Whatever You Do Today, Don’t Start A Transformation Programme

New research indicates that corporate transformations have a 78% failure rate.

The default position is that most top down change programmes will fail. 

Smaller, well focused, spreadable changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time.

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025 with the consulting component alone at $44bn.

Who is really winning from transformation? It’s not necessarily going to be you or your customers.

More than 25 years ago, John Kotter made his now-famous assertion that 70% of corporate transformation efforts are doomed to fail.

New research shows it’s worse than that.

Only 22% of organisations successfully transform.

Using a meta-analysis the authors examined 128 global companies that had undergone transformation between 2016 and 2020. There are a couple of interesting points about their methodology.

First of all they actually defined the word ‘transformation’ as a “fundamental shift in the way that an organization conducts business, resulting in economic or social impact.”

Secondly, they considered factors other than just savings or cost benefit , the position that transformation snake oil enthusiasts always start from. Instead the authors (Paul A. Argenti,Jenifer Berman,Ryan Calsbeek,Andrew Whitehouse) crunched data on corporate reputation including impacts on employee pay, satisfaction, gender pay disparity and engagement. i.e did the transformation actually make the organisation a better and happier place?

The implications of their findings are clear: companies have a better chance at success if they focus on their people during transformation. And this is very important: “the type of employee engagement made the difference between top-tier performance and not. Companies that prioritized attributes that are fundamentally related to employee engagement, such as diversity & inclusion, in addition to traditional benefits, such as compensation or health care, saw stronger reputations and greater financial returns than other organizations”.

There’s a lot to consider in this as – in my experience – this is what most change or transformation programmes completely miss. The hallmarks of these programmes are big, 2-5 year initiatives with a number of technology drops and a greater number of consultants. The first release is usually many months, sometimes years away. Too often organisations deliver a form of ‘change-washing’: introducing reforms that purport to bring about change but fail to result in any substantive shifts in systems, services or culture. 

Interestingly, the authors of the report applied the mathematics of evolutionary biology to corporate data sets. Corporations, like biological organisms, also have to adapt to their environments. Just like our natural systems, our organisations are not machines. They are systems — often very large ones — that are run by humans. They are complex and they are adaptive and therefore the path for us to change them will be unpredictable and often counter-intuitive.

If we can recognise that organisations are people and people are complex then we can avoid simplistic transformations – and make real sustainable change.

However, it’s worth noting that not everything needs changing. Many change programmes are a form of corporate narcissism, like folk who continually strive for Instagram Face in the internet’s endless pursuit of physical perfection. Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties.

This title of this post is partly meant in jest but there is a serious point.

If transformation programmes have a 78% chance of failure why would you ever consider doing one? You certainly wouldn’t get on a flight that only had a 22% chance of a safe landing.

If you’re in the middle or nearing the end of a change programme it’s worth looking at your metrics and seeing how this programme is actually going to benefit your people – outside the day to day impact on their job roles.

It’s never too late to press on the brakes. Many digital transformations are the living embodiment of the Sunk Cost Fallacy: where organizations continue to justify spending additional resources to try to recoup already lost costs.

However if you’re still at the beginning it’s worth looking at why the 70% + who have gone before you have failed.

The default position is that most top down change programmes will fail.  Smaller, well focused, spreadable changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time.

What if, instead of trying to change the business you already have, you worked with colleagues to explore, experiment, test and build the company you should have?


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The People Vs The System – and Why The People Rarely Win

What if we overstate the effect of the people in our organisations, and we spend too much time addressing what they feel and think without addressing the more complex, systemic problems that influence how they perform or behave?

The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or in service if only our workers would do their jobs as they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system and the system belongs to the management

W.Edwards Deming

‘It’s all about the people. Our culture. Our values’.

This is a common cry from companies everywhere – proudly announcing to the world that they only hire the best. Come and work for us and we’ll let you make a difference.

It’s seemingly a meritocracy then. The best companies simply recruit better, more motivated people. So we should be able to solve problems like the NHS , for example, just through better recruitment and retention policies?

There’s an elephant in the room here: what if we overstate the effect of the people in our organisations, and we spend too much time addressing what they feel and think without addressing the more complex, systemic issues that influence how they perform or behave?

According to W.Edwards Deming 95% of variation in the performance of a system (or your organisation) is caused by the system itself and only 5% is caused by the people. This is also known as Deming’s 95/5 rule.

Deming’s point , outlined in his famous Red Bead Experiment, was that in most processes any effect that the individual may have is swamped by the system they are a part of, in fact the variability they cause is just part of that system overall. As management owns the system, the workers themselves have little influence over the outcomes. When it comes to people vs the system, the system always wins.

In his book Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon states the change HR – or any people function – needs to make is obvious. “It needs to work on the 95% of the system that governs performance, not the 5% that doesn’t.” The starting place for these functions is after the systems have been redesigned. In practice, the typical HR function spends most of its time dealing with the fallout of performance failure, or training people for a battle they can’t possibly win.

One of the best posts I’ve read this week comes from Steve Blank, who tells of his frustration in attending an “innovation hero” award ceremony. His point is that rewarding people for ‘innovation’ and how they have battled against the system is actually just perpetuating the conditions in the system that prevent innovation. “The emphasis is on process, procedures, and sustainment of existing systems. Deviations from that which create chaos and diverge from the predetermined are not welcomed, let alone promoted, and funded. They are eliminated.”  Smart organisations recognise that people must be empowered to change the system – and instead of managers of process you need innovation leaders who shepherd ideas through an innovation pipeline.

I don’t 100% buy into the Deming rule – let’s remember that in his world he was talking from the perspective of a tightly controlled factory floor, assembling products. I don’t challenge the idea that the system affects performance, or that we pay too much attention to people problems. However, anyone who has worked in an organisation that has experienced a profound change in personnel has seen the disruptive effects (positive and negative) that people can have. They influence things way more than 5%.

For most of us our work is inseparably connected with the people who operate within the system. You can change a single person and suddenly the rules of the game have changed and everyone else operates in a different context. The same system maybe, but in a very different context.

However, overall this is why one-size-fits-all transformation approaches don’t work, and for good reason. Transformation measures need to be carefully calibrated to the complexity of different areas of the organisation. More attention needs to paid to complex systems and how they fit within the overall organisational design.

Many managers though don’t want to go here – it’s too much like hard work. It’s genuinely easier to focus on ‘leaderism initiatives’ and management BS than it is to change the system.

I contend that the root cause of a lot of this is short-termism. Of Boards and Execs are often focussed on backward looking performance metrics rather than sustainable goals that may take years to realise. Larger scale change dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

Will our organisations ever focus on genuine system change? The Net Zero and wider sustainability agenda might bring with it a shift to longer term thinking – of looking at change over a period of years , or even decades. To bring about these sorts of changes requires whole system change.

Whole system change is based on whole systems thinking, that the parts of a system are all connected and, therefore, influence each other. Rewiring this requires a commitment that few will be willing to make.

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. 

