“The Okavanga-Kalahari Syndrome”

First appeared in ‘Lifelong Learning’ (U.S.A.)

“There’s a new change management program starting next week,” said the worried voice on the phone, “What can I do?”

“Keep your head down” was my sage advice.

“But this one’s serious.”

“They all are.”

“No; really. This time the H.R. Department is determined to make it happen. I don’t want to change. What can I do?”

“Stay out of the way. It’s the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.”

“?”

“There’s a river in Africa that starts in a range of mountains in Namibia known as the Okavanga-KalahariRiver. Everyone knows where it starts — it’s a huge river. It flows into the Kalahari Desert but no one really knows where it finishes. It just sort of fades away.”

“Ah.”

The vast majority of culture change programs go like this. Big start with trumpets, fanfares, senior managers wheeled out… the first events are hugely popular and over-subscribed. Go back in six months time and ask about it. It just sort of disappeared — no-one knew when, or whose decision it was. It just faded into the desert. The Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.

It’s not always so. There are a number of factors that will help in the success of any culture program:

Number one: do the math. How much will it cost? How much extra will you get out of it? If you can’t get a tangible benefit then forget it. Your employees certainly won’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for them, as individuals. You certainly shouldn’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for you as an organisation. This benefit should be financial. OK it’s difficult to measure. Does that mean you don’t even try?

“It will make people more motivated and corporate” is a reason I’ve frequently heard for running a program.

“Show me the money.” I reply.

“But we can’t express it in financial terms.”

“Try?”

If you can’t get a benefit don’t bother. There must be a benefit in terms of more work produced, more targets met, less sick leave taken. Try to calculate all the “soft” measures. If you can motivate staff to take a real pride in their work, produce quality materials, chase every customer — how much is that worth to you?

Second, attendance on the program cannot be voluntary. You’ve done the sums now make people attend. Make it interesting, that’ll help. Make it rewarding. Take people away from the workplace, spend some money on them, treat them decently. They work for you, treat them as you’d like to be treated. Let them travel first class, stay in a nice hotel, feed them good meals with wine. Build this into the maths. Don’t be tempted to do it on the cheap.

Next, do the politics. And there will be politics. People tend to not like change so if you’re not getting any resistance — it’s because they’ve heard of the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome and are just keeping their heads down waiting for it to go away. You need to encourage resistance — get it out in the open. At least here you’ll have a chance to address it. If it’s hidden in the shadows you have no chance.

Deal directly with people. Peter Senge describes the levels of alignment staff may have with the vision of the organisation; committed, enrolled, compliant, grudgingly compliant, apathetic or saboteurs. You need to address these saboteurs especially, early on or they will destroy your program with their cynicism. By the way I heard a great definition of a cynic the other day — someone who’s given up but not shut up. There are a number of ways of turning ‘saboteurs’ into stars. One extremely successful method is to get them actively involved in the design of the program. The most successful “Customer care for computer staff” program I’ve seen was designed by the three most vociferous opponents of the program. They were identified very early on and asked to attend the pilot course. They were then invited to rewrite the program in the light of their knowledge and experiences.

In one respect staff can be thought of as sheep. Have you noticed how a flock of sheep move? There are usually a few leaders at the start, a few stragglers at the end and 80% of the flock in the middle. If you can get the first few sheep moving in the right direction along with one or two of the laggards then the flock will head in the right direction. That is as long as you keep them moving. If you stop, there is a tendency for the flock to stop, so build in mini targets, incentives, milestones. Keep the momentum going all the way. Aim for some quick wins to start the sheep moving. These should be tangible, identifiable, public outcomes directly attributable to the program. E.g., “As a result of the Culture Change Program there will be a: simplification of the appraisal system; gym membership subsidy introduced; better meals in the staff canteen; restructuring of the senior management team….”

A lot of the political difficulties will be caused by the silent majority. Address these. Look at the shadow-side of your organisation. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. There are many examples of this shadow-side at work in organisations:

I’ve been invited to pre-meeting meetings, pre pre-meeting meetings and even once a pre pre pre-meeting meeting to make sure our tactics were correct before the pre pre-meeting meeting. These activities take time and energy away from the goals of the organisation.

