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.
Anyone who is familiar with John Kotters’ definition of leadership will know leaders make changes – whereas managers maintain stability. The struggle to do both is the daily balancing act of any senior executive.
But, the bigger challenge is the defining of change in the first place.
Many leaders are employed primarily to make change happen. Words like ‘improve’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘growth’ and ‘competitiveness’ litter the job descriptions of C-suite roles. Many are tested for their vision and those known to have this skill are often paid more on the REM circuit.
They’re expected to march in, ‘rally the troops’, point them towards the ‘brave new world’ and take them there. Moses, Caeser and Alexander the Great all rolled in to one.
Yet we all know that change fails when the employees:
Don’t embrace the vision
Don’t share the direction
Don’t ‘buy-in’ to our new plans.
We talk about change resistance, how to engage with the vision, generate buy-in and teach leaders to go out there and do it. And when we say, “go out there and do it,” what we really mean is, “do it to them,” with “them” meaning ‘the staff’.
Persuade, convince, cajole and ultimately ‘help people off the bus’ if they don’t want to be on it. Everyone knows what’s coming, so if you want security you’d better look like this is the bus for you. After all, we’ve also learned that if you hang around long enough, the bus will change.
C-suites come and go – and the next one will want a blue bus anyway (as opposed to the green one we are jumping on now).
We employ for a vision, reward for a vision and then push that vision out there…and that’s the skill of leadership.
But is it really?
Imagine a leader who had no vision for the business. Would you employ them? No.
So, what about a leader who had no personal vision for the business, but believed the people in it did. Would you employ them? “Maybe,” I’m sure you would say. But something is still missing.
What about the leader who believed the organisation could be smarter, faster, more creative and agile – and that the people within in knew how to unlock such potential if he worked with them?
A leader whose tools were not visioning, but engagement?
A leader who stayed open to approaches that were not his – and whose only vision was one which everyone shared in?
A leader who listened not in judgement, but in interest?
The hardest change of all is where we let go of the certainty of our own vision and instead, engage with others to create a vision that is more sophisticated…because it is owned by many.
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.
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!
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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