The world is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than we ever have.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?


Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Moving From ‘Big Change That Rarely Happens’ To ‘Small Change That Always Does’

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

In 2002 the UK Government announced the beginning of a £12.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT . The aim was seemingly simple: to replace paper medical records with a centralised national electronic database, allowing a patient from Manchester to walk into a hospital in London and find all their details readily available online in one place.

At the time, this transformation was meant to constitute the most extensive, and expensive, IT healthcare development of its kind in the world. “The possibilities are enormous if we can get this right,” Tony Blair promised whilst clearly overlooking the possibility of getting it wrong. Nine years later, in September 2011 the government announced that the scheme would be scrapped.

That £12.7 billion investment into nothing is now dwarfed by the UK Test and Trace System that has so far cost £37 Billion, which is significantly more costly than getting a sustainable human presence on the Moon.

All over the world our organisations are experiencing profound change. The most common way to react to that is some kind of transformational change programme.

The hallmarks of these programmes are big, 2-5 year initiatives with a number of drops and a greater number of consultants. The first release is usually many months, sometimes years away.


According to Barry O’Reilly, the growth of investment in digital transformation is compounding at 18% year-on-year. By 2023, an estimated $7 trillion will be spent on these initiatives annually. To put that in perspective, total US expenditure on healthcare for 2020 was about $4 trillion—during a pandemic.

70% of these programmes will fail.

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Why? Well, generally organisations don’t change. People don’t like it and don’t see why they should.

They adopt a culture – a unique blend of practices , beliefs and customs – that takes a long time to form and an age to break down.

Think how hard is to is to make a significant change to your personal life: quitting smoking , losing weight , ending a relationship. Multiply that difficulty by the number of employees you have and the hundreds and thousands of inter-relationships.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, many of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any irritant antibodies. Add something new and it’s likely to get rejected.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to hack your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA and make it more receptive.

This isn’t easy and will be resisted. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions – a “hierarchy of no”.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

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As Tony Hsieh said – one of the biggest organisational barriers to change can be managers themselves. Hierarchies simply aren’t built to accommodate change. If change is going to happen, it often has to be project managed a year in advance.

We need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few.

It’s more than seeking inputs, though. If we are serious about hacking culture it means employees co-creating solutions with managers, not just feeding into meetings.

One of the mistakes ‘big change’ programmes often make is starting from the top. It’s almost impossible to innovate from the centre of the business. It’s easier to start at the outer edge and work your way in towards decision makers.

At Bromford Lab we’ve had to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges of the organisation.

It’s why Jeff DeGraff argues for the creation of a “20/80 rule” to innovation: “It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent,” he notes. Work your change from the outside in.

Keeping change locked up into a Lab or Hub type arrangement will only get you so far. You are going to need to infect emergent leaders if you want to bring about widespread change.

Leadership development programmes are a great way to make creativity part of everyone’s role. However they can often instill too much adherence to past organisational behaviour rather than a more disruptive future model.

Instead we need to develop more curiosity in our organisations. Socially curious employees are better than others at resolving conflicts with colleagues, more likely to receive social support, and more effective at building connections, trust, and commitment on their teams.

Giving people permission to be curious and to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of change.

There are big, bold ways to hack your culture – but there are lots of mini-hacks you can do that will make a huge difference. Most colleagues are annoyed with a limited number of things which breed mediocrity.

Our track record of introducing big change programmes is abysmal and yet your organisation is almost certainly about to embark on one right now.

The challenge is to think big about everything you want to change, but always to start small.

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

How (Not) To Change Someone’s Mind

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

~John Kenneth Galbraith

We live in a perpetual echo chamber. We follow the people we like and agree with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We read the news sites that have a similar worldview to ourselves. In the process, we trigger algorithms that curate our feeds, further reflecting our own views and biases back at us.

Consequently, our opinions aren’t being stress tested nearly as frequently as they should.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires. Our opinions are often based in emotion and group affiliation, not always facts.

I’ve recently finished reading Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by organisational psychologist Adam Grant. In a changing world, he says, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.

At the beginning of 2021 I committed to changing my mind on at least of couple of issues. So far I’ve changed my opinion on the benefits (or not) of lockdowns several times. I’ve shifted my position on climate change and also on universal basic income.

Most of us have a strong drive to hold on to pre-existing beliefs and convictions as it keeps us anchored. When your stance on controversial issues both cements your group identity and plants you in opposition to others, changing it can be a very difficult thing to do.

Like me you’ve probably seen a rise in the number of people in your social circles who are worrying about COVID vaccines. They probably aren’t anti-vaxxers, just a bit apprehensive or scared by the some of the negative stories circulating on social media.

Is it possible that the more the Government talks of the success of a vaccine programme, the more it pushes pro-vax messages or talks up ‘vaccine passports’ – that people become more entrenched in their views?

According to Adam Grant, almost definitely. In his book he outlines how from 2016 to 2018 measles spiked worldwide by 58%, with over 100,000 casualties despite a readily available vaccine.

In the U.S public officials have got tough on the problem with some warning that the unvaccinated can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to six months. Schools have shut their doors to unvaccinated children and one county even banned them from enclosed public places. And yet, the problem persisted.

Surely educating the parents – pointing out that fears about vaccines were unfounded – would work? Not so, in fact introducing people to the research on vaccine safety backfired. They ended up seeing vaccines as riskier. Similarly, when people read accounts of the dangers of measles saw pictures of children suffering from it, or learned of an infant who nearly died from it, their interest in vaccination didn’t rise at all.

Why we resist facts

Presenting people with facts doesn’t always change their mind. Sometimes they harden our views. In experiments, researchers have presented statements to two kinds of people – those who believe that climate change is real and those who are deniers. They found that for both groups, when the statement confirmed what they already thought, this strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views, they ignored it. This is because of a powerful phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker put it this way, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

The way to change people’s mind isn’t to present them with facts , or even to talk at them, it’s about listening to them. As Adam writes in his book “listening is a way of offering others our scarcest and most precious gift: attention.”

It’s through effective listening that the vaccine whisperers of Quebec did change people’s minds. Here, doctors are utilising a new approach to help sway these parents who are hesitant in getting their infants vaccinated. They are speaking to those who have “vaccine hesitancy.” The counselors go in depth with new parents by listening to their concerns and why they’re hesitant, as well as their fears. This isn’t about telling people what to do or think but to helping them find their own motivation to change. The counselors maintain an open conversation with the parents. They address all the parents’ concerns before there’s even a thought about making a vaccination appointment. New parents then have plenty of time to weigh up their options. This isn’t about coerciation or bullying, it’s more about exploring their hesitancy and giving them the motivation and space to make a decision. The right kind of listening encourages people to change.

People who are overweight , smoke or drink too much or do drugs know it’s bad for them. The last thing they need are facts, especially when they may have some alternative facts of their own.

Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe, and that’s why it’s so difficult to do.

All of us would benefit from changing our mind more often – but we are unlikely to do it if the end result is loneliness.

