I’ve been recently orbiting again in public sector circles, and it’s striking me how much of the work that is the Civil Service is about implementing change. The delivery of new policy, the dramatic changes in funding in the past six years, the forthcoming consultancy jamboree that will be the country’s skulking out of the European Union (whether hard or soft)… the business of government is the business of change.
And yet change management is a secondary discipline, sidelined often as the preserve of “Comms People”, something that proper people who do proper jobs with proper stuff pay lip service to whilst getting on with delivering some mythical “business as usual” steady state operation that is anything but.
Why isn’t change front and centre of the way in which we organise our public institutions? Why, come to think of it, isn’t is front and centre of most of our larger organisations, commercial or otherwise? The idea of steady state operation is a nonsense – no such thing exists (and nor, possibly, has it ever done so).
There is a conceit that I hear frequently in my work across all sectors: that human beings aren’t very good at change. What utter balderdash. If it weren’t for our remarkable ability to adapt, we’d still be up in the trees scratching each others arses and picking at berries. That sort of thing is only available to the extremely wealthy and niche in our ever-adapting culture.
But there is another conceit within organisations public and private, and that’s that change is something to be designed. Actually, most change comes from within organisations, not down from the top. It’s a process of evolution, not intelligent design. And managing change in that circumstance is probably more like corralling cats that it is herding sheep. Big vision (or a bloody enormous tin of Whiskas), and an acceptance that if you can get most of the people heading in roughly the same direction then you’re probably doing something right.
Which brings me back to my initial point. Maybe that’s why change isn’t top of the organisational agenda. It’s too indeterminate, too vague, too fuzzy. Too hard to assign outputs and bonuses and write up performance reviews about. Because we need all that stuff, don’t we? To be a big, proper, grown up organisation you need lashings of numbers, even if all the numbers are utterly made up and nonsensical. And so we focus on stuff that we can measure instead, and hope it works as a proxy for what we actually need to achieve…