If you ever have to work in a school, on the first day you meet the headmaster, of course, and then you talk to the people with the real power — the caretakers, deputy headmistresses and their like. In many organisations Personal Assistants and secretaries tend to have far more actual power than their position in the hierarchy would suggest. Be nice to them. They will get you that five-minute meeting with the Head of Department if they like you. Don’t pretend these things don’t go on.

Once I worked in an organisation where an administrator who had worked in the office for 35 years had a great deal of influence. If she didn’t like something, things tended to move a lot slower, if at all. Find out who the key players are, cultivate them. Take up smoking if you need to. The smoking room tends to be a great area for finding things out first. People who go there tend to be relaxed, tend to be from a wide range of work areas and seem to have time to think and make connections. Facts like – a computer is being moved and there’s been a recent promotion board – can yield intriguing information — often days before an announcement becomes official.

You must instigate any culture program from the very top and work down. Managers at all levels must buy into the program and sell it down the line. This is frequently a very difficult trick to pull off. Somewhere in the chain there will invariably be managers that “don’t do” training. Talk to them, encourage them, threaten them — whatever works, but you can’t ignore them. Staff see managers not attending, or attending and not changing their behaviour, and the program suddenly loses credibility. “Why should I bother?” You’ll start seeing lots of non-attendees with “too busy to attend” notes from their managers. Leading by example has to start from the top, with top managers rewarded or disciplined immediately. If the credibility of the program goes, you’d just as well forget it straight away and save yourself some money.

There’s a syndrome creeping into modern business now of change overload. Every week there seems to be a new initiative, a new program, a new mission statement. People are getting drained. Any new program needs to be real, well thought out, have tangible benefits and be fully supported by senior management and all departments. There should be people begging to go on it. One interesting approach, based on some psychological studies to do with reactants, involved telling people they couldn’t attend the program. They began clamouring to get on it. They were phoning, emailing, “Why can’t I do it? Put me on the reserve list?” I wouldn’t recommend this manipulative use of psychology but there could be some elements of it you could use; invite people to apply, ask them why they should be included, make attendance a reward rather than a punishment. This will work.

Oh, the reference in the title is from an excellent program concerning change by Scott Simmerman. Two caterpillars are talking (as they do) and they spot a butterfly. They both look up and one caterpillar says to the other “You’ll never get me up in one of those.”

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.

Culture Change Programmes or You’ll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

“There’s a new change management program starting next week,” said the worried voice on the phone, “What can I do?”

“Keep your head down” was my sage advice.

“But this one’s serious.”

“They all are.”

“No; really. This time the H.R. Department is determined to make it happen. I don’t want to change. What can I do?”

“Stay out of the way. It’s the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.”

“?”

“There’s a river in Africa that starts in a range of mountains in Namibia known as the Okavanga-KalahariRiver. Everyone knows where it starts — it’s a huge river. It flows into the Kalahari Desert but no one really knows where it finishes. It just sort of fades away.”

“Ah.”

The vast majority of culture change programs go like this. Big start with trumpets, fanfares, senior managers wheeled out… the first events are hugely popular and over-subscribed. Go back in six months time and ask about it. It just sort of disappeared — no-one knew when, or whose decision it was. It just faded into the desert. The Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.

It’s not always so. There are a number of factors that will help in the success of any culture program:

Number one: do the maths. How much will it cost? How much extra will you get out of it? If you can’t get a tangible benefit then forget it. Your employees certainly won’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for them, as individuals. You certainly shouldn’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for you as an organisation. This benefit should be financial. OK it’s difficult to measure. Does that mean you don’t even try?

“It will make people more motivated and corporate” is a reason I’ve frequently heard for running a program.

“Show me the money.” I reply.

“But we can’t express it in financial terms.”

“Try?”

If you can’t get a benefit don’t bother. There must be a benefit in terms of more work produced, more targets met, less sick leave taken. Try to calculate all the “soft” measures. If you can motivate staff to take a real pride in their work, produce quality materials, chase every customer — how much is that worth to you?

Second, attendance on the program cannot be voluntary. You’ve done the sums now make people attend. Make it interesting, that’ll help. Make it rewarding. Take people away from the workplace, spend some money on them, treat them decently. They work for you, treat them as you’d like to be treated. Let them travel first class, stay in a nice hotel, feed them good meals with wine. Build this into the maths. Don’t be tempted to do it on the cheap.