Being welcoming of other views, actually seeking out dissent and disagreement and having our ideas and thoughts challenged would lead to a happier and more productive world.

Why We Need To Learn To Unlearn

Why do we persist in presenting plans that offer the illusion of certainty but are bound to be disrupted?

Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limit success.

The Cycle of Unlearning isn’t a once-and-done event. It’s a system—a habitual, deliberate, and repeating practice of letting go and adapting to the situational reality of the present as we look to the future.

Barry O’Reilly

I’ve had a couple of conversations this week with people about forming internal plans or business pitches. One was with a company who are embarking on a ‘big transformation project’. (As an aside, why are transformation programmes always ‘big’? They are never discreet, small, focused or time-boxed. I reckon that’s part of the problem).

The plan on the face of it sounded great – a crystal clear plan of getting from A to B to C. Any board would lap it up and press go. Except we all know that life isn’t like that at all.

Things rarely, if ever, work out as planned.

So why do we persist in presenting plans that offer the illusion of certainty but are bound to get disrupted?

It reminds me of those Plans v Reality memes:

The first lesson to be drawn from 2020-21, and undoubtedly the biggest lesson, is that the future is entirely unpredictable, whatever your plan says. As Jason Fried has said – a plan is just a guess that you wrote down. “Financial plan? It’s a financial guess. Strategic planning? Call it with it really is: a strategic guess. 5 year plan? You mean 5 year guess.”

I imagine we present plans in a fail-safe way as fundamentally we are optimistic and we all want to believe the future is predictable, despite the evidence to the contrary. And of course we want people to think we are competent: why would someone buy-in to a plan that predicts we are going to mess up at some point?

But we will mess up. I’m working on a proposal with a group of colleagues at the moment that has a high failure probability, or at least a high probability that things won’t work out as expected. We’ve initially time boxed it to just six months and resisted any pressure to imagine what it looks like twelve months from now. Why? Because when you’re trying something new involving multiple moving parts, you’re better to get a start on something and begin learning rather than spending months trying to predict the unpredictable or try to avoid the unavoidable. If we all focused on becoming endlessly adaptable rather than pretending to be fortune tellers or soothsayers, we’d build much more resilient workplaces.

None of this answers the why. Why are executives and management teams hooked on receiving plans that offer up what is likely to be an overly optimistic , if not unreal, vision?

I think a lot of this is rooted in our obsession with heroic leadership and leaderism. We have a disconnect before us:

This can only be bridged by those in power challenging their mental models of the world, and allowing more people to try new things out without requiring them to produce cast iron guarantees of success.

As Neil Tamplin has written , in today’s world of work people want to be accountable for their own actions and our leaders can’t possibly know the fullness of every decision they make. In our increasingly uncertain operating environments, this model is setting ourselves up to fail because we choose to avoid vulnerability and uncertainty in favour of comfort. Empowering people throughout a company doesn’t mean abolishing leadership, but democratising it. Anyone can and should be able to lead

I’ve picked up a lot of useful insights from the work of Barry O’Reilly and his book, Unlearn.

Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limit success. To succeed in this rapidly changing world, we need a system to recognise when our existing behaviour is working (so we continue with it), and when it’s not (so we unlearn).

The design principles we try to follow as a business try to promote unlearning , abandoning , and ceaseless questioning. Just having principles doesn’t change behaviours, but it does at least create a visible template of what we are striving for.

Why We All Need To Learn To Unlearn

We often talk about losing organisational knowledge and skills in a purely negative sense. ‘There are too many people leaving the business, we are losing too much experience’. But 21st century business is not just about keeping existing information, knowledge and behaviours – it’s about unlearning the habits and beliefs that hold us back, and replacing them with habits and beliefs that help us to prepare for the future.

None of this is to say that we don’t need business plans , policy or forecasts, but that they should now be put together on the basis that we will fail at some point and we’ll need to adapt them again and again. Learning, unlearning and relearning as go.


What Face Masks Teach Us About Behaviour Change

Ultimately the innovation and change process begins and ends with one basic premise – listen first

How do new ideas and practices take hold? And why do some practices that require behaviour change get adopted more quickly than others?

COVID-19 has meant we have all had to embark on some very significant changes to our lives:

  • Queuing to get into supermarkets.
  • More regular handwashing.
  • Not hugging or shaking hands with people we know or love.
  • Wearing masks in public.

Some of these have been adopted easily whilst others are more problematic and have faced resistance. Understanding how and why some get adopted without question and others don’t is crucial if you’re involved in innovation or change management.

Many of the very best innovations in history took a long time to catch on. The train, the personal computer, the mobile phone – things that have truly changed the world but were not accepted immediately, and faced huge resistance from doubters.

Some of the behaviour change required by COVID-19 has been adopted more easily than others because they build upon clear pre-existing norms.

Queuing to get into a supermarket was easily adopted in the UK – because the British are particularly good at queuing. Even to the extent of being obsessive about other countries not being good at it. Queuing seems to have become an established social norm in the early 19th Century, a product of more urbanised, industrial societies which brought masses of people together. But it wasn’t until World War II and rationing that Britain’s reputation as civilised queuers was established.

Handwashing as you enter a shop or bar builds upon an established norm common in medical environments.

Like most norms though – handwashing in hospitals wasn’t adopted quickly. Although washing with soap and water has been considered a measure of personal hygiene for centuries the link between handwashing and the spread of disease was established only a couple of hundred years ago. The physician Ignaz Semmelweis advanced the idea of “hand hygiene” in medical settings by observing that when students and doctors washed their hands with an antiseptic solution before examining women during childbirth, infection and maternal death fell by 90%.

A discovery like that would spread like wildfire surely?

Not so – Semmelweis attempted to spread these hand hygiene practices, even confirming his findings in a different hospital. But he was largely ignored, even derided, and died at the age of 47 in an asylum.

Whatever your transformation roadmap says some of the best and most sustainable change takes decades, not months, to achieve.

Some health workers have struggled to adopt consistent approaches to hand washing even up to the last few years. One of the most effective ways adoption was boosted was simply by making hand dispensers much more prevalent and available. People will change their behaviour if the effort involved is minimal. Taking this from medical settings and applying it in pubs and restaurants is a significant leap forward but one that is understandable to the public at large.

As Chris Bolton has written, COVID-19 will have all sorts of long term effects on behaviour change, and some unintended consequences. Will ritualistic hand washing as we enter shops and other establishments continue long after the virus has gone? We won’t know for a long time.

With any change our resistance is usually not overt, just passive. With passive innovation resistance we don’t resist a product but rather the change that the innovation requires us to make. By making the right thing to do much easier we can boost adoption and spread the change.

Which brings us to face masking.

Why is facemasking so controversial that people will organise rallies against wearing them or feel so passionately about them that they will change their Twitter profile picture to include one? One of the reasons masking is divisive is that it doesn’t build on any established norm. In the West at least, it flies in the face of them.

