Tag Archives: consulting

Change Management: an oxymoron?

When people ask what I do – which has happened a lot in the past couple of weeks as I chatted to people at ConnectingHR and LikeMinds – I invariably say that I work in change management.

But I always feel a bit of a fraud when I do this, for two reasons.

First, I am not sure that one really can manage change.

Second, I worry that by calling myself a change manager, I’m allowing someone else – someone who should be out there, dealing with business issues like change – off the hook. By setting up “change management” as a specific role – a profession, even – it lets people who should really be getting involved say, “he’s the change manager, so it isn’t my problem”.

So, first thing first: can one really manage change? Change is, of course, a constant: it affects every organisation – every person – out there. People change, day by day; and organisations change, too. In a competitive environment, things are changing the whole time. People, products, markets – all change.

Change management is about helping organisations cope with change in a measured, controlled way. The problem for me is that this gives organisations the illusion of control. But change isn’t like that. An organisation might set out to change, having an ultimate goal; but like a boat sailing, making allowances for the wind and the uncertainties of the tides, where they end up might be completely different.

The thing is, they have to try – otherwise, buffeted by wind, dragged by unknown currents, they would be lost.

Any organisation thinking that, once they’ve embarked on a change programme, they’ll get precisely to their destination will come horribly unstuck. You can’t actually control change like that: that’s not the way it works. Whatever kind of control freak your organisation hires, they can’t control change – they have to work with it. “Change management” doesn’t really describe what goes on.

Most change programmes are centrally devised, but implemented in a distributed fashion. I have worked on change programmes in both the private and public sectors; the people actually making the change happen – those directly affected by the change, were far-removed from the central teams planning the change. However strong a lead the centre gives, what is actually implemented will probably be very different to what was envisaged.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, if you want change to happen, you have to engage with those delivering it: involving those affected by the change is essential – but what they actually do might be quite different from what the centre designs: an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation.

So: change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not, whether you plan it or not – and it makes sense to have an idea – a plan – of where you want the organisation to go, because otherwise you really won’t have any control about where it goes.

But be realistic: you have to try to manage change, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can control it.

The second thing, then: change is going to happen; and it should be everyone’s responsibility, and particularly everyone in management. Lots of organisations now organise work into projects. By definition, they want something to be different after a project: otherwise you wouldn’t set up a project. Projects are all about change. You do a project because you want change.

But lots of organisations use particular people to manage change. They get people like me to help them set the vision, produce a plan, set up a change programme and manage – implement – the change. These change managers may be internal or, like me, external; we know how to work with change. But internal or external, once we’ve done our work, we’ll move onto other projects; and those who don’t – the managers and staff left owning the “business-as-usual” state after the change programme has got to wherever it ended up – will be given a get-out clause. They’ll be able to pick up whatever they want and say, “the change programme didn’t work”.

They can do this because they’ll be able to look at the change programme – the planned, controlled and implemented change – and say that it didn’t get to where they thought it would – it didn’t achieve what they expected. And because they are not responsible – because they hired me or used someone else to do it – they can pin the blame on us and not actually be held to account.

These two points are connected of course. This might seem esoteric; but it is important. Its explain why most government change implementations often fail – not just in the UK, but in the USA too. And, I’d guess, everywhere else.

Innovation through Conversation

For the ConnectingHR Unconference last week (though it seems ages away!), I led a discussion which I called “Innovation through Conversation”. I had prepared a mindmap, since I reckoned a little bit of preparation made sense (mindmaps are my favourite way of preparing for something like this – indeed, I prepared a couple of other topics, too, which will probably find their way into blogs because they were about things I think are important; but I didn’t want to spend the whole unconference talking!). One of the great things about the ConnectingHR was that, aside from the pecha kucha sessions, there weren’t any prepared presentations – it all felt more or less spontaneous, with no whizzy graphics, bullet point hell or hard sell.

Innovation through conversation described for me the kind of things that go on at Tuttle Club and, in particular, the process we used with Tuttle Consulting. The whole thing about Tuttle Club, for me, is the conversation: it is all about interesting conversations with interesting people. Or maybe the other way around… And out of the conversations, ideas form; and from that, products have been created. Which is innovation, to some extent.

Conversation is the product from Tuttle. But I think that can be a bit of a problem, because conversations are hard to sell. Pitching for a project, if one says to a CEO “we’ll help your people have conversations…”, we’d probably swiftly be shown the door: everyone has conversations the whole time – about what they did last night, what they’re doing for their holiday – sometimes even about work. How is what we do different, and why?

People, though, rarely have a chance to kick about new ideas in an open conversation, without preconceptions coming into play. I think this is what Tuttle Club does, and what we have recreated with clients, comes down to creating structures in which conversations can happen freely, openly, without judgement. Because those on the projects bring their experiences of making conversations in the Tuttle Club, a space based around conversation, we are quite happy having conversations with – well, complete strangers. By giving permission to people to have conversations, by opening up organisations to the power of deep conversation, those involved feel able to do so. Seeding conversations like this can cause them to spread through the organisation.

