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Holy Grails and Poison Chalices Part 3

In this, the third blog in this series I explore the trend in change methodologies that become in themselves the latest trend.

Process is king

Every few years another trend happens in Organisational design and a ‘new’ approach comes along. Whatever they are called they are a process or a methodology that you are supposed to follow to make change happen within the organisation. Generally speaking every manager has to be trained in it or it apparently won’t work, and the really well marketed ones have degrees of capability built in to show that you are more expert in the process than anyone else. They have

their own terminology and jargon and you can put people from different organisations together and they can be using the same terminology to talk about a totally different business. But the fact that so many come and go should tell you something.

So let’s say first off that I’m not against a bit of process or methodology. I think it’s a good thing to give managers tools and skills to help them look at the way their area does things.

Let’s face it most organisations are full of processes. Processes that should be designed to help

people deliver the Organisational outcomes. No process is for ever so what worked a few years ago should always be reviewed to see if it is still working effectively. That’s a managers role, ergo you tool them up to be able to do that. It’s a simple as that.
However from many consultancies point of view you put a few tools together and you have a methodology for that review process. You can sell a methodology. You can’t sell ‘well I get a few people in a room, get them talking about what is holding them up and get them to design a different approach’. For one thing who would need HR (only kidding), but secondly getting people in a room and working the problems together is what managers are meant to do isn’t it? Well actually no in the case of many, so HR often buys a methodology that gets managers doing what good managers have always done.

Trouble is that these methodologies are often treated as if they are a panacea; only the process will solve our problems. That only this methodology can get out the stains that others leave behind. And then some of them can get quite meticulous and exacting, probably because the designer was, but often to make sure that you have to buy the training, the software, the conference, the online forum and the helpdesk. And at that point the process becomes king.
When the point of the process becomes all about following the process then it’s likely that the process is preventing the most sophisticated tool on the planet from doing what it’s good at. The human brain, thinking. And that’s what many methodologies do, even if that’s not what the original designer wanted.

This can also be why so many become passing fads. Because the end user is ‘put through’ training and just doesn’t want to use it to such a high degree, or feels that it takes a long time to get very little, or just doesn’t like being regimented in the way they think, etc.

Organisations need processes and most always will. But an over-reliance on process minimizes people and what they are there for just as an under-processed business can be chaotically inefficient. And when it comes to changing the process then any methodology that is in itself more important than the dialogue between capable people, seems to miss the long term point of change, which is to get people working together to use their brains to improve what they know best; the job they do every day.

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!

How not to fire someone

I’ve always said to my clients that ‘how you treat those that you ask to leave, sets the tone for those that remain’ so you can see that I am an advocate of smart empathetic practices when it comes to making people redundant. But I recently realised that I’d never actually written about how to do it or not to do it.

Leave me in Limbo

If you are going to make someone redundant don’t make it drag on. Yes, you need to consult and yes if you do that with the right intent you might change your mind, but the day you notify someone that their ‘role is possibly going under a proposed restructure’ then you should know the implications of the restructure you have in mind. After all, you are management and hold all the cards. So leaving it weeks and weeks before you tell people isn’t just lacking in empathy its doesn’t show you or your organisation as being in control (would you want to follow someone who just  couldn’t decide and left you in Limbo?).

‘The pick up your box’ text

At the other end of the spectrum we have the joy of technology. Its time saving, you can pre-prepare and time things. Its wonderful isn’t it! Until you use it to make someone redundant. All thats says to the receiver is ‘that you didn’t have the guts to look me in the eye and do it’. Want that kind of reputation? Empathy Shampathy!

Can you do this before you go?

When you’ve told someone that they are surplus to requirements then they should be surplus to requirements I’m not saying that you fire everyone on the spot but if you’ve told them that their job is to be disestablished on a certain date as its surplus to requirements then don’t overload them with work right up to the last minute. Similarly don’t get to the end date, then realise you were wrong and expect them to stay. They will have had a long time to fall out of love with you by then.

Form a line here

I’ve seen many days where one person after another get told whether they have a job or not. They are not fun for anyone, but if you are restructuring then thats what you’ve got to do. What you can do is get through those who you are letting go as quickly as you can in the process. Don’t see 20 people to tell them that they have a job and make the last person wait till 4pm to know that they are surplus to requirements. But do see them one by one. Don’t form two groups in two rooms, walk in and tell one half that they are all going so that it is done quickly. (see texting, looking people in the eye and empathy above).

Don’t celebrate

I know you might feel like a drink after you’ve been through a long day, but don’t grab a few buddies from the office and go to the local bar to celebrate the end of the downsizing. People will see you and might think you are heartless and not the caring soul that you are.

Don’t delegate it

No, it’s not HR’s job. You are the boss, you do it.


Making someone redundant can be the worst day in their life. Treat them with respect, dignity and empathy and do what needs done in a way that shows that you know they are human, with lives and mortgages too. That way the people that remain may still want to work with you.


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.

Elephants and Cows

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!