For many years a large part of my work was restructuring business, downsizing organisations and disestablishing roles. All lovely change jargon to make ‘redundant’ sound less harsh. I worked with some organisations many times and my arrival at the office reception immediately raised concerns and thoughts of ‘hear we go again’ amongst staff who knew me. Even when I was there to do the many other things I am called for I was often referred to as ‘the grim reaper’ in some organisations.
These days I’m called on less often to guide an organisation through such changes because everyone thinks they can handle it themselves. Lawyers will often be called upon and many HR practitioners will have ‘restructuring’ on their Cv. But organisations handling structure change themselves was often why I was called upon in the first place (when they got themselves in a tangle) and there is still a case for outside support I believe, that many organisations are missing.
Above the politics
The external change agent can give pure and clean guidance without affecting their next pay rise or performance review. Internal HR advisors can be sidelined by powerful GM’s/CEOs that think they know what to do and/or know what they want and don’t want to consider alternatives. They can become so much a part of the internal political scene that they know they can’t raise certain topics with the CEO/VP/GM and if they do the guidance can be couched so carefully that the message is lost. As an external change agent advice can be given, risks raised and the unmentionable mentioned because they are outside the performance review process.
They care about your reputation not the numbers
A good change agent isn’t just interested in how many roles are to be changed or removed. For them it’s not a numbers game or a target to focus their attention on. A good change agent isn’t really bothered about the law because they know the law is a minimum standard designed to catch the negligent or uninterested. A good change agent is neither.
A good change agent is focused on how the change happens because they know that the way the process is run, and the approach taken has a lasting effect on morale, reputation, employer brand and culture to say the least. A lawyer will advise you on the law but not on how people will feel. They may even advise you that ‘if it went to court you would win’. These days, less and less time is taken on consulting because nobody thinks they really need to go that far. A good change agent knows that the way you treat those that go tells everyone else how you really are as a company, and that’s why a good restructure is never done to the legal minimum but to the reputational maximum.
Better than a training course
I’ve always been a great advocate of training managers in how to lead people through the emotional side of change, but theory is one thing and reality is another. A good change agent shouldn’t do the job for you (like a George Clooney clone) but they will be able to mentor your managers through each state of the process, transferring knowledge and upping skills in a way that HR can’t (they have 200 other projects going on) or the lawyer can’t (they advise on law not on what to do when someone bursts into tears).
Nothing through the cracks
It may seem like an unnecessary extra pair of hands but internal staff have so much more going on than just the structure change that things get missed. Change is like juggling an extra ball when you are just managing to handle the 3 you had. So an extra pair of hands will help make sure that nothing about the change is missed as they only have to focus on that. A good change agent can often hear things that the managers don’t because they can go places, chat and listen (now I’m not saying managers can’t do this, but so many move from one meeting to the other that it is nigh on impossible to sit them down at their desk never mind walk the floor). More importantly they know what they are listening for. The emotional signals of someone who doesn’t want to let on that a whole load of their life wasn’t good and now you’ve added to it are part of a change agents radar.
So don’t fear the reaper, they are there to help your organisation come out of change in better shape than you went in.
When I tweet on Twitter and comment on Linkedin I tend to share what I’m seeing in the world of change and leadership. Sometimes it’s happening in a client space or a training space and sometimes a coaching space.
I recently commented on linkedin “don’t ignore those who helped you get where you are“. It was a simple thought as far as I was concerned, nothing really earth shattering. In no time at all it had 138 likes and 16 comments. This might not be an incredible number if you are Justin Bieber but for someone whose space is the targeted worlds of change and leadership and whose audience doesn’t tend to shout ‘Yay’ at everything you say, it was quite a surprise.
What was even nicer and more interesting was that people began to use it to thank those that had helped them on their journey, and those people obviously felt humbled by the thanks. It was nice to see and it was also nice to have initiated something positive for a few people, even though Justin Bieber saying it would have had half the planet thanking each other and not just a few.
And yes there were people who jumped on to advertise things like central heating (which I guess warms your heart in other ways) and spurious websites, but that too is just part of the world we live in. I’m sure they were thankful too.
It all came from a conversation with a group of managers whose direct reports were about to go through a development programme with myself and a colleague. I’ve noticed that if the manager is committed to the outcomes of these programmes then the direct reports seem to get more out of them and not just because committed managers don’t demand you come to a meeting on the day of your course. To help the managers engage we asked them to think about people in their past who had helped them get where they were today, and from their to think about what they could do to have a similarly big impact on their direct reports during the programme. It stirred up some great thoughts for some, so I passed the idea on via LinkedIn and Twitter.
The response struck a chord with even more people so it seems to me that when most of us think of people that have helped us we feel good and lift our game, as no doubt they do when we thank them for their help. The hashtag I gave it was #bethankful and hasn’t quite become a meme but I wonder what would happen in your workplace if it did?
Maybe you could pass it on and see what you get back?