Masked up in Phnom Penh 2015

Back in 2015 I was travelling in a Tuk Tuk across a traffic clogged city in Cambodia. The driver pulled over , ran into a roadside shop and promptly presented us with two masks, saying we’d have a better journey wearing one. It was a simple act of kindness, of great customer service , rather than an enforced change. Little did we know that five years later we’d be wearing them in Sainsbury’s.

In parts of the East, face masking builds upon a long standing tradition. For instance, in Japan the custom of facemask-wearing began in the early 20th century, during the Spanish Flu epidemic. A few years later, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, triggered an inferno that filled the air with smoke and ash for weeks, and air quality suffered for months afterward. A second global flu epidemic in 1934 cemented Japan’s love affair with the facemask, which then began to be worn with regularity during the winter months to prevent coughs and colds. Today masks are even worn by some young people as a fashion statement.

However as Jeff Yang writes, the predilection for face masks in public in Asia builds upon a tradition that goes much further back in time, into Taoism and the health precepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which breath and breathing are seen as a central element in good health. The 2002 SARS outbreak and the 2006 bird flu panic, have seen face masking increase exponentially and without controversy, because it builds upon deep cultural beliefs.

In the West, no such cultural beliefs exist. Covering parts of your face is viewed as a suspicious act and has links with anti social behaviour and criminality. Additionally the adoption of face masking has been further complicated by the lack of something all change needs to succeed: a good story behind it.

The story of masking is inconsistent: first we were told they were of no use, then we were told they were good. The application of the story is also confusing: in England they are mandatory in shops, but at the weekend I popped over the border into Wales where they are not and people are free to do as they wish.

Queuing to get into shops is a simple leap for us to make.

You can argue about actual evidence all day long but inconsistent application and poor storytelling are hugely damaging to the adoption of new practice.

Washing hands as you enter a building is asking a bit more from us – but we kind of get it.

Wearing masks is a completely alien concept and therefore resistance is guaranteed.

And that’s the lesson to take back into our organisations and communities when we want to make change:

  • Try to build on existing cultural norms where possible.
  • Make it something that the community can adapt to without much effort.
  • Be consistent with your story telling about why change is needed in the first place.

Change only sticks when we understand the modern information ecosystem and have trusted communications with colleagues and communities.

Ultimately the innovation and change process begins and ends with one basic premise – listen first.


Image by Uki Eiri from Pixabay

COVID Accelerates Everything: Including Change Fatigue

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

Just under half of managers believe their employees may be at a higher risk of ‘burnout’ due to changing work patterns. ‘Burning the Candle: Strategies to Combat Workplace Burnout’ found that 47% of managers fear their employees may suffer from ‘burnout’ due to the challenges COVID-19 has brought.

Despite 35% saying they have been more productive whilst remote working, 87% have felt more pressure to keep productivity levels high to prove the case to their employers to allow remote working to continue.

Separately, in a survey by Perkbox, more than half (58%) of employees said changes to the furlough scheme and future uncertainty over the world of work had negatively affected their mental health, leaving them with rising levels of stress and anxiety. 46% said they had felt disconnected from their team and business over the past month.  Only 15% had experienced no negative effects on their wellbeing in the past month.

Ouch.

Admittedly these are the early days where we are still pushing through the pain barrier – but it does seem that we are seeing the rise of a kind of e-presenteeism with the assumption that remote work means always available. Why is it that employees feel the need to prove their worth to employers by going above and beyond working hours?

For me there are a few factors at play here:

Managing Through Uncertainty

COVID-19 is a complex problem in a complex system and we haven’t done the best job of training middle managers about complexity and uncertainty. A lot of people are unsure about their future right now and one of the ways people deal with stress and uncertainty is to make themselves busy. Busy is the new status quo. Ask anyone how work is during COVID and I pretty much guarantee the reply will be “really busy”.

The problem is that busyness isn’t productive. And it makes everyone else busier.

Instead of fuelling a culture of busyness we need to encourage leaders to make sense of our complex situation by acknowledging the complexity, admitting we don’t have all the answers, and reflecting collectively.

Being A Digital Leader Has Never Been More Urgent

Five years ago I posed a series of questions for prospective digital leaders.

  • Do you actively listen and respond to what internal and external communities are saying?
  • Do you use digital technologies to source new ideas for your organisation or team?
  • Do you put opinions out there rather than press releases? Are you known for provoking debate?
  • Do people you’ve never met come to you for advice on the strength of your online presence?
  • Do people tell you they value the resources and information you share?

Arguably we have failed to prepare our leaders – which is why people are mistaking two hour Zoom meetings for collaboration. COVID has accelerated them into a future they were wholly unprepared for.

As Matt Ballantine writes “We urgently need to do something about how we meet. I have a hunch that most meetings were rubbish before lockdown, but that the side conversations and sense of being with others that happened alongside the business of the meeting made them valuable. Zoom and Teams has stripped most of that side benefit away, so we are just left with the useless meeting. We’ve lifted and shifted office working practice into digital tools, and it’s left us wanting.”

I like Zoom and Teams – but they are not digital transformation. If you think you’ve mastered digital leadership by being able to change your Teams background you’re sadly mistaken.

Understanding that digital leadership is now just leadership is an urgent requirement.

THE ONSET OF Chronic Change Fatigue

Many people had change fatigue before COVID, but post-pandemic we need to review how many things we can conceivably handle at any one time.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective.The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities. Doing less, not more, requires a cultural shift. It involves finding your ‘irreducible core’ of services and then constantly refining and innovating against it.

There’s a window of opportunity here for organisations to pause and reflect before they go full steam ahead with their existing strategies. Otherwise we risk returning to the old normal which most people want to get away from.

And let’s remember that some change is manufactured just to give people things to do rather than being strictly necessary. In the post-normal preserving the things you truly value is more radical than constant tinkering.

Nobody resists necessary change. So the final word has to go to Peter Vander Auwera:


Cover photo by Christian Englmeier on Unsplash

How To Resist Corporate Hoarding

Many companies are still using software built or purchased from a time when Blockbuster were fining us for late returned videos.

Most of the companies we admire for their innovation , your Amazons, your Netflixes or your Apples have no such legacy ways of working holding them back. They either cleared them out years ago or never had them in the first place.

It’s often difficult to have an ambitious organisational clear out – as standardisation and minimalism isn’t seen as very exciting, or innovative. It can be expensive too, just like renovating an old house, and you can understand why many put it off,  or choose not to bother.

Last week I was talking about this with David Anderton the Transformation and ICT Director at Bromford.

It was David who identified the requirement for the Bromford Design Principles as well as the need to have a clear out of what was a 50+ year old organisational infrastructure that was disconnected and messy.

The problems we were set up to solve were once relatively simple, but as organisations get larger there’s more technology, more people, more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures and these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

Unravelling this – at the same time as keeping business running as usual – is no easy task.

