Strategic Change

First appeared in ‘CEO Refresher’ (U.S.A.)

Change, change, change. There seems to be so many change programmes, change initiatives, strategic transformations, right-sizings, administrative reforms, re-engineerings, reorganisations these days that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this had been totally done to death now and there was no way you could cope with any more. Unfortunately not. Change initiatives are not going away – they’re coming thicker and faster than ever.

So what do you do about it? There’s one tried and trusted option I learnt from a senior manager in the Civil Service; “Keep your head down”. This seemed to work for a while. Statistics suggest that 80% of change initiatives fizzled out within six months. However it’s becoming less and less of an option now as there are fewer people to hide behind. The only thing to do these days seems to be to stay ahead of the change. As a manager you have a slight advantage over your staff, in that you’ll (usually) know what’s about to happen before them. This can be extremely useful, as we’ll see later.

You need to manage it effectively is what you need to do. If you are the initiator you need to make sure it happens. You need to truly understand the benefits of the change and sell them to all the stakeholders – especially your staff. If you aren’t the initiator but are the one that has to make it happen, i.e. a manager, this applies twice as strongly. As a manager in an Organisation you have to get things done you may not necessarily agree with. In fact there will be times, as you know, when you’ve had to do things you definitely don’t want to do. Ah well. What can you do? You take the corporate money at the end of the month so you need to toe the party line now and again. I’m not suggesting for one minute that you have to accept and agree with everything ‘they’ throw at you. On the contrary you have to argue, negotiate, influence, cajole to try to get your ideas implemented. However, if you lose I don’t see a great deal of point going half-heartedly at the decision and ensuring no one wins. (Unsurprisingly this happens a great deal). No, once the battles are over it’s cabinet responsibility and you have to do your best to make it happen.

There’s a nice little four step plan based on some work by Costas Markides I would recommend. I like it because it’s simple and it works. You can also add a variety of your own bits and pieces to it which gives it flexibility and your own feel to it. The stages are;

1. Rational acceptance

2. Emotional acceptance

3. Light 1000 fires

4. Support

Seems straightforward enough. It’s one of the few models I’ve seen that seems to recognise there’s a difference between hearts and minds and you have to appeal in different ways to each aspect. You start with peoples’ minds.

You start by selling them the benefits. You need to do the sums and show them that the end result is an improvement somehow. Either in terms of hard cash, quality of work, standard of living, self improvement or something. If you can’t do this then you’d better be asking yourself some hard questions. Why are you imposing this change then?

Take time to work through this. People, being people, are a lot like you and me. We tend not to like change for many, many reasons – all to do with being vulnerable. They will have vulnerability about losing their job, their self-esteem, their comfortable way of life and many other things you can’t even think of right now. So once you’ve spelt out all the changes, rationally, analytically – drawn maps, used Gantt charts, analysed the costs, looked at all the logical business you need to dig a little deeper.

Try this with your team; at the end of a team meeting, or some occasion where they are all together, ask them a question;

“You have a cake and can make 4 cuts. What are the most pieces you can have? You have 3 minutes to work this out.” There are no tricks.

After a minute and a half stop them. Invariably they’ll be many of them really concentrating and slightly annoyed that you’ve stopped them. Tell them you’ll let them complete it later but for now ask them what would be the most effective way they could have solved this. After a number of ideas you should have a good list. Ask what the most important reason on the list is. I bet it’ll be that they should have worked as a team. In this exercise 99 times out of a 100 people try to complete it on their own. Ask them why they didn’t work as a team. You will get some answers pointed at you – “You didn’t tell us to.” “You said we couldn’t”. Eventually you’ll start getting to the heart of it.

It’s to do with conditioning. People have had 30, 40, 50 years of working on their own. In school if you collaborated it was called cheating. At an interview you’re not allowed to take a friend. You can explain that n this environment it’s OK to help each other. Let them now complete the task and they’ll find they get a much better result (answer below).

In a similar vein you’ve got to deal with each barrier that gets in the way of people changing. These changes may often appear small or silly (“I didn’t know it was OK to work as a team”) but they do stop change happening. Rationally dealing with all these barriers takes time. However, if it’s not done you know what will happen don’t you? The change either wont work or it’ll work but be half-hearted with people still going on about the old days and the old system.

In a Government Office I once worked at I saw a huge red book with hand written details of certain aspect of marriage regulation. Someone was methodically and painstakingly writing twenty or so new entries.

“Some job.” I said “I bet you’ll be glad when the regulation changes and you can just use computers?”

“Oh there’s nothing in the law about this” was the reply, “We just do it.”

