In July this year we moved from the New Zealand hub of Auckland to Marlborough in the South Island. Granted, we didn’t live in the city itself and had a few acres to ourselves, but this was a move to a different lifestyle entirely. Three weeks ago we finally moved in to our own place and this blog reflects on the last few months in the context of change.
Different doesn’t need to be bad
When we moved out of our old house we left behind a large spread with a great swimming pool, orchards, loads of rooms, space to spread out to have fun together or find a bit of personal peace. We hadn’t found a new place of our own so we were lucky enough to rent a few rooms in a homestay. Two small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen and a living room/dining area became home for four months. All our gear was in storage so we had very little around us that we were used to. Many people said to us ‘I couldn’t cope with that’ and I could see why. Such a dramatic shift in life is often a recipe for disaster.
But we turned a negative into a positive. It became an adventure and an opportunity to see what life could be like in our new setting. We relied less on our toys and more on us. And in that I saw the essence of many successful organisational turnarounds. Dwelling on what’s wrong is a common issue in major change initiatives. People often only see the negative, the loss, the downside. The spirit of adventure is lost and the opportunity to pull together with colleagues and see ‘what can be’ is missed.
Some things aren’t optional
In changing our life we really changed our life. We’ve taken on 9 hectares including a producing vineyard and whilst that sounds romantic and conjures up images of quaffing our own wine on warm summer evenings there is a lot of hard grunt involved in growing grapes that you don’t see when you are looking for the latest deal in the supermarket.
Within three days of moving in we learnt that frost happens between 1am and 5am in the morning. That may sound obvious but on chilly nights, while you are tucked up in your bed under a nice warm duvet, we are in the vineyard turning on our Amarillo Frost Fan (a propellor on a 10m pole driven by a diesel engine). Once that is done, we walk around taking temperature readings and if certain zones get too low we light frost pots (a tub with a 1m chimney on it containing 20 litres of diesel that we light with a blowtorch). History said that we wouldn’t need to light these often. History said we wouldn’t get two nights of frost in a row. Well, night one we lit all 12 frost pots. The next night we lit them all again.
After three weeks in our new home, we have slept in the UTE (utility vehicle) out in the vines while monitoring all this 5 times. You can talk about what you want to change. You can talk about what will change. But until it is changed you’ve got to do what needs to be done. No point grumbling, you’ve just got to do it. How many changes have you seen where that’s the case? Whole systems that need updating. Processes just not in place. People having to do the basics because there is no fancy software/hardware available, etc. In change you’ve got to know what you are signing the organisation up for and they’ve got to know too. It can become the stuff of company legend (remember those years when..) if you lead change well. If you don’t, the discontent can become debilitating and the organisation won’t perform.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
Frost fans, frost pots and tractors have now become part of our lives. How to couple and decouple various implements to the tractor has been ‘interesting’ learning. So has learning to drive up rows of vines pulling a mower bed, then turn and do the next one, without hitting vines/posts/fences with the 2 metre chunk of metal you have behind you. Colleagues in Auckland think it is exciting/daunting owning a tractor. People in Marlborough think it is normal.
I’ve seen many changes where people decide for themselves that they are ‘too long in the tooth’ to learn new things. They decide that technology is ‘just too hard’, that new equipment is too difficult to get their head around. They then expect the organisation to keep their job just the way it has always been so that they don’t need to bother about such things. It’s a tractor, it’s normal in Marlborough, so it will become normal for us too. It is just another thing to learn. I’ve been learning all my life so I can keep learning now. It’s all about mindset and that is the same with organisational change. Anyone can learn if they put their mind to it. Sure we can’t all become rocket scientists, but tapping a few keys on a keyboard isn’t rocket science. It’s just a new way of applying existing experience. Next time you have someone who says that they are too old to change, just say ‘let me tell you a story about tractors and frost pots’.
Understand your business.
Do we want to spend all day driving tractors? No we don’t. We’ve already found a great guy who is much better at it than us. Do we know what it involves? Yes we do now. Could we pull our weight if we needed to? Yes we could. Can we have a sensible discussion with the guy who does it? More than we could if we had stayed inside our house and just delegated.
Want to restructure the organisation? Can you do that from your ivory tower? Can you engage in dialogue with the people whose roles you are changing if you truly don’t understand what their life is like? Ever tried negotiations on a topic you have no feel for?
These days really good CEOs know that they need to get out amongst their teams and see what their life is like. Really really good ones spend a day in others’ shoes. They don’t have organised tours around the workplace being shown around by middle management, they get out there, wear the gear, do the work, ask the questions, understand the stresses and the challenges. It doesn’t take much, just a day or so every quarter. Not a PR exercise. Not an engagement tool. Do the job. Meet the people on their terms, in their place. Then think about what the change really is.
Is it all worth it?
Some changes are really hard and I’ve seen people going through massive organisational change and experiencing huge stress. Those that get through it well know what was in it for them: experience, learning, new skills, shared stories, camaraderie are often cited when I ask people what they got out of organisational change on a personal level.
Every day I look at my new world and find something to take joy in. At 3am the sky is beautiful and the helicopters (up-market frost fans) hovering over our neighbours at Brancott Estate (up-market frost fans) are like a scene from a movie.