What happens in these conversations is a lot of improvisation and making connections between ideas – creating new meaning. Making it up as we go along. There is not necessarily a product, because the conversation itself is the product. The client takes a very active role – Tuttle might facilitate, but the conversations belong to the client.

That’s more or less what I scribbled down on my mindmap; but the discussion at ConnectingHR took it a lot wider as the other participants brought their own views and opinions, because ConnectingHR was all about the conversation, too.

Conversations can be very powerful. Introducing open conversations between different parts of an organisation allow new social – and product – connections to be made, across business silos. Bringing together new people and new ideas creates new thinking; it doesn’t stop with a single conversation, and can leave seeds, nuggets, waiting to develop. It leads to new learning, and a sharing of experiences and ideas; the outputs can be very rich.

Enabling people in organisations to talk to each other is engaging and empowering: it enables people to think in new and different ways. It can change organisations in permanent ways.

Someone emphasised the benefits of using appreciative enquiry, focussing on the positive aspects of processes and organisations – building on what works rather than trying to correct what doesn’t. I haven’t a lot of experience in appreciative enquiry, but it can be a powerful tool – very often, people in organisations use a lot of time and energy griping about what is wrong; using that time and energy to build on the positive aspects of what they do.

Social media – Twitter, Facebook, and so on – can also provide space for conversations. They give people permission to communicate and to connect. Someone at ConnectingHR said that when an office cleaner and the CEO connect through social media discussing (for instance!) the latest episode of Spooks, it’ll change the way they relate to each other.

I reckon that use of social media in organisations will have a flattening effect on organisation structure, opening up communications and free up people to have conversations. There are fears that with people spending time on social media at work, productivity will fall – apparently unwarranted, since someone pointed out that research had shown no decrease in productivity following the implementation of social media tools (I didn’t get a reference for this – if anyone can point me in the direction of this research, I’d be grateful!).

Someone else pointed out that people would use social media as they used to use cigarettes, and that instead of allowing people a “fag-break”, organisations could allow people “Twitter-breaks”, time between tasks when it’s ok to surf or tweet. Whether online or off, if organisations want people to talk, they need policies. I have been amused – and amazed – at hearing several times from different people in the last few weeks that internal communications departments are so worried about Twitter that some of them require anyone tweeting to have their tweets signed off. I think it was Bill Boorman who pointed out that it didn’t matter what the medium was – you need have a policy for communication, not for specific media.

I think organisations should free people to communicate with each other, whatever the medium – online and off. Because through conversation, people make new connections, spark off each other – and innovate.

“Beyond Crisis”: organisations in a changing world

There were two lectures on management and innovation that I wanted to go to on Tuesday (as well as one on who was to blame for the financial crisis) – one at the LSE, the other at Gresham College; I plumped for the talk at Gresham, if only because I thought it might be easier to get in!

Gill Ringland was talking on Beyond Crisis, and walking through the model she and her colleagues at SAMI Consulting have developed for managing in an environment that is full of change. The status quo – the world in which most organisations developed – is subject to several trends; six were seen to be game-changing by Ringland:

  • the economic crisis, especially the crippling bank bailouts in USA and Europe; USA used to be the world economic powerhouse (largely using borrowed money – hence the crisis), a role increasingly taken up by India and China
  • demographic changes, with continuing population growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America balanced with falling populations in Europe and North America and a world population stabilising at c. 9 billion in 2025, coupled with the aging populations of Europe, North America, China (large as a result of its “one child policy ” of the last thirty years) and Japan
  • concomitant with this, an increasingly well-educated world population, with 90% of those 9 billion people educated successfully to secondary level (this compares to only 80% of UK school students completing secondary education to a satisfactory level)
  • a changing palette of moral values among the increasing population, with those in faster growing, “more traditional” cultures less concerned wellbeing (or minimising harm) and fairness and more concerned purity, authority and affiliation; this shows itself as a decreasing belief in the rule of law – in “traditional” cultures, there is an increasing preponderance to punish those who enforce the law, whilst in rich nations there is a preponderance to punish those who break it. [It is not clear to me how this stacks up with an increasing belief in authority.]
  • continuing environmental pressures, where Ringland painted a more bleak picture than I had heard before (although she reckoned that our ingenuity would pull through in the end!)
  • continuing technological change

This, RIngland believes, will result in a dramatically different business environment, one in which business adapted to working in the previous environment will suffer: management styles attuned to the historical “great moderation” will fail and those able to adapt flexibly will flourish.