  • Some of us simply don’t like letting go of the working practices we have become used to.
  • Some of us don’t see the need for connectivity and interoperability beyond our own functional silo
  • Some of us become overly attached to the tools we use to do our jobs despite them being well past their sell by date (In the same way as I can’t get my Dad to move past a Nokia 3210 – “It still does the job, son”)

According to David there are five factors hindering effective transformation:

  • inertia
  • risk aversion
  • lack of investment in operating models
  • an overinflated sense of delivery excellence
  • too much celebration of mediocrity

Additionally many organisations have become afflicted by a kind of hoarding disorder. This disorder means the organisation acquires an excessive number of policies, systems and structures and stores them in a chaotic manner, resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter. This clutter isn’t just an aesthetic problem. In an era reliant on the instant transfer of information and data it hoards knowledge and makes it inaccessible rather than opening it up.

This is why the replacement of legacy systems is the modernisation headache, because it’s not an IT issue, it’s all about organisational behaviour.

One of the reasons people can be resistant to change is because – from their perspective – it doesn’t add any value. The case for a simpler operating model is often hard to see from a siloed perspective.

However, standardised and simplified operating models are the bedrock of innovation – as you can’t make a leap forward when you’re disorganised and disconnected.

And that’s what we’ve been trying to do.

  • A new operating model based on services
  • Designed from ground upwards
  • Focused on services required for strategy
  • Then build out a transformation journey with enabling technology

The problem is you can’t achieve this simplicity without a lot of hard work and some resistance.

The innovative companies we all admire have done this hard , boring , work years ago. Which is why they can experiment with AI and VR – they’ve built future ready platforms to which tech innovations can be seamlessly integrated.

Our old model organisations thrive on complexity. Many of the problems we set to solve are indeed complex, but that complexity doesn’t need to be mirrored internally.

Simplicity means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organization’s activities are misaligned from , or have poorly defined, strategic objectives. We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance – they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose.

This takes discipline though as it means killing vanity projects and saying no when something doesn’t fit into the plan.

02 (1)Doing more stuff gets people noticed and promoted.

Doing less stuff – but the right stuff is what we should now recognise and reward.

Consistency of operating model, clean data and standardization aren’t sexy.  But every one of the innovative organisations we admire has been through the pain of achieving that.

A future ready operating model eliminates corporate hoarding and replaces it with an agile framework that companies can adapt and morph on an ongoing basis,

They match the speed of today’s change and run with it, rather than constantly trying to catch up.


 

You can get the full set of the Bromford Design Principles here 

Cover photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

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.

People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes

I don’t buy into the idea that humans intrinsically hate change. I just think that by the time we’re in our 30s or 40s, lots of our experience of change – particularly in the workplace – has been more negative than positive. Instinctively rejecting it is a learned response – Tom Cheesewright

People , we hear, are tired of change. They have change fatigue.

We are sometimes told that people will resist our ‘change efforts’ or even need to be assessed for their ‘change readiness’. Change readiness, in case you’ve not had the pleasure, is the “ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Failing your change readiness assessment could be seriously career threatening. 

Despite this so-called change resistance all the evidence shows that people want change on a scale like never seen before , both in our wider society and the workplace.

What is to blame for this apparent ‘change paradox’?

My contention is that there are some similarities with how change – or rather the lack of meaningful change that make people’s lives better or easier – manifests itself in our communities and in our offices.

Simply put, people’s experience of the delivery of change is often far from what they have been promised.  This is put even more simply by Peter Vander Auwera – “people don’t resist change, they resist bullshit”.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

The birth of the management change movement dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

The philosophy proposed that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future and by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be easily realised.

However change is not just about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. None of us can predict the future and nobody can possibly know the butterfly effect when you begin to change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met. They simply cannot deliver on what was promised. So what’s the point of doing them?

We Need Trojan Mice, Not Trojan Horses

img_0591
Image courtesy of @whatsthepont

Chris Bolton has written an excellent series of posts (links in here) on the concept of Trojan Mice. Trojan Mice is a phrase Euan Semple used in his blog about ten ways to create knowledge ecology .  Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.”

For Trojan Mice think of small safe to fail tests and learning exercises rather than big change. Trojan Mice are small, well focused changes that address a problem but are introduced in an inconspicuous way. without the fanfare of transformation. They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned.

This is grassroots change rather than top down. And because the change is being made by people close to the problem they don’t resist it – they lead it. 

Many organisations don’t like this approach though because it is , by definition, unpredictable.  Trojan Mice will eventually deliver rewards; but you may not get what you were expecting.

I’d argue that big change never gives you what you were expecting anyway – so you may as well embrace a bit of uncertainty and release the mice. It’ll cost you a lot less money – that’s for sure.

Towards A Community For Change

Change does not always happen where, when or how we want. Organisations are just collections of people but we often forget that and make it more complicated than it needs to be.

I don’t know how change happens where you live but where I am people just connect with each other over shared interests and they try things out. There aren’t any spreadsheets that I know of.

The problem with employing lots of Change and Transformation people is that they often start changing and transforming lots of things that never asked or needed to be changed or transformed in the first place.

Grass-roots change presents senior managers with a paradox because it means directing an approach to change without insisting on or even approving specific solutions.

However , if we are to bridge the gap between the appetite for change and the experience of change delivery, we need fundamentally new approaches.

People hate change?

No, they don’t. They hate to get changed by other people.

Enabling A New World Of Public Service Delivery

The UK now finds itself in its lowest-ever position in the Global Trust Index, just one place off the bottom, with only Russia below it – Ed Williams President and CEO, EMEA

The results are in: Nobody trusts anyone anymore.

The 2020 update of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which aims to survey trust and credibility around the world, reveals that we are living in a ‘trust paradox’.  We have almost reached full employment with more people lifted out of poverty than ever before. And yet – globally –  no institution, be they government, business, non-profit or media— are trusted.

There’s also a lack of faith that the government can address our problems. Sixty six percent of respondents said they do not have confidence that “our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.”

Screenshot 2020-01-24 at 07.05.52

Institutions are variously described as remote, too slow. Too bureaucratic. Not agile enough.

However , there is hope.

75% of people want to see much greater collaboration from institutions, with each other and involving citizens. Indeed, across the board, collaboration is key to regaining trust. Partnering with other institutions to solve complex issues is one of the most important steps to regaining people’s trust.

Many more people place their trust in experts and local communities.  80% of respondents said they trust scientists, 69% said they trust “people in my local community” and 65% said they trust “citizens of my country.”

When nearly 70% of people trust others in their community and want to see greater collaboration from civic institutions, you have something positive to build from.

Yesterday I was in Cardiff with Wales Audit talking about the opportunities and challenges for accelerating innovation across the public and private sector.

These kind of debates about how organisations can move from the old world to the new are increasingly vital if we are to do anything about a trust deficit.

The excellent sketchnote in the header (thanks Chris Bolton! AKA @whatsthepont) nails the key behavioural shifts that organisations need to make to become ready for an era of equal partnerships rather than one based upon command and control.

