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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.

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?

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.


The Battle of Wills

Can you imagine a change where a project team has been put in place to drive process and culture, the staff are showing an interest in what the change is about and what it will bring, but the managers aren’t interstellar at best and totally against it at worst? It’s not that hard to imagine because you can see it all the time in large organisations and many of you will have lived through it.

In most culture change I rely on the managers as being the main drivers of change, the communicators of the changes and the removers of obstacles that fall in the way. After all, they have the authority to make changes and are there on the ground, day by day to coach and support their staff. The main task for the change agent is the alignment of the managers to what the change is, what that means and what is required of everyone. If they are not aligned they pull different ways and change crumbles. But if the only thing that they are aligned to is that they don’t want change, what can you do?

For those in the project team, this can be a major challenge. What do you do when every conversation is pushed back, no manager gives your Comms the support it needs and every decision is litigated to death in the hope that you go away?

DIY Comms
If the manager isn’t engaging their staff in the Comms then a vital part of culture change is being missed. Project teams often resort to communicating direct with staff, but all that ensures is that the ‘are they getting the information?’ box can be ticked. The key to comms is two way and the discussion to get understanding of what and why. This dialogue deals with fears and concerns too so if its missing the project can develop unnecessary resistance and stress. Reluctant Managers can then say ‘look how you are stressing out my people, we need to kill this project’. So you need those opportunities for dialogue.

Stepping in
Some project teams respond by taking over the managers role more and more. As the manager ignores them they in turn begin to ignore the manager and go direct to the staff that are showing an interest and working with them. In the short term this may appear to work, but in the long term there is a risk because the project team can’t take over all aspects of the managers role in full and forever. In addition the manager can then make the case that they are being bypassed and the mood of the staff can swing against the project.

The other route is to spend more time with the manager trying to sway them. Of course the project team will believe strongly in the project (how could they not) and this often ends up as a series of heated arguments where two ‘world views’ clash. This can damage the project as any moral high ground is lost. The manager will be dealing with their own fears and concerns and they too need help to align and engage and this is often forgotten (they are a manager what do they have to worry about?). Managers risk a lot in change as the basis for their positional power is often taken away, knowledge that keeps them in the expert position is also rendered useless when process is totally overhauled. So the conversation of project roll out ‘right or wrong’ isn’t what they need either.

Let them fail
One approach can be to let the manager fail by leaving them to it. Staff will shout out and demand more from their manager and someone senior will step in and make the manager do their job. Well that’s the theory, but staff tend to stoically accept theirmanagers deficiency and the ‘there goes another failed initiative’ syndrome sets in. And of course the manager will not fail, the project will.


The natural tendency when you see a gap is to fill a gap. For project teams, when that gap is a manager then frustration that the manager ‘isn’t doing their job’ can mean that steps are taken for the right reason, with the wrong outcomes. Whilst leaving the manager to it, doesn’t work, stepping in as above doesn’t either.
Instead adjust your approach to get alongside the manager as much as you can. Offer to attend some of their team meetings or host discussion sessions with their teams as a partner. Their weakness in the Comms area may be lack comfort as opposed to a deliberate attempt to trip up the project. Spend time with them and listen out for their personal concerns and worries and where you can help them (and listening is often enough). Do what you can to make them look good in front of their staff. Moderate your processes if accepting their suggestions to do so moves things along at little cost to you. Don’t fight over right or wrong, don’t get stuck in a battle over the perfect roll out that took you months to design. Keep in mind that the project can live and die on how you handle the receiving managers.

So take a lesson from trees and bend with the wind rather than battle it.

Double Standards

For many years I worked in the Chemical Industry. Safety of personnel was the highest priority in the sites that I worked on, and any form of injury was treated seriously. Everything we did was also scrutinised very heavily by the media and if any facility had an incident of any kind, action would be demanded publicly.

Thats probably why the response of the media and the authorities to the recent death of an Americas Cup yachtsman have been very interesting to me.

‘The show must go on’ was the phrase in one sports news programme. ‘Its the right thing to do’ was another. ‘Its sport and sport is dangerous’ was cited. Not to mention the comments from some team owners that this event should not be used by other teams to gain an advantage by changing the rules.

I could only imagine the outcry If one of the facilities I was involved with had killed someone. ‘Close them down’. ‘Who is responsible’. ‘Outrage’. Those words quickly come to mind.

So why the double standards?

Its very interesting to see how quickly we can justify things to ourselves as individuals, and in this case as an interested community. As leaders of change its something we need to watch for as double standards can define culture. And at the time you didn’t mean it or didn’t even notice it.

Such things as:

  • ‘In these severe times everyone will travel economy, apart from the executive team’
  • “We need to restructure that team’ when everyone knows the issue is poor performance
  • Leaders who role out training for everyone else but themselves
  • Company wide training that the CEO says is important but doesn’t have time for
  • Mandating annual performance reviews and not doing them yourself
  • Implementing new KPI’s then ignoring them
  • Charters for meetings that the SLT ignore

When leading culture change everything you do is scrutinised as people watch to see if you act in line with the new culture/vision/values/ initiative. Their belief is predicated by your actions. And as culture change takes many months to embed, its no use being squeaky clean for a week. Its your actions on week 60 that can have as big an impact as those in the first 4.

When changing the organisational culture perhaps all leaders should not only ask themselves whether the organisation needs to make that change, but whether they can hold to that change themselves and what are the risks of well meaning, accidental Double Standards?