“But why? Isn’t the computer system up to it?”

“Oh yes – it’s a print off from the computer I’m using to copy from.”

“So why are you doing it?”

“Because we’ve always done it this way.”

At the same time as winning their rational acceptance for the change you’ll need to start winning their emotional acceptance. Even if people rationally accept the change and you’ve eliminated all the barriers – you’ve still got to win their hearts.

There’s a superb illustration of this by Adams, Hayes and Hopson called the Coping Cycle. It’s to do with the various stages people go through in times of change.

The premise is that we all go through these stages in times of change. Some of the changes we go through take the blink of an eye to go through – others take years, or maybe we never reach internalising.

Getting people through the defence and denial stages is difficult. Many of the people you need to change may well have invested a great deal of time and energy in the old system and here you are coming along and destroying it. Suddenly all the problems with the old system seem to have disappeared. People are finally accepting and using the old system really well. You’ll even notice an increase in efficiency and self-esteem. This, of course, is further ammunition for the “Why do we need to change. Things are working perfectly” and the “change for change’s sake” factions. The old system may well be working better, but it’s because people are now putting more effort into it. Left to their own devices people would stay here forever if they could (huge generalisation I know, but has lots of truth behind it).

There are many stories of people in defence and denial mode, my favourite was from a colleague who was a tax inspector in Wales – He used to go around West Wales inspecting betting shops and ensuring they had paid the correct amount of tax.

One day in 1976 he was working way up the Swansea valley visiting a small village (well more like a wide spot in the road) called Abercwmtoch – a few houses, 2 pubs, a church and a betting office. In the betting office he looks through the tickets and sees all sort of strange things; 2 shilling each way bets, 6d wins, 2/6 yankee. Bearing in mind this is 1976 – 5 years after decimalization, It hasn’t quite reached Abercwmtoch yet.

“Ah that new fangled decimalization” you can hear them saying “It’ll never catch on.”

I wonder if they’ve changed now.

At this stage there’s a lot of anger and blame – people are vulnerable. Eventually once it’s accepted and they have the new system it gets worse;

“It’s different”,

“It doesn’t do what we want”,

“You can’t even run that report we used to run”,

“It’s too slow”,

“It’s too quick”,

“I told you it was rubbish”.

People need more training, more listening to, more involvement. This stage is often referred to as ‘the pits’ – you can’t get any lower. Eventually people start getting used to it and things start working – easier, faster and you start hearing.

“I wish we’d had this last year”,

“You can even run that report we used to run”,

“I told you it was a good idea”,

“Can we have it in red?”

This coping cycle is excellent to help see what stage people are at and then help them through that stage. It’s that old, old thing I know but you’ve got to communicate with people. Tell them consistently what’s happening. Tell them if there’s nothing happening. No communication form the centre = communication on the grapevine. That’s how rumours start.

The next stage involves lighting one thousand fires. This is to do with letting go and empowerment. This is a brave step. It takes a very mature leader, or manager. They have to trust their staff. It’s still the manager’s fault if things go wrong – it’s delegation not abdication, and they have to let the staff take the credit when things go well.

“That’s anarchy” you say.

It’s not really. You as the manager, have to set the limits and let the people go. They need to know 2 things – the aim (measurable targets in terms of output, cost, time, etc.) and the parameters (what are they allowed to do / not allowed to do). Then off they go. You’ll be surprised at how much ingenuity, collective wisdom your people have.

The final aspect is support. This is the support you need to give your staff – clear, total and transparent. It’s a matter of trust and acceptance. You know there will be mistakes along the line. How do you deal with those mistakes – do you learn form them or do you punish people with them. You know the answer to that one.

Talking of answers – the cake puzzle. Generally people go through a number of stages in solving this;

Stage 1: 4 equal cuts 8 parts

Stage 2: 4 unequal cuts 10 parts

Stage 3: Then, a light bulb moment and someone realises it’s a cake (a 3 dimensional object) and they make 3 cuts on the surface then a horizontal cut to get 14 parts. They then tend to look snug for a while.

Stage 4: Someone really realises it’s a cake and cuts it in half, puts the one half on top of the other and cuts it again. Then they put the four pieces in a pile and cut through it again and so on – giving 16 pieces in total.

Depending on whether someone has asked about the shape of the cake and you’ve said “a round cake” you can give the stage 5 answer – “any number you like”. If the cake were from a child’s birthday party and the child liked caterpillars (it does happen) and the person baking the cake had baked a sponge body with 20 sugar legs you could cut the cake horizontally and have lots of pieces.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s