Clarity. It’s one of the most critical words in an organisation; clarity. But it’s often missing. Role clarity, clarity of leadership, clarity of purpose, clarity of objectives, outcomes, expectations, boundaries, responsibilities, accountabilities, measures, consequences. Many organizations have people working away within one, or many of these missing. They do what they think they need to, or should do, or only what they’ve been asked to do. But somehow there is a performance gap, something meaning that the results aren’t quite there. And often its lack of clarity.
And then there are teams without clarity, because they’ve been thrown together as part of the structure. They have team meetings and they are dissatisfied by them or find them a waste of time. ‘What are we doing in this meeting? Why are we talking about this? It is irrelevant to what I do!’
Then they ask ‘Why are we a team?’
And the answer is often ‘there would be lots of benefits if we were’ and that is followed by reasons such as ‘sharing information’ ‘sharing best practice’ ‘cross skilling’ ‘sickness cover’, and other such answers. And the manager sits back happily and expects that to make a difference and everyone to be happy.
The problem is that those aren’t a teams purpose. They are benefits for a team that is a team and activities that make a team more effective. But they don’t solve the clarity problem. Indeed they make it worse, because all people hear in the answers are ‘you didn’t know what to do with us and put us all in one room’ and ‘if you don’t really know, then what hope is there for the rest of us’.
Everyone knows that ‘team’ means you are dependent on each other, that you need each other to do your job and that in doing your job you are part of the success of the whole. If it doesn’t look like a team, feel like a team, then its probably not a team.
So the crime of sudo-team is committed. Activities are created to make us think we are what we know what we aren’t. Meetings waste time. Measures don’t reflect reality.
Instead of saying, ‘we aren’t a team as such, we are a group of individuals with similar skills /roles/activities for this organisation so it makes sense we live together and have the same manager to look after us.’ ‘So given that we don’t depend on each other day by day, can we get any benefit by being under the same roof?’
And suddenly its clear. We aren’t expected to be a team, there is a reason why my goals and objectives are mine and not shared, there is a reason why we have the same manager. So if that’s the case, well it would make things easier if we all got some of the same info about what is going on, so that’s better done in one meeting to be efficient. And maybe we can help each other solve problems, so how about we have a rule that anyone can call for a ‘problem-solve session’, and whilst we work on different things we use the same piece of software/process/base skills (tick as appropriate) so some way of sharing best practice may benefit all of us.
Hang on you say, that’s the same things that the manager gave when asked ‘why are we a team’, so what’s the difference? The difference is firstly that there is now no expectation of shared results and interdependency so the sham of being a real team is over. Secondly the team is now looking for benefits in being together as opposed to being told by their manager. As a result the group working practices can now be designed fit for purpose by a willing cadre e.g. Meetings get focused on what we all need to know, not what one of us needs to know. And you can’t discount the benefit of people wanting to be engaged in something because they see a benefit in it.
And most of all, what we are there for is now clear, with how and when we work together being based on that clarity.
People are happier in a crime free team.
In the Southern hemisphere we are fast approaching the Christmas holidays. The season began in earnest a few weeks ago with that rush towards self imposed year end deadlines and tired people making mistakes by rushing to get things done.
When we hit the holidays proper it spells a period of just over a month before things get back to normal. With extended holidays due to the summer weather kick in, it often takes till February before everyone is back on the job and organisations are back to full strength.
So what does that mean for your culture change? If you kicked one off this year you will know that it takes a good 18 months of the various pieces of change effort before it delivers, so it means that, for many, this is a period where ‘not a lot happens’ on the change front. But should it be a ‘change dead zone’? Here are a couple of thoughts that can make this holiday season a positive one for your change.
Its not a good time to start a new phase of your change, introducing a new topic or focusing on anything intently, because fundamentally nobody is going to pay attention. Year-end-itus has kicked in and getting people to focus on the day job is hard enough never mind a critical new stage of your change. However this is the season of celebration and reflection generally and that makes it a good time to reflect on what has happened so far. Its a good period to celebrate the successes achieved to date, to reward people for their change related efforts and to communicate to everyone the good points of the change so far. It doesn’t take much effort to do this if you have been recognising success through the year, recapping on the plan as you go along, and communicating regularly. All you really have to do is get people together in a forum where the change can be celebrated, at a time when celebrating seems to be a good idea anyway.
