to myself ‘seen that before’, ‘wrote about that in 2009′, ‘chapter 6 of the book’.

And there is the problem in change I think. It’s not that ‘I’ve seen it all’; it’s that we are still struggling with the same issues. All the blogs I read and ‘new’ products, processes and approaches I see are mostly dealing wit the same issues, just packaged for another generation of managers and change agents. The problem is that the change industry hasn’t fully solved the problems of change, we are just dealing wth each group of managers we work with coming through their change experience and learning from it the same way their forebears did. Sure we have better tools, apps for everything, online stuff that make comms easier or provide instant access to our resources. And the industries where we are driving change have changed a lot too but that means more people using multiple computer screens compared to the days where the computer was the change.But If every change agent boiled down the essence of what they do and distilled it down to an elixir of perfect change that we could sell in online change supermarkets then I’m sure it would come down to managers and the way they operate (or don’t operate) with their staff and the elixir would be ‘perfect change leadership’.And this is why when I look at what my clients are doing, the models they are buying (often for big $) and the expensive processes they are paying for their people to learn, all of them seem to be sold on to the idea that if we all followed the perfect process, installed the perfect culture, did things the same way then change would miraculously happen. And all of this ignores the one great unpredictable variable in our workplace and that is our people. The inconsistent, non processable, unique and flawed human beings whose creativity and intelligence we spend a lot of money going out to hire to then find that they don’t have the culture we want or that the way they are doing things needs to change. So we process them and train them and often ‘get them off the bus’ and I watch and I think ‘have you tried leadership?’ And the answer is often ‘we sent our managers on a training course so they must be leaders’. So I breath deeply and I watch and I still see a dearth of leadership in the day to day. Whole cultures of confused yet bright people waiting to be told what to do because they know they have to. Desperate for feedback yet only ever seeing the red pen marks through their report and wondering ‘why?’. Looking for guidance, for clarity, for a sense of belonging, for regular communications, for someone to engage in dialogue so they can understand our new heading. And they wait as managers have meetings with other managers and say they have ‘no time for this leadership stuff’ and then the new CEO comes in and demands change so another round of initiatives is launched based on me persons ‘success’ in another business. To be a change agent requires eternal optimism that your client/your organisation can make something happen, but sometimes I think we all need to sit our leadership teams down and say ‘if you lot don’t actually go out and lead and stop expecting us to do it for you, then we are all out of here and you can just get on with it’. Until we do, and they communicate, engage, listen, guide, feedback, support, then there will be no change in change.
P.s Martin would love all leaders to buy his book on change and not just leave it on a shelf with all the other books from their training courses held in expensive locations, but actually read it and yes, do something with it! If anybody can prove that they did and got a different result from usual he will happily give the earnings from the sale of that book to a charity of their choice. Honestly.

Outing Burnout

It might be because I’ve had a long summer break and am suitably relaxed (God bless New Zealand with it’s wonderful weather and short weeks) but I’m noticing burnout in change teams.

Change projects often have tight deadlines, high demands and big expectations and those charged with delivery often work harder and longer hours than the business team that they are serving. It’s been that way for a long time, so on one hand I shouldn’t be surprised but on the other I ask myself ‘why haven’t we learned by now?’

Burnout is not good business sense, so why do many organisations and in particular their C-suite leaders not only accept it but set up the conditions that create it? Burnout is a failure of leadership because it doesn’t happen by accident. In fact many cases of burnout are totally predictable from the start of a project.

Here’s how it goes.
Business Manager X decides that what is needed is a new Y. ROI cases are prepared and people are then convinced that new technology/systems/applications are the way forward. From then on the die is caste. Once the C-suite has decided a project will be delivered in 6 months nobody can say it can’t be. Unfortunately it’s also a trend for senior managers to set over demanding expectations of timeline deliberately.
The project team comes along and the people that have the expertise start to look into things in the kind of detail you can’t at the business case stage and it becomes apparent that it can’t be delivered to the timeline. They look under the stones and find all the things that nobody wants to tell the bosses, find the past patch ups, previous project frailties or the weaknesses in the business case and know they can’t deliver.
It takes a very strong project leader to go back and argue for more time. And even if they do it’s always a negotiation (everything in life is a negotiation as you know) and if they get a bit more time they don’t get all they need and the don’t get more resource to fill the gap between the time they need and the time they get.