  • A shift from targets and sanctions to supportive coaching
  • A shift from compliance and rules towards continual learning and improved outcomes
  • A move from hierarchy to partnerships through networks and collaborations
  • A move from broadcasting and controlling the message to conversations across trusted networks
  • And a seismic shift in transparency about failure – a move to a test and learn culture

As Chris said – we’d be naive to think this is going to happen overnight – and it’s a spectrum rather than a binary choice. Sometimes you DO need sanctions and you need a hierarchy.

That said, and as the Edleman report lays bare, incrementalism is no longer enough. People are looking for big bold change to deliver a discernible improvement in their lives.

More than ever people need to feel that organisations are competent and have the ability to fulfill their commitments. We need to believe they have the right motives, are benevolent, act fairly and honestly. We need to see they are transparent, that they are learning from mistakes and failure.

Enabling this new world of service delivery means shifting from ‘what matters to us’ towards ‘what matters to you’ . This requires quite a profound behaviour change from our organisations.

It means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality. It means doing less talking and more listening. It means stopping saying how great your organisation is. It means engaging rather than broadcasting. It means defaulting to transparency. It means partnering.

The first step to regaining trust is to believe in someone or something. Perhaps that’s a good place to start for many of our organisations.

  • Do people believe we are benevolent?
  • Do people believe we are even competent?
  • Do people believe we even understand the problem we were set up to fix?

Distrust will only be combatted through leaders being open and accountable and having public discourse with one another and with the people they collectively serve.

Concern about disinformation will only be combated by providing real evidence of the kind of outcomes we are achieving. It’s time to kill it with the awards for ourselves.

The real positive here is that people aren’t sick of change, they want change on a scale like never before.

Whether we are capable of delivering it, or whether we are even prepared to, remains to be seen.

Why We Don’t Collaborate

Everyone says they love collaboration.

Our open offices are designed to encourage collaboration.

We recruit for people who are collaborative in nature.

The digital tools we use are aimed at fostering greater collaboration.

We promote the benefits of collaboration , or even co-creation, with our customers and service users.

Collaboration has replaced innovation as the buzzword of the moment.

In truth though, our actual behaviors show we don’t like collaborating.

We often don’t have the time that is required to work through differing perspectives. We have difficulty in working with others who hold alternative opinions. And – let’s face it – many of us have a need to be right and get our own way.

Despite the collaboration rhetoric – most of us prefer existing and working in silos.

So why is that?

In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Despite all that though – the silo actually has a great deal going for it. Within a silo it is much easier to define and implement an initiative or outcome.

Basically, silo working means you can ‘Get Shit Done Quickly’. Without interference.

And almost all our organisational KPIs reward GSDQ activity rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

Additionally the exponential growth in the number of managers (There are five million managers in the UK today, 10 times as many as there were 100 years ago)  has boosted opportunities for silo thinking at the expense of collaboration.

And of course silos don’t just exist at organisational level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

Truth is – most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills.

It’s highly unlikely you were taught about collaborative problem solving at school. Many of us were educated to find answers through solitary work.

It wasn’t until just two years ago that it was even measured, with a report outlining the difference in the collaborative ability of pupils across 52 countries.

As the report notes, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, their individual achievements are certified. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators.

Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70

Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving.

Arguably more managers means less collaboration. And more male managers could make it worse still.

Rewiring Organisations For Collaboration

So we’ve established: collaboration isn’t easy, it takes a long time to do right and it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

At Bromford we’ve been redesigning the organisation to move away from silos and towards collaboration. Our previous desire for operational efficiency at all costs had adversely affected interoperability between teams.

The answer was to build a ‘shared consciousness’ through the creation of a network of 33 linked service area’s and teams.

A multidisciplinary ‘design team’ acts as a conduit for all change across these areas. This recognises that today innovation is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation, rather – it is an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge.

L+Q Bromford Lab (2)

I’ll be the first to say that working in this way is hugely challenging. I have a lot less autonomy than I did five years ago. If you’re into ego and power I’d suggest you’d find this an uncomfortable place to be.

Saying you’re a collaborative organisation isn’t true and helps no-one. True collaboration won’t happen unless you make it happen.

Creating an atmosphere where people can respectfully disagree, where all voices are heard and leaders bring out the best in everyone takes discipline and skill. 

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

We need less talk of it, and a lot more doing.

The Social Sector Must Rebuild Trust Through Equal Partnerships


This is a edited version of an article originally written for Inside Housing


There is a growing realisation that many of our social institutions and public services have run their course.

Communities need something different from what’s currently on offer.

We could be at the tipping point, the moment when future relationships between citizens and institutions become placed in a wholly different context.

There are a number of factors that seem to be converging. There’s the post-Grenfell concerns about safety and cost cutting, there’s the global decline of trust in institutions, and there’s an increasingly vocal public discourse emerging that highlights individual social sector service failures.

Combine all this with a perception that many social sector organisations have become untethered from their roots in the community, and you have the perfect storm.

Tipping points are not reached by just one factor alone, rather a series of connected incidents that suddenly bring about widespread change.

It’s necessary to note that this is not just a crisis limited to the one individual sector. The Civil Societies Futures report outlines how the world has changed, with people becoming more unequal, more disconnected from power and more divided.

The message here is clear: if we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and the essential foundation for everything we do.

Back in March I took part in a discussion hosted by Inside Housing with Lizzie Spring. There was a lot I took away from the conversation but it can be condensed into two main points.

Firstly, the language used by ‘professionals’ is damaging to relationships built on trust. What social media does very effectively is highlight where friction occurs. Nowhere is that friction more evident than when people in housing, health and social care cast themselves, often unintentionally, as professionals and experts to be listened to.

This behaviour can give off the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access (and exclusive language) to solve problems and design services on behalf of citizens. It implies a them and us, and reinforces an already unequal distribution of power.

Secondly, the core problem many organisations senior staff and Boards appear to struggle with is an entrenched inability to trust citizens. As Lizzie has said “I can’t consider trusting them, when my own intelligence, experience and expertise are discounted.”

We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities

Let’s not underestimate the extent of the change that the social sector must embark on to address this. To be trusted means being trustworthy – and to achieve that you can’t dodge the question about power.

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, there are important issues to discuss about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

If we don’t talk about power we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We risk encourage providers to seek comfortable solutions to things they should be doing anyway rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. These organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it.

There’s often no way for citizens to contribute or influence organisations other than ways set out by the organisation itself. When only one partner sets out the rules of engagement the game is set for a very unequal relationship.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate they see themselves as equal partners. Importantly that demonstration should only be through actions, not through a carefully coordinated communications campaign.  

There will be no silver bullet to these problems.

The answers may include exploring alternative models of management. They may include more radical models user involvement – perhaps using emergent technology to move to complete transparency, with people able to shape decisions at both local and strategic levels.

We are seeing change though. A conversation is beginning to happen on equal terms in shared spaces like social media. We need to take that conversation further into our communities and into our offices, not hidden away with one party excluded.

Traditional participation methods have failed us.

Involvement on the terms set out by the NHS, by social landlords, or even by Government, is no longer the only game in town.