This is the right time to get the plan right for the start of the year. Many people let the ball drop, wait till everyone gets back (we all need to be in the meetings to agree things, right?) and then start putting the plans in place for the next steps and stages. As nothing much can happen in January then you don’t start organising things till February and before you know it, its March and your change has hibernated for roughly three months. And unlike a Bear its not going to come out all rested and ready to go. Its lost its momentum and people will have forgotten its there. So now is the time to work out the actions for January and February. To get dates set. To get things ordered ready for delivery. To write what needs written. And when you do plan for a staged build up by using January as a ‘whats coming next?’ communication phase with smaller engagements on the way to the next big launch in February. The secret with culture change is to make sure something is happening regularly, even if there are not many people around, so keep things happening. Plan and organise now.
So two tips to make sure you get the most from those last few weeks of the working year by keeping change in season.
Recently reviewing the progress of the early months of a culture change with colleagues we took stock of whether things were going to plan or not. We started with completed activity versus the plan and then reviewed the declared progress measures, comparing reality to the aspirations at that time. All the normal things you would expect after a couple of months change activity I.e are we doing what we said? and getting the results that we expected? All the tangible things that we do in implementing change. But our experience told us that this was not enough.
We then looked at the less measurable and tangible to discuss whether there was life in the culture change yet. We knew from past experience that culture change is like starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together; you work hard to get the flame started and harder still to keep it ignited.bIn looking for evidence of the flame being lit you are looking beyond the activity measures that are all you can set in the early days of change (it takes a while to get your ultimate measures measurable when it comes to culture). You are looking for signs of life.
So what did we look for?
A) are people talking about the initiative? Are there any good news stories or any shared memories being created and passed around? On such stories are the virus of culture change caught.
B) is there any voluntary (non mandated) engagement? Are people using the support systems, forums, discussion groups, coaching etc that is available to them as the practice the new skills needed as part of the initiative? If people are trying things they will have questions or clarifications aplenty and lots of thoughts to share. If these are few and far between or few people aren’t turning up for open sessions then it is safe to assume things are not being tried (if it’s the same people asking questions then it shows that some are engaged and some aren’t)
C) do management have their pulse on the action? Any change requires attention from management who should be asking questions, answering questions, promoting the new things, stopping old habits, identifying signs of resistence, and watching for the spark to be lit. There are always things to deal with, if management are paying attention to them. Is there a steering group and if so do they have anything to steer and are they even meeting? Or is business as usual winning?
These are just three of the signs of life we looked for because without these we know that the next stage of embedding activities will have no spark to ignite them.
So when managing change keep an eye on the vital signs of a spark of life before you assume your activities are working
A lot of change advice focuses on dealing with resistance to change. Everyone knows that people don’t like change, and most leaders get ready to answer questions about change as part of their prep. But the biggest problem with most changes is not the verbal resistance of the nay-sayers, but those who say nothing but do nothing; the passive resisters.
Passive resisters don’t disagree with the change, they don’t tell you there is anything wrong with you, the leader, is proposing and in a workshop or training setting they appear to participate. If you were measuring engagement with the change based on verbal comments, hands raised or participation in sessions you would think that the change has been accepted by the silent majority. As a result leaders often spend time ‘dealing with’ the vocal minority and assume that if they are ‘sorted out’ that everyone else will be fine.
This is a mistake.
The vocal minority can often benefit the leader as a way of fully explaining the change when answering their questions. In my experience the more extreme views are seen to be so and they self marginalise and the others are often a lack of understanding or something missing from your information.
But for every voice raised in public or obvious non participation in the training, assume that there will be a larger group that are not engaged but don’t want you to know:
There will be lots of reasons for this, from fear of failure, loss of security and stability, people who need to see things in action to believe it, those who just take time and many other ‘personal reasons’. Most can all be helped to engage given the right approach to the implementation of the change. But they are not your real problem.