I regularly find myself astonished by kiwi driving habits. From zipping round you while you are manoeuvring in a car park to pushing you along by sitting close to your rear bumper as you overtake, I find some ‘normal’ Nz habits rude at least and unsafe at worse. What’s interesting is that when I talk to other drivers trained in Britain, they often say the same, yet when I talk to those brought up to drive in Nz many of them don’t see why I think it’s not good driving. But as the years go by, I find myself getting more used to it. Still don’t like it but I treat it as ‘normal’.
It raises an interesting perspective on what’s ‘normal’ and how it can become so culturally. Looking inside organisations many employees get used to the way that things are done. But if you think about any time you have moved from one company to another, there is a short period where you look at the way things are done and wonder about some of the unusual, unproductive or downright bad. That period only lasts for a little while as people convince you of that way, shrug and say it can’t be changed or look at you with the same look I get when I talk to kiwis about kiwi driving. Gradually you accept it, live with, comply with it then do it the same way. This is normal behaviour because to work in a place the last thing you need to do is not blend in or be part of the place. Whether it’s because people are essentially tribal (they are but that’s in another blog) or because non of us like to upset the apple cart (you do have to work there every day), we tend to adapt and get used to what we initially found as strange.
As a change agent I am privileged to see different companies doing different things and I find that whilst some are bad at some things they can always be brilliant at something else. I often share observations as I work with organisations, because let’s face it if a change agent can’t say ‘really?’ when faced with justification of bad culture, who can? But I don’t get asked in every day. Normally its when something clearly needs changed.
What this tends to means for many organisations is that when it comes to envisaging a change in culture they find it quite hard. Its hard to see something better when you defend the norm. Even painful processes get defended as ‘the way we do things around here’.
As a response some organisations look to recruit from outside and tell new people that their outside perspective will be helpful. But people can’t swim against the tide for long so soon that perspective is lost too. Even CEOs, who have the most authority to enable change and speak up about things that are not good, can find themselves gradually becoming accepting of the culture they find themselves in.
So how do you deal with the problem of the outside perspectives gradually diminishing over time?
Create deliberate structures around new hires to build in discussions with the CEO and HR Director about their observations of the culture over their first 100 days.
Don’t assume senior people will change things when you hire them. Build it in to their objectives that their first 90 days report will have a culture issues topic and follow on actions will have cultural improvements.
Don’t wait till it gets so bad and then try and change. The focus groups you use when you are suggesting change can be a regular feature of the business. Get people together to talk about the black side of ‘how we do things around here’.
Normalise the discussion of the organisations culture. Don’t assume that your annual survey is enough. Make it ok for people to raise poor cultural tendencies every week and every month.
Routinely bring in outsiders, such as change agents, to spend a day or two with your managers and staff to ask questions about the way things are done. Value their report back.
Don’t ignore what you learn, whether by survey, focus group, review or new people. When you ignore it you condone it and that locks it in.
Whatever you do don’t let perspectives dwindle over time or one day it may be too late to change anything.
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.
Every organisation has them. Call them what you want. Whether they are ‘Elephants in the room’ or “Sacred Cows’ they are the reasons you need to change but they are often missed in planning for change.
Sacred Cows are inbuilt ways of working, no go zones, ‘this is the way we’ve always done its’ and often people who cant be argued with that exist in any organisation. They are the regular stumbling blocks that prevent progress or slow things down when you are trying to move your organisation forward.
Sometimes a Sacred Cow becomes an Elephant because nobody want to talk about it. We talk in code, we talk around it, and everyone knows its a problem but nobody wants to face it or deal with it.
So why are they missed in change?
What often happens is that the change programme is built in the ‘hope’ that it will deal with the cow/elephant. The trouble with hope is that it has no drive behind it, no action, no certainty, no goal. Its just optimism and optimism may not hit the target.
Sometimes the change programme doesn’t actually talk about the issues and make it clear that this must change.
This happens a lot when the issue is a person. Someone who has been here forever, has had incredible success in the past, someone wise or venerated. But that someone is now the stumbling block because what made them successful in the past wont make you successful today. So the change programme ‘hopes’ that the person will ‘get the message’, ‘get on programme’ or chose to leave of their own accord. But its amazing how often that doesn’t happen.
If the issue isn’t a one-man Elephant then the change often targets it covertly by putting in place something that speaks the opposite such as new values. New company values are often a version of ‘hope’ (and check out the work of Pouzes & Kosner about the value of company values). They are put in place in the hope that it will change people and often its some very specific people that its hoped will change. Except they don’t, because they didn’t know its them you are talking about.
Thats the problem with Sacred Cows and Elephants in the room. Nobody talks about them, and nobody wants to be the first to target them. So we do it covertly or ‘hopefully or ‘optimistically’.
If you were firing an arrow whats the chance of hitting something you aim at in hope or optimism? Very little?
The only way to deal with anything in change is to be very open about it, make it clear that its the behaviour/issue/system/habit/practice etc that needs to change, why its a problem, what it needs to change to and then put overt action in place to make the change happen. If it happens to be a person then you need to do exactly the same but face to face with them, in private.
A Sacred Cow will remain Sacred until you make it otherwise. An Elephant will wander round untamed until it is outed, spoken about and it becomes acceptable to deal with it and then….Well ready, aim and pull!
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