Want to enjoy the sunrise? Then stay up all night. I can walk my piece of the world and see it growing and know that I’m helping it to do that. And yes, in 18 months time all this hard work will be in a bottle of Fromm Brancott Valley that hopefully some of you will enjoy.
I’ve been involved in change all of my life and I’ve learnt that unless you roll your sleeves up and do what needs to be done, enjoy each success as it happens, reflect on each challenge and how it was met, engage in the positive, the adventure and the opportunity to learn, then the change becomes a chore, a bind, a joyless task to be done for salary alone and that doesn’t nourish anyone’s soul even if it does put wine on the table.
The first quarter of 2015 is over and I’ve not written many blogs. I’ve not been writing but I have been watching, reading and observing. With the proliferation of social media and online business tools you can easily spend days reading other people’s blogs, questions answered and opinions given. It’s amazing how many views there are about change and how to make it happen and I suppose that is a sign of how big an issue managing change is and how fraught it can be.
There are some perspectives that come up regularly and for anyone, like me, that has been involved in change for a long time, they seem to come in cycles. The packaging might be different, but the message is the same, like a 1960s advert for washing powder they pronounce that they are the solution to your change miseries.
Over the next three Blogs I want to talk about some current trends and why I think they may be an issue when it comes to driving your change.
Your Culture Needs to be..
Having a great Organisational Culture is an incredibly powerful to way to boost production, output, efficiency, sales or whatever it is you need to boost. Your culture is also becoming a key aspect of your employee value proposition in a world where smart young people want to chose where they work. So no wonder that ‘culture’ is high on many organisations agenda. And with it being so high, then it’s no wonder that Engagement Surveys and Culture Surveys abound. Some of my clients get these confused and I’m not surprised. Is an Culture survey more important than an engagement survey? Is Engagement part of Culture? Is Engagement just an enabler of Culture or is it the other way round? And like a snake eating its own tail the two chase each other to the point that some organisations do both just in case.
But does it really matter which type you run? I’m not sure it is, despite what the surveyors will tell you. Isn’t what matters whether it asks the questions that you need the answers to? The answers that help you get the culture that you want?
But ‘you are missing the benchmarking against other organisations’ I hear people cry. And my response to that is ‘so what’. What do you actually get from that benchmark? A nice award, a moment in a magazine and some nice PR for sure. But do you get much more because you scored more in a set of questions, that someone else decided we’re important, than a few other firms? Does the scoring more really drive you to do things that matter for your organisation? Or does benchmarking become ‘saming’ and drive a whole load of organisations to do the same as each other?
Additionally some of these surveys drive to a preconceived view of the perfect culture or engagement defined by the designer. And that lo and behold every company you work with that uses that survey is told that they need to be more ‘XXXX’ (Substutute a name, a type a colour or whatever is used to categorise your culture or engagement) and that XXXX is the same for every one of them.
What does all this lead to? I’ve worked with an organisation that were told they needing to increase career planning to improve their engagement score, yet a large number of their people did manual roles and frankly had no interest in a career. I’ve seen people trying to hide who they are because their natural style doesn’t fit in with the cultural norm that the organisation had targetted. But most importantly I see a drive for sameness. Organisation after organisation with the same approaches because they are trying to be a fixed pattern of the ‘perfect culture/engaged organisation’ as defined by a survey/model.
My view is that your organisation is unique and its success is predicated by using that uniqueness to do things that other organisations don’t do. Doing the same as a competitor will at best leave you second and at worst drive a culture that is counter-innovative I.e where innovation is not ‘how we do things around here’ because you will be saying to your people that ‘doing what others do is what we do around here’. Your culture is a unique component in your ability to be better than the other organisations that you compare yourself to. Therefore, surely your culture has to be unique too and to fit your unique view of ‘how we do things around here’ to drive that competitive advantage. That also means that the way that you work with your employees has to fit your uniqueness and if they are the right employees, there because they want to be part of your uniqueness then won’t they be engaged? i.e. engagement is an outcomes of how you organisation works, not an objective in itself. As one CEO recently said to me ‘when I arrived here there had just been an engagement survey run, and I was being pressured to do something to improve aspects of that. I felt that taking action in that way was trite, and employees would see it as such. So I’ve engaged our teams in our vision, the direction we want to head in, and how they are a part of that. If that engages them, then I am on the right track’. A few months later their next engagement survey showed a 30% uplift. Engagement was a result of engaging.
In summary, own your culture, don’t let anyone else own it for you.
Don’t define what it looks like based on anyone else’s view of the perfect culture as you lose your opportunity for advantage. A cultural vision of all being nice and collaborative may sound great, but if it alienates those with a competitive go getting edge have a think about how competitive you would be in the future without them.
Measure what you need to measure to show that you are doing what needs done to live that vision of your organisation.
Engage people in real ways and not just to get a better survey score; staff see through that and resent it anyway.
Be Unique. Don’t be sheep, huddling together round the same tools for comfort.
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.
Be a leader and provide a vision, plan to meet that visions and account for eventualities as much as the launch, resource it fully, incentivise your people so that they want to engage in it and communicate the journey as much as the activity.
We'd like to keep in touch with you by sharing any relevant insights and information. Sign up to our database and we'll ensure we keep you up to date. We'll never spam you and you can unsubscribe at any time.