The Complex Problem With Big Change Programmes

Change-washing (noun): the process of introducing reforms that purport to bring about change but fail to result in any substantive shifts in systems, services or culture.  — Thea Snow and Abe Greenspoon

One of the unfortunate side-effects of writing a post that becomes popular such as  People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes is that you simply don’t have the time to respond to all the comments on Linkedin and Twitter.

The overwhelming majority seemed to identify with the main points, particularly the need for more Trojan Mice.

However a few people interpreted it as an attack on change management in general – and an argument in favour of just letting people free to change things as they see fit.

So let me clarify.

My default position is that most top down change programmes will fail.  My experience has shown me that small, well focused changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time. These changes still need management though.

Your organisation is more like a living organism than a static structure. Increasingly we need to see our organisations as complex, ever-evolving, adaptive systems. That’s one of the reasons top down change programmes fail – they are too big, unwieldy and structured to cope with a living, breathing, growing, thing.

And yet… there is sometimes a need for big change programmes.

If you have a large infrastructure project , such as a digital transformation, there’s a need for unified vision and a lot of standardisation. A trojan mice approach could be disastrous – as it could reinforce silos.

Large scale transformation is about the transformation of organisations from silos, limited capability and unclear strategic goals, to being an organisation that understands the vision, that knows where it delivers the most value and how to focus on it. Doing this across a whole organisation is complicated, but is often needed if you are attempting to solve multiple problems.

When we began our transformation at Bromford we realised that we had 32 individual service areas – all of which needed better coordination.

We started by defining nine overall design principles, which leaders all signed up to before developing their own principles for each of their service areas. Doing it this way means we can better connect silos and optimise the organisation for the future. It’s a people driven approach – we hope – rather than a process driven one.

The problem for many big transformations occurs when the simple meets the complex.

Universal credit and smart motorways are two examples of big infrastructure programmes that have hit the similar problems.

Universal credit – a benefit for working-age people, replacing six benefits and merging them into one payment – was a simple vision and a correct one. The problems came about when the desired simplicity of the system also led to an oversimplified view of the life circumstances of many recipients. The early warnings from the oddly titled ‘Demonstration Pilots’ (implicit meaning – ‘we are going to do this anyway, whatever the results’ ) that this approach could hit the most vulnerable people very hard were pretty much ignored.

Smart Motorways – where drivers can use the hard shoulder – but the lane is shut down in the event of any accident or breakdown – is another simple idea that runs into trouble when it meets complexity.  A physically fit single driver can abandon their vehicle and get to safety pretty quickly but that’s not so easy for the driver with disabled or young passengers. “You spend an average of more than half an hour sitting there in a broken-down vehicle praying,” say the AA. Again, lessons learned from the pilots appear to have been ignored. In the original pilot, the emergency refuge areas were 500-600 metres apart, compared with 2,500 metres on other smart motorways.

Both of these examples have run into trouble when the intended transformation meets people.

Complex, messy people.

This thinking that if we take apart processes and tasks and put them into smaller units—we can improve those parts and thus the overall performance of our business is flawed.

There seems to be a belief that if we can ‘systems think’ or PRINCE2 it to death the people will comply. Sorry – it just isn’t true.

Just like our natural systems, our organisations are not machines. As Thea and Abe write – our organisations are systems — often very large ones — that are being run by humans. “As such, they are complex and they are adaptive. This means that the path for us to change them will be unpredictable and often counter-intuitive”.

The problem with big change programmes is also their opportunity. If we can recognise that organisations are people and people are complex then we can avoid simplistic solutions – and make real sustainable change.

Indeed – redesigning organisations for the future is also about learning to live with complexity.

  1. […] for ages people have actually paid attention. Thank you Paul Taylor for the mentions in this post The Complex Problem with Big Change Programmes and People Aren’t Sick of Change, They are Sick of Change […]

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