 

Who Really Wins From Digital Transformation?

The birth of the change management movement began in the 1960s and 70s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which the consultants needed to pitch themselves to new clients.

It aimed to take advantage of a sort of corporate narcissism – hoping that senior executives and boards would swoon at the chance to ‘made over’ by slick looking outsiders.

They certainly did swoon, in fact they fell head over heels. As Jacob Dutton writes in a challenging piece – helping companies ‘do transformation’ is now very big business.

“The total size of the global transformation market is expected to grow from $445.4bn in 2017 to $2,279.4bn by 2025. The consulting component of a transformation programme alone is worth $44bn. As a result, the likes of PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY have all reacted and developed their transformation capabilities.”

The size of this market , and the riches on offer, arguably drive three key behaviours:

  • A focus on agile solutions rather than contemplative problem definition.
  • A subsequent focus on low hanging fruit – the easier problem to solve is often through tech, rather than the more complex wicked problems 
  • A focus on benefits realisation rather than value production – which often puts the emphasis squarely on efficiency.  Humans are expensive right?

Which then leads to:  The rush towards technological transformation – as if cheap tech is the only solution.

But what are we losing from our organisations, from our community, when we approach transformation as purely a means to be quicker, slicker and more convenient?

NI Housing - Paul Taylor (2)

We could be seeing the digitsiation of the most important thing your organisation has – the relationship with your customer.

As Gerry McGovern has written, looking at technology as cost minimization results in the hollowing out of organizations into technological shells, in which staff spend far more time interacting with numbers, code, and content than they do with their customers.

These avoidance tactics presume the customer is a cost on your time rather than an opportunity. In our own work we have learned that our customers and communities have many skills, often untapped and completely underutilized by us and others like us.

This change evangelism and the hollowing out of relationships can make us embark on the worst kind of technological solutionism – that risks ignoring the skills, assets and sheer talent that exists in our communities.

Starting With a Clean Slate

At Bromford we’ve done a lot of work on the standardisation of our processes and service offerings. It’s not sexy, but some of the most innovative companies operate very standard operating models. It allows them move exponentially quicker.

Focusing purely on the relationship your customer wants, and the simpler processes that support it,  helps resist the need to transform.

Jacob Dutton proposes that big companies abandon the idea of transformation programmes altogether and suggests some tips for kicking the habit. I agree and would also add:

  • Let’s have more reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Let’s devolve resources and influence to those closest to the problem rather than outsource them.
  • Let’s change little and often through small-scale experimentation.
  • Let’s not roll anything out until we have evidence that it actually works.

As Neil Tamplin has said perhaps our organisations need to be more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up?

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of best practice.

Who is really winning from transformation?

  • Is it the customer who now has a digital portal and a chatbot with a pre-determined series of options between them and the person they really need to deal with?
  • Is it the organisation who were promised a bright new future but find they have the same fundamental problems they always had?
  • Is it the employee who was told they shouldn’t resist change and that their job would be made easier, but found that their job would eliminated altogether?

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025.

Someone is winning and it’s not necessarily going to be you or your customer.

View at Medium.com

 

If We Want Different Relationships, The Doing Must Be New And Different Too

You can’t change a relationship without actually changing your behaviour. 

There’s a reason some of our public services feel remote, unaccountable and uninterested.

Many of our organisations are products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Fixing other people’s problems keeps you very busy. It creates vast organisational empires and complex group structures.

On the other hand actually believing in what people can do for themselves means being brave enough to admit that you won’t always be needed. It means stepping back.

There’s a familiar theme across the social sector: demand for services is rising rapidly and citizens want more of a say in what those services look and feel like.

Whilst there’s a lot of noise about the former, there’s generally little focus on the opportunity of people wanting more influence and even control of the services they receive.

Adam Lent writing about the NHS 10 Year Plan points out the fatal flaw in organisational thinking :

There’s a belief that we can solve our own problems through structural, process and technological fixes rather than realizing the starting point for change is the creation of a completely different relationship with the communities we serve.

This obsession with tinkering with structure, process and ‘digital transformation’ is fundamentally limiting – when instead we should be looking at a much more radical redesign of services.

Adam points out that’s no sense of the need for a different and potentially difficult conversation between services and citizens about communities taking on more responsibility.  Importantly “there’s no self-analysis of how a hierarchical, status-obsessed culture militates against relationships based on empowerment and collaboration”.

This theme is picked up by Tony Stacey in Inside Housing. “Why isn’t the sector squirming right now?” he asks. Faced with serious charges about remoteness and a lack of trust the professional response seems to be: we’ll publish a new charter and make some tweaks to our code of governance.

As Tony says – this on its own is not going to rebuild trust in the way we need.

We explored this in a recent Bromford Lab workshop where people spoke of a more fundamental shift being required:

  • Democratising organisational strategy; enabling communities to have their say on how money should be spent.
  • Starting to talk in terms of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘engagement’.
  • Being openly competent and building trust through relationship building and positive action, not marketing and spin.
  • Visibly doing something with the feedback we get
  • Doing what we say we will do and being open and honest when we get it wrong.
  • Challenging how sectors work ‘as one’, and protect their own image.

Serious stuff. Which speaks more of a need of actually ceding power than it does of tinkering with policy.

Leading by Stepping Back 

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust and collaboration.

At Bromford we are trying to reshape our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

circles of support

We recently agreed a set of principles that underpin this kind of relationship and I think they are useful in outlining the shift organisations may need to make.

It requires a change in beliefs:

  • A belief in an adult-adult relationships. We invite feedback and challenge. We are comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • A belief in the strengths and abilities of others.
  • Doing more listening than talking – asking the right questions and letting people think through their options rather than advising them.
  • We don’t judge other people’s choices.
  • We start with the individual and take an asset based approach to coaching which is personal to them
  • We don’t see people as needing to be fixed and we don’t collect problems.

Importantly this means we will always look to how existing strengths in the community can be built upon rather than providing services. We should never provide or support services that replace, control or overwhelm the skills within community.

When people opine that the ‘system is broken’, it’s a red flag that organisations have stepped too far forward. That they are becoming omnipresent in peoples lives.

Perhaps the answer lies in rebuilding organisations around communities, with a modern sense of trust and compassion.

You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different.

Avoiding The Yo-Yo Effect of ‘Corporate Change Convulsions’

Speeches you never hear at a corporate conference: “….. Our Transformation Programme is going to be small and imperfect. We are going to do many small things that probably won’t work straight away.’ – Chris Bolton

In the early 1960s, a New York housewife named Jean Nidetch began a weekly meeting with friends at her home to talk about their issues with dieting. She was a ‘cookie addict’ who had struggled for years to lose weight through a succession of fad diets.

Her weekly meetings helped her lose nearly 10kg in a year. So successful was her personal transformation that she turned the gatherings into a programme and ultimately a company – called Weight Watchers.

This began the commercialisation of dieting, creating a worldwide industry expected to be worth 245 billion dollars by 2022

The idea behind most of those diets is straightforward and obvious: eat fewer calories and you will lose weight.

