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There is a wonderfully thoughtful piece that Richard Martin has published about change in organisations and our increasingly pseudo-scientific, Taylorist approaches to management in organisation that are to a great extent being driven by technology adoption. I chimed with almost all of what he wrote (and loved the borrowed phrase “I don’t want to be better than other people. I just want to help others be better people.”)

The piece though, has got me thinking about practicalities – and in particular the techniques and methods that I’ve had most success with delivering meaningful and sustained organisational change over the years. There is no magic answer or formula to any of this, but I do find that there are four things that I do keep coming back to.

The first is thinking about how individuals react emotionally to change, and how to acknowledge and help people through those stages in practical ways; the most famous of these models came from psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s studies of bereavement, and I’ve generally used a slightly simplified model. When confronted with a change people go through a cycle of denial, resistance and exploration until they eventually arrive at commitment.

Acknowledging this type of reaction can be hugely beneficial to change agents, particularly in knowing that resistance and anger to the change at very least means that you have got people out of the denial phase.

The next tool is the “Four Stages of Competence” model, which again is focused on the individual. When learning a new way of working, it can takes huge investment of effort and this model (which also can map reasonably closely to the emotional change curve) – for change agents to acknowledge this is crucial. Technologist often fail to understand this pattern – why, if the new version is so much better than the old aren’t people lapping it up? Well, because the cost of learning the new version is greater than any perceived benefit. Managers of the Windows franchise, take note.

The next model is more group focused: Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Freeze. The structure for a programme of change needs to first, consciously, take down the old methods (or at least make it clear why the old methods must change), then to make a change, and then do activities to ensure that the changes are embedded and become a sustained new normal. Too often I’ve seen IT-focused projects change programme structure be: build system, deliver system, get someone in the Comms team to fire off a few emails about the new system.

The final thing that’s held me in good stead is something of a guiding principal – peers make for far more effective agents of change than outsiders. In the big Google Apps project I ran at Imagination a few years ago, part of our roll-out programme consisted of collecting and retelling of stories of things that people had done with the new tools from across the business. We also had a network of people outside of IT engaged from the start involved in defining the business needs and opportunity, choosing the platform, helping to train people, and acting as go-to people during the roll-out. That group represented  all levels in the business, all functions, and all geographies (about 25 in the end to cover off 500 in the company).

To achieve all of that there are a number of stakeholder analysis techniques I’ve used over the years – but we also in the Imagination case gave everyone some training in the principals and models above to equip them with some tools to help in their role.

It’s not a perfect, “best practice” repeatable process, but it’s a fairly good toolbox from my experience as a deliverer of change. Thing is, though, there are two fallacies in which the change agent can easily become entrapped.

The first is to think that everyone else is at the same stage of change adoption as they are. Always, always, not the case. The change agent will be way ahead in terms of their knowledge of the change to happen, and whether they themselves have actually got to the commitment stage or not, others will still be in denial.

I saw this illustrated perfectly back in my BBC days when the HR group brought together a group of managers to discuss recent staff poll results that said that we weren’t good at managing change. BBC Worldwide had recently gone through a long winded and vaguely secret company acquisition process which had been officially announced a few days before the meeting. Lots of the attendees had been party to the negotiations, and were talking about the project in the past tense. It was at that point I pointed out that maybe that was part of our issue – the staff involved in the change had found out it was to happen in the future a few days before, but it was already history to the management group.

The other fallacy is that because people involved in change projects are involved in change on a day-to-day basis we are somehow less change-averse than others. This is a really dangerous one because its utter nonsense. A former colleague of mine, a project manager by background, once claimed this. I told him he should go and get a repetitive job in an operations department if that was the case.

The point was, his job was the repeating of running change projects – change management was his normal. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there is very little variability in how able people are to accommodate and adapt to change – it’s just circumstance and timing that will be the things that help or hinder a particular individual making a particular change at a particular time. The change agent’s role is to smooth that path for as many people as it is possible.

5 thoughts on “People-led change

  1. Lots of good stuff here, Matt.

    There’s a really smart point buried in there about giving people the information all the time. A lot of change can stumble or fail because those undergoing the change feel that they are in the dark somewhat. While a democratic way forward isn’t necessarily correct, openness is.

    Add to that your point about management talking in the past tense while for those not involved it can be very much present tense – and also contain concerns about the/their future – and you’ve got a powerful reminder of how to go about change/transformation using your other elements, or tools in the box if you like.

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