Short of time and short of resource. Only one outcome.

But burnout doesn’t happen everywhere to everyone. The shortage plays out for some roles more than others. Often there is only one expert available for something when the timeline needs 1.5. Sometimes it’s the project manager themselves. And this is the worst case of burnout from a business point of view. You work the people who the project pivot around to a state of incapacity. If the one person who knows how the software works keels over before the end of the project, what’s the outcome? If the person who is responsible for keeping the project hanging together is barely hanging together themselves, what is the outcome?

Change projects run Risk registers. But I’ve not seen many that actually list key individuals and then monitor their real hours (not just in the office: what time are they sending emails?), stress levels, physical health and mental wellbeing throughout a project. It’s not something we talk about is it. ‘You doing ok John?’ is as far as it goes for most.

Maybe burnout needs to be a a C-Suite KPI?

Politics of change prevention

I’ve read many reasons for change failing. From lack of planning, to resistance, to no resources, there are many many factors in the failure of change. But what about politics?
Time and again I hear reasons for change failing that are fundamentally attributable to leadership not leading. But I don’t mean in the sense of weak leadership or invisibility of leadership, which are obvious change limiters, but leaders covertly or overtly making decisions that go counter to an organisations declared strategy for change.

Streamlining of the Organisational structure in ways that should create clarity of responsibility get usurped because one leader would rather their team keep on doing something that the structure has designed out of their remit. The loss of power and control not dealt with at the time of change and even more worryingly not dealt with after by senior leaders not dealing with the non compliance.
Change being launched and gradually slowed and abandoned because there were reasons it wasn’t working, but the reasons are largely because effort was not being put in place because a manager did not agree with the change. Commitment hadn’t been clarified and incentivized at the start, instead an ‘are we all in?’ was taken as enough (we are all committed to the organisation aren’t we?)
How about straight out dislike for another manager that has been asked to deliver a key strategy. Individuals in other management positions don’t play their part. Competition for promotion being predicated on success makes tripping up another manager a handy tactic doesn’t it.

I don’t agree with it (but I’m not saying that out loud), I don’t like it (it doesn’t work for me personally), I don’t believe in that way of operating (I want to do things my way), are all sub-plots in the politics of change prevention and normally the players are capable of running a covert operation.

The fact that it exists is not surprising, but the fact that it is allowed to exist is even more surprising. CEOs, GM’s, MD’s know it’s going on and often who is doing it, but often the culprits aren’t called out for it. Instead those who are responsible for delivery are told they need to find a way of dealing with the problem, working to overcome the resistor, improving the relationship to reach agreement etc, which further condones the politics.
More than this the staff who are being asked to go along with the change can often see that it’s the politics of those above that is thwarting it. So we often hear about change weariness and many factors in that, but the ‘why bother because see how they behaved with the last change’ isn’t often mentioned.

Have we all become so used to politics in organisations that we no longer notice it? Is it the elephant in the room of change? I would be interested in the views of other practitioners.

Leaders are meant to lead change. Organisational leaders are meant to lead collectively with the same goal in mind.

Change can stumble for many reasons but it should never stumble because of the politics of leaders. Isn’t it time the proponents were outed and managed!

Comms Cohesion

When you are setting out your change communication strategy, what are you trying to achieve? Are you just there to keep people up to date with the timeline of the project? Are you setting out to market all the good things that your change will bring? Are you planning to deal with all the people issues and manage all the ‘what’s happening to me?’ questions that come with change?

Hopefully the answer is all three, but I often see comms that is only about one or two at best. Sometimes it’s because people don’t see the value in a three part comms strategy, but sometimes it’s old fashioned turf wars at play. Whatever the reason, if your change comms is not a cohesive mix of all three then you are missing an opportunity at best an potentially putting your change at risk at worst.