The model that SAMI have come up with to describe those adaptable, flexible organisations goes by the acronym of PSRO – “purposefully self-renewing organisations”. Pictured as two cones, one representing the rigid hierarchy of an organisation and it’s employees, processes, customers and partners – focused on organisational efficiency – balanced on another of ad hoc strategic activities focused on renewal and the present and future operating environment. The connection between these two cones in asset allocation, set against a background of values to create narrative, “machinery” (communication, processes and governance rather than physical machinery) to create options, and insight – taken together, what might be considered the organisation’s culture.

The difficulty is getting through that bottleneck of asset allocation. New ideas in organisations – innovation – come from employees, customers and business partners: all part of the traditional hierarchy. It is hard for ideas to work through the hierarchy into the area of renewal, lower cone, not least because employees, customers and business partners are busy concentrating with business as usual activities. So resources don’t get effectively allocated to any innovative ideas they might have.

What makes the difference, according to Ringland, is leadership. Quoting a McKinsey survey, successful business performance depends on employees being clear in their purpose, the organisation having a sense of direction and an environment of openness, trust and challenge: all characteristics which can be set by business leaders, within the organisation’s culture. If you get the culture right – largely down to communication and being open to change and transformation (Senge’s “learning organisation” – innovative ideas can pass through the bottleneck.

SAMI use a pretty standard change model – a cycle involving leadership to provide direction and the sense of narrative, environmental scanning and scenario planning, and the creation of innovation and options – which can be used to plan interventions to help move organisations to being PSROs.

None of this felt new, but it was interesting to be reminded of these ideas – a good refresher. The key seemed to be organisational culture. The focus on leadership – the top down creation of culture – didn’t necessarily feel right. Flexible, adaptable organisations seem to be the key – a message we have been hearing a while, I think. Modern, flat organisations (good for open communications and the ease of flow of ideas) are supposedly more nimble and innovative. “Virtual” organisations could be most nimble of all.

(You can read a transcript of Ringland’s talk here, and I expected copies of her slides will appear on the Gresham College website at some point.)

A Different Way of Working

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a business experiment. Building on the experience of Tuttle, Lloyd Davis has been putting together a consultancy offering; this worked like an open source programme, really – transfer the conversations we have at Tuttle to a productive, business-lead discussion: bring what you can.

The first outing was based on crowd-sourcing – a new space both for us and the client1. We talked through where they were and what they were after, in a very open fashion. The client knew we were experimenting, and they were open to it – and this gave us the licence to make it up as we were going along. I think it felt scary and exposed for both client and consultants – but also energised and exciting.

It worked on several counts – both for us and, by all accounts, for the client. We didn’t have anything to sell: we didn’t have a product we were trying to push – there were no “off the shelf” solutions into which we tried to shoe-horn the clients’ issues. There was also dissent: the crowd of consultants (ok, there were a dozen or so of us) were each approaching things from their own experience and perspective, and we had different ideas about what might or might not work. Because we weren’t working within a conventional corporate hierachy, we weren’t trying to score points off each other, so we could concentrate on what we thought would really work (and what the client could get to work – without painful, costly interventions).

The second session was perhaps more focused: building on the outputs of the first, we came up with concrete ideas that could become proto-projects – things the client could take away and actually make happen. This had a smaller number of consultants working on it – just five or so – helping take the broad ideas and possibilities developed in the first session and funnel them into a range of real, creative activites.

It was hard, intense work; but because we had experience of constructive conversations from Tuttle, it didn’t really feel like work. In tandem with the client, we took the initial ideas, kicked them around a bit and beat them into shape. From the initial input, we were creating something solid.

This business model felt quite new – to me at least. (It is possible that such open, free-form, improvisational consulting is old hat; I’m sure you’ll tell me if it is!) Because of our experience from Tuttle, the understanding between the consultants – who hadn’t necessarily met or spoken with each other before – were such that we were open to challenge: there were no right or wrong answers, just lots of options.

Our openness seemed to be appreciated by the clients, too – because it was a different experience for them as well: not the usual sort of consultants’ offering. I think they learnt from it, as I believe we did.

All in all, it felt a very positive experience, and one I hope we are able to grow and share with more people.

[1Our clients are apparently happy to be identified, but, as I was writing this, it didn’t really feel right to share their identity with all and sundry: this post is more about the process, what felt new and the way we worked – what actually excited me about working in a different way – than what we actually delivered for them. That they were happy to be identified I think says a lot for the openness of that process.]

“Rules for Revolutionaries”

This is a post I wrote elsewhere, in November 2007.

I went to a talk called “Rules for Revolutionaries”; since this was being given at the Edinburgh University Business School, you can guess that it wasn’t trying to get all the budding MBA students to emulate Che Guvera or Fidel Castro; instead it was proposing a different way of looking at management.

I should have warmed to this: it hit a lot of the right buttons for me; but I didn’t.
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