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  • Steve Hearsum

What most organisations get wrong about change...


It’s rare that I hear a client say something like “the last big change we went through was a great success”; or “change in our organisations is well lead and managed”; or “that change went to time and budget”. Given I spend most of my time working either with leaders wrestling with tensions that often relate to change of some kind, or internal consultants who are tasked with delivering change that the former initiate, you’d think things would be a little more positive.


James Traeger touched on this in a post about how big change projects go wrong. He highlighted three factors that Matthew Syed identified in a BBC podcast as being key.


“According to Syed, there are three interconnected and universal reasons why any project, but particularly ‘grand’ projects, tend to go significantly over time and budget. And these reasons are not a failure of project management technique, know-how or change management skill. They are relational and interpersonal (and) psychologically driven mechanisms…”


The three reasons are:


1. The ‘Everything Goes According to Plan’ (EGAP) assumption

That change is something far more predictable than it is. Rational planning approaches fail to take into account the inherent unpredictability and uncertainty of the world in which we live and work.


2. The worst plan survives

The tendency towards positivity and optimism leads the voices who may be offering more grounded and realistic suggestions to be drowned out by those offering an illusory certainty.


3. More haste less speed

The “timeline problem”: things simply take a lot longer than anticipated. A LOT longer.”The shorter the timeline, the smaller the variance and “the longer a great project goes on, the more expensive it becomes and the longer it takes.”


James goes on to make the case for organisation development (OD) as a way of supporting people to develop the skills and capabilities to better wrestle with change in a way that does not perpetuate the failings above. I agree with him, and (full disclosure) I am a Mayvin associate and on the faculty for their new Masters in People & OD (its good, have a look). Having read his post, it spurred me to articulate thoughts I have had for a while around how organisations (mostly) get change wrong. In addition to James’ list, I offer another three wonderings, because I am still chewing on this rather than offering up certain conclusions:


1. The ‘treat change as a function/role/methodology’ problem

Change is construed as something that requires a function, with people in particular roles associated with/labelled as ‘change’. This may also be coupled with a methodology or three. The issue here is that it assumes that change in organisations stays within the boundaries we define. It also assumes that those people and roles are the only people who need to have ‘change skills’, and that there is a clear understanding of what facilitating/leading change in organisations actually requires. Where people sit and how they are labelled is less important than whether they are equipped to help and have permission to so e.g. do they have the courage and ability to speak truth to power, and is there sufficient permission to do so?


2. The ‘let’s build a community of practice’ fantasy

Large organisations are prone to start talking about communities of practice once they have spent money on developing change/OD capabilities. In theory, a great idea, yet too often what seems to happen is that no sooner than you have a community of practice that 'gets' change, leadership changes course or key supporting stakeholders leave.


Creating communities of practice requires both genuine permission and on-going support to allow them to evolve. Without that, the community fragments, disperses or people leave the organisation without there ever having been real understanding of the opportunity that was missed. Also, you don’t just do it once: community needs to be re-built over time as people come and go and context changes.


One client I worked with put over a hundred people through a consulting skills/OD programme over two years and established a community of practice. With changes to strategy, leadership and structure, many people left the business at a moment in time when they were going through more change and transformation than ever: change capability was leaving when it could be most useful. That brings us to the third issue.

3. The ‘leadership/practitioner disconnect’

This is the persistent failure of those commissioning change and transformation to recognize the importance of building an ongoing dialogue with those they are asking to 'deliver it'. In part the need for people to develop the ability to speak truth to power is down to this blind spot. In supervision groups and development programmes, I often talk about the need to speak truth, but I find myself wondering increasingly: why is there such a need?


Yes, it is not always easy to offer a truth to someone in a more senior – and powerful – position if you imagine it is a career limiting move. Many organisations talk about collaboration and the importance of people being able to speak up and out, yet the anxiety evoked by change seems to create a peculiar disconnect between the people making the decisions about what needs to change and those they are asking to do their bidding. At the very moment when there needs to be more open dialogue and collaboration across functional and hierarchical boundaries, little attempt is made to consciously ask what that might mean if change projects are to be more successfully and less painfully completed.


Considering all this, what can you do to reduce the chances of failure, cost/time overrun and general disappointment? I am with James here; it starts with an understanding of the skills that are needed.


My build on that is that the time is right for a more fundamental questioning of the assumptions that underpin how organisations think about the relationship between change practice, change leadership and, crucially, where these sit/reside and how they need to evolve over time. That is not going to be a comfortable conversation for many, and it is a useful discomfort, one that we can help with.


What is clear is that if you are peeling the potato of change, a hammer isn't much use: it is a little more complicated than that.



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