Progressing the Timeline

It’s a change programme so no doubt you’ve told people that something is going to change. In days gone past that was it, but most of us know that the most basic element of change is that people want to know what’s happening. Without knowing what’s happening they can’t identify with the change. If they can’t identify they won’t buy in. So the most basic change comms takes us through the change programme as and when it happens, which is my circus analogy. The Comms tells us that ‘the circus is coming’ to ‘the circus is here’ with updates in between telling us about the different acts as they arrive. This is a necessary part of any change communication strategy, but on its own it’s limited. It’s limited by lack of meaning to the individual who wants to know what the circus means to them and why they should care about it, what acts matter from their perspective and which ones will affect their role.

Comms as a marketing aid.

When something new is being rolled out, it’s no surprise that management want to sell in the advantages of it. This is particularly true of technology changes, most of which are highly expensive, take a lot of effort, can cause disruption whilst being installed, but can look like little has changed for the user, particularly if the are replacing something existing. Often the tech teams can see lots of advantages in the new equipment or software, but face a constant barrage of requests to modify it to keep it the ‘way we do things now’. The trouble is, every change to replicate today, reduces the impact of the new. Take your laptop as an example. How many of the apps and software that come with it do you use? Is the fist thing you do when you get a new machine check that it does everything you do today? Admit it, is your email set to traditional view?
The possibilities of technology in the workplace can easily come to naught of we are not guided to use them, as are all changes of system & process whether technological or not. So marketing the possibilities is a necessary part of change communications. On its own though it has no context, as it’s a one pitch sale, ‘buy this and your life will be better’. However if the message is linked to the flow of the programme its possible that you have more than one chance at making the pitch (and we all know that people need to hear at least seventeen times before they buy)

What’s happening to me?

The third part of a comms strategy is the one that helps people understand the impact of the change on them. Every time the technology or process is marketed, people will ask ‘what does this mean for my role?’ And if there is any hint of job reductions they will ask ‘is this the bit that takes away my job?’ If you are rolling the change out but haven’t worked out which jobs are affected (as you are still trying to understand the potential of the new process/system/technology) then every time you communicate in timeline mode or marketing mode, the receivers are listening in ‘what’s happening to me mode’ and that means they aren’t taking your message on board. They can’t if they think their job is at risk.


So the perfect Comms strategy includes the human impact in the Comms flow. However people changes are often seen as the domain of HR, particularly when some aspect of the change affects roles, or reduces them. Project managers and Technologists often don’t like to touch this aspect of change in case it tarnishes the nice aspects of their nice new equipment and software. HR often prefer to manage this themselves as it’s their domain, they don’t trust the technologists or the project manager or in some cases they want control or credit. So what happens is the project markets their product and sound disconnected from the people (‘I know you are in fear of your job, but but my nice shiny gadget’) and HR come out to communicate when they are ready to tell you whether you have your job. They don’t come out alongside the project timeline and tell you how the decision us going to be made etc, they come out separate to it.
Even worse, the Comms is often not connected. The HR language is legalized to ensure the company doesn’t get taken to court, and there is a risk that they say something differently than the project has been marketing for weeks or months. Disconnected and contradictory means that every good message the project has been trying to put out is lost. In addition if people are only listening to hear if they have a role there are two states of mind with this approach. Firstly ‘I’ve still got my job so nothing has changed’ or ‘I’ve got no job so I don’t care about what is happening here’. In either case a disconnect from the project. In the end the project keeps clear of the HR issue in case it was tarnished and it ends up tarnished anyway because of that separation.

HR will have done their job in reducing numbers and changing job descriptions. The project team will have done theirs in installing new technology or process. But unfortunately for the operations team who are their customer they have a group of people who probably haven’t bought in, are often suspicious of the company and their management and in many cases don’t think anyone told them about it because of the lack of cohesion in the messaging.