The group that really demands your attention are those who are ‘riding it out until you’ve gone, just like every other manager before you’. They have often been in the organisation a long time, have been promoted to a reasonable position and/or have made themselves valuable because of their place in the ‘corporate memory’. They are happy with the way they do things now and don’t want to ‘learn new tricks’. The current approach sits well with them. Some have designed things to suit themselves or have built up the fixes and tweeks to the system over many years. These are the same tweaks and fixes that you’ve identified as needing modified. The people themselves are often the road blocks in the system that you are proposing to streamline. They are the ones that don’t want the ‘culture of empowerment’ that you have proposed as that takes away their power. They won’t change and won’t tell you why they won’t change, until the change grinds to a slow halt and then they will tell you that ‘maybe this wasn’t the right change for the organisation’. And you listen because they are managers, or senior figures.
The trick with this group is to build in early short term action focused measurability to the imitative. They can ride out long term KPIs and you can’t see the reason for failure until too late. You need activity measures, action based reporting, usage stats and anything that shows who is doing the ‘new thing’ and how often. You need short term staff engagement stats, not just annual surveys, and they need to be measurable by manager. You need evidence that your expensive and important change is ‘not optional’ and that everyone who should be doing it is doing it.
And if the stats say otherwise you’ve got a ‘conversation for commitment’ on your hands.
A colleague recently went to a conference event that had a number of business speakers of some experience. He told me that one of them spoke about an ever growing dependency on systems to solve business’s problems when it’s good people you really need. That lead to a question from the floor asking the speaker ‘what do you think of HR then?’ to which they replied ‘if they stick to what they are good at instead of blocking things, then they are ok’. This was from a senior and respected figure in industry.
The day after this conversation I was in a room at a meeting dealing with a difficult performance issue. I have often been expected to ‘manage people out’ as part of change exercises and have got used to the fact that lots of managers go to extreme lengths to get rid of people they don’t like instead of dealing with it properly. In this case I soon realised that the HR manager knew that this was not a performance issue but a personality clash. But he was sitting there trying to go through the process (and heading rapidly to a constructive dismissal case in my view) instead of sitting with the manager and saying ‘what you have asked us to do is unacceptable’
I reflected on the two conversations, and saw that they were the two ends of the same question. What are HR really there for? The business leader saying ‘HR blocked things’ could have worked with an HR person who regularly did what I’ve advocated above I.e telling them ‘you can’t do this’, and they didn’t like it. But they could also have been meaning an HR manager that worked to their own agenda. I’ve seen both and seen mixed results from both approaches.
HR as a voice of conscience:
I’ve often told of a manger I worked for who regularly sat his HR director down and said ‘tell me what I’m not wanting to hear?’. He knew he needed to know what was going on ‘people-wise’ even if it wasn’t his favourite topic. He knew that he had to pay attention to company values as much as he needed to understand potential employment law issues. His HR director was a voice of conscience, but a permissive one. You don’t listen to your conscience if you don’t want to. Does your HR manager have to force you to hear what you don’t want to hear? do you see that as part of their role? Or are they there just to wipe up your mess?
HR as a strategic partner:
How often have you heard that phrase? How often has it been true? I bet the former beats the latter. For HR to be a strategic partner their initiatives and business initiatives need to be seamless. I’ve recently been talking to one great HR manager who is looking to work with a merger team that sits within the business to test, trial, role out and prove a whole load of change tools and processes that the business is lacking. Not just rolling out some training to managers and seeing what happens, but actually working to make the change successful and that being the way the rest of the business says ‘I’d like some of that’. Not dancing to their own tune or just doing what business tells them, but working as a partner. It takes two to tango though, and you can only do that in a business that sees HR as a strategic partner.
And it genuinely does take Two to Tango. HR that dances to its own tune or doesn’t take moral high ground in the face of poor management behaviours does itself no favours. Likewise a business that takes HR out of a box each time they want someone to do the hard stuff and doesn’t engage with strategic HR initiatives deserves the HR team it gets.
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