Next, do the politics. And there will be politics. People tend to not like change so if you’re not getting any resistance — it’s because they’ve heard of the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome and are just keeping their heads down waiting for it to go away. You need to encourage resistance — get it out in the open. At least here you’ll have a chance to address it. If it’s hidden in the shadows you have no chance.

Deal directly with people. Peter Senge describes the levels of alignment staff may have with the vision of the organisation; committed, enrolled, compliant, grudgingly compliant, apathetic or saboteurs. You need to address these saboteurs especially, early on or they will destroy your program with their cynicism. By the way I heard a great definition of a cynic the other day — someone who’s given up but not shut up. There are a number of ways of turning ‘saboteurs’ into stars. One extremely successful method is to get them actively involved in the design of the program. The most successful “Customer care for computer staff” program I’ve seen was designed by the three most vociferous opponents of the program. They were identified very early on and asked to attend the pilot course. They were then invited to rewrite the program in the light of their knowledge and experiences.

In one respect staff can be thought of as sheep. Have you noticed how a flock of sheep move? There are usually a few leaders at the start, a few stragglers at the end and 80% of the flock in the middle. If you can get the first few sheep moving in the right direction along with one or two of the laggards then the flock will head in the right direction. That is as long as you keep them moving. If you stop, there is a tendency for the flock to stop, so build in mini targets, incentives, milestones. Keep the momentum going all the way. Aim for some quick wins to start the sheep moving. These should be tangible, identifiable, public outcomes directly attributable to the program. E.g., “As a result of the Culture Change Program there will be a: simplification of the appraisal system; gym membership subsidy introduced; better meals in the staff canteen; restructuring of the senior management team….”

A lot of the political difficulties will be caused by the silent majority. Address these. Look at the shadow-side of your organisation. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. There are many examples of this shadow-side at work in organisations:

I’ve been invited to pre-meeting meetings, pre pre-meeting meetings and even once a pre pre pre-meeting meeting to make sure our tactics were correct before the pre pre-meeting meeting. These activities take time and energy away from the goals of the organisation.

If you ever have to work in a school, on the first day you meet the headmaster, of course, and then you talk to the people with the real power — the caretakers, deputy headmistresses and their like. In many organisations Personal Assistants and secretaries tend to have far more actual power than their position in the hierarchy would suggest. Be nice to them. They will get you that five-minute meeting with the Head of Department if they like you. Don’t pretend these things don’t go on.

Once I worked in an organisation where an administrator who had worked in the office for 35 years had a great deal of influence. If she didn’t like something, things tended to move a lot slower, if at all. Find out who the key players are, cultivate them. Take up smoking if you need to. The smoking room tends to be a great area for finding things out first. People who go there tend to be relaxed, tend to be from a wide range of work areas and seem to have time to think and make connections. Two seemingly disconnected facts like; a computer is being moved and there’s been a recent promotion board, can yield intriguing information — often days before an announcement becomes official.

You must instigate any culture program from the very top and work down. Managers at all levels must buy into the program and sell it down the line. This is frequently a very difficult trick to pull off. Somewhere in the chain there will invariably be managers that “don’t do” training. Talk to them, encourage them, threaten them — whatever works, but you can’t ignore them. Staff see managers not attending, or attending and not changing their behaviour, and the program suddenly loses credibility. “Why should I bother?” You’ll start seeing lots of non-attendees with “too busy to attend” notes from their managers. Leading by example has to start from the top, with top managers rewarded or disciplined immediately. If the credibility of the program goes, you’d just as well forget it straight away and save yourself some money.

There’s a syndrome creeping into modern business now of change overload. Every week there seems to be a new initiative, a new program, a new mission statement. People are getting drained. Any new program needs to be real, well thought out, have tangible benefits and be fully supported by senior management and all departments. There should be people begging to go on it. One interesting approach, based on some psychological studies to do with reactants, involved telling people they couldn’t attend the program. They began clamouring to get on it. They were phoning, emailing, “Why can’t I do it? Put me on the reserve list?” I wouldn’t recommend this manipulative use of psychology but there could be some elements of it you could use; invite people to apply, ask them why they should be included, make attendance a reward rather than a punishment. This will work.

Oh, the reference in the title is from an excellent program concerning change by Scott Simmerman. Two caterpillars are talking (as they do) and they spot a butterfly. They both look up and one caterpillar says to the other “You’ll never get me up in one of those.”