But that’s not what actually happened: instead the diet trend coincided with mass weight gain and the beginnings of the obesity epidemic.

According to research, most dieters will regain almost all of what they lose – which is why the typical dieter tries a new bright and shiny personal transformation plan four times a year.

Change fails, try a new approach, spend more money.

A few weeks ago I wrote The Big Problem With Change Programmes – my most popular post for a year. It drew a lot of responses and messages. Here’s a selection:

“There’s a sense of complete deja vu – we’ve been here before and because the last one didn’t work it’s hard for even the most positive of us to be excited.”

“Change programmes are an industrialized construct and, as such, they are rarely culturally insightful because they often fail to get under the skin of the deep issues around how a group of people adapts and changes.”

” Our organisation are doing ‘change theatre’ – spending a lot of money on consultants helping us address things that will change the organisation as little as possible. The big complex issues are being ignored.”

The common theme – hired help brought in every few years to sort things out – is well illustrated by Ian Watt who describes regular ‘corporate convulsions’ that fail to transform anything – as predictably as a January diet.

Does Big Consultancy Really Work?

One of the reasons it’s hard to evaluate the relative success of change programmes is very few organisations share what actually happened, how much they spent, and almost none share which ones failed.

Similarly, the use of big consultancy is shrouded in mystery.

According to the main industry body in the UK, the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), for every £1 spent on consulting fees, you can expect £6 in return.

However, a new study by Ian KirkpatrickAndrew Sturdy and Gianluca Veronesi challenges that view.

What if consultancy is actually making you more inefficient?

The study – across 120 NHS trusts – showed that management consulting didn’t make the organisations more efficient – it had precisely the opposite effect.

NHS yearly expenditure on management consultants almost doubled from £313 million in 2010 to £640 million in 2014.

The study shows that in some cases spending on management consultants did improve efficiency, but overall consulting use generated inefficiency, thus making the financial situation of clients worse.

Although the inefficiencies were relatively small it doesn’t take into account the amount of money paid to consultants and – perhaps more importantly – the huge amounts of time and resource involved.

It notes that NHS organisations have been either unable or unwilling to engage in the formal evaluation of management consulting, resulting in an absence of ‘rigorous, peer reviewable, transparent data’.

The study also highlights the active role of management consultants in pushing services when there is no need for them. Change for the sake of change.

Perhaps – as Chris Bolton has written – we should instead be seeking minimum viable transformation, and change should be small and imperfect:

“Most Transformation Programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.”

These corporate convulsions are little more than crash diets, where the weight is almost certainly going to pile back on.

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At Bromford as part of our programmeOne approach, we’ve taken time to look at the case for change, redesigning all 31 service areas and mixing larger-scale transformation with small-scale experimentation.

Part of that included a lot of time spent looking at why previous attempts hadn’t worked and getting deeper into problem definition. As David Anderton has said that means convincing your organisation that you’re not that special, and not creating bespoke solutions for problems that don’t exist. We only need change where it makes a tangible difference to customers.

Amazon, so we are told, have never had a change programme.

Just as a permanent lifestyle change is a flexible, ongoing process that involves body, mind and spirit — so changing an organisation is a journey without end and not a fixed point ‘transformation’.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

People don’t resist change, they resist bullshit – Peter Vander Auwera

A friend of mine told me last week that their organisation was about to begin its third change management programme in just seven years.

Each of the two preceding programmes had a number of things in common:

  • People were unclear why a programme was needed in the first place.
  • They had – seemingly – never been evaluated. Neither demonstrated what had been achieved or learned.
  • They had all been accompanied by processes, tools and practices that had long since been abandoned.

“The only thing that really stuck,” he said ” were the buzzwords”.

In his book Business Bullshit, Andre Spicer looks at how organisations have become vast machines for manufacturing, distributing and consuming bullshit. He takes us back to the birth of the management change movement – the 1960s and 1970s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’ and ‘being their best self’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which was needed to pitch themselves to clients.

Quite coincidentally the book I read before this was Selfie by Will Storr, about our culture of personal narcissism and self-obsession.

Events in both books intersect at the Esalen Institute, in California, where people get in touch with their hidden selves through group therapy and sensitivity training. Esalen gave birth to the dubious Human Potential Movement (simply believe in yourself more and you too can be Beyonce, fail and you simply didn’t want it enough.)

I’d never before made this connection between the personal self-improvement movement and the world of corporate change.

Both philosophies propose that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future. And by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be realised.

Arguably, our obsession with business change is as much a symptom of modern narcissism as is the fact we take 1 million selfies each day.

Your change vision, like that perfectly framed Instagram pose,  is bullshit – and everybody knows it.

Do You Really Need Another Change Programme?

Change is not about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. Nobody can possibly know what will happen when you change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

Spicer maintains that today bureaucracy comes cloaked in the language of change with our organisations full of people whose job is to create change for no real reason.

Change, both personal and corporate, simply isn’t always needed.

Knowing the problems you need to fix and the ones you don’t is a key advantage.

Crucially, the evidence base for change is often suspect. In his book Will Storr argues that the origins of the whole self-improvement industry were founded on very shaky evidence from the start – with scientists’ less than enthusiastic findings being airbrushed from a final report.

Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties.

How To Avoid Corporate Narcissism

Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed.  That our organisations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.

Perhaps we need:

  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing little and fast through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until we have evidence that it works.

And that’s led me to consider the failure rate of change programmes and the impossibly high goals that organisations set.

The weight loss industry is booming – and so is obesity.

The change industry is booming – and productivity is tanking.

  • Maybe your organisation is unique because of its flaws.
  • Maybe you don’t need to follow a consultant led template of what great looks like.

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of perfection.

It means recognising you’ll always be flawed – and there’s a beauty in that.

I’m never going to be Elon Musk. Your organisation is never going to be Apple.

Maybe you’re meant to be that way.

Change, Transformation and Complex Problems: My Top 5 Posts of 2017

One of my 2017 resolutions was to blog more consistently.  The glory days in terms of the readership and reach of this site peaked in 2014 before a decline in 15/16.

The problem was lack of discipline. My blogging lesson learnt is you must set aside time to write and not be distracted by everything else that’s happening around you. You should treat a deadline for writing with as much respect as a deadline for delivery of a work project.

So I’m pretty pleased that this has been the most successful year in terms of views and interaction.

The most popular posts have been around change and transformation and it seems from comments that a lot of people are struggling with the same things.

  • Is digital transformation really delivering on its hype?
  • Why is change as slow as ever in an age of unprecedented technological promise?
  • Can small and agile change ever hope to challenge the dominance of big consulting?
  • Are we really solving the complex problems or even the right ones?

I published forty posts here this year. Here’s the top 5 in reverse order with the link to the original post:

5 – Know Your Customers, Just Never Ask Them What They Want.

Despite no evidence of any real impact, each year millions of pounds are spent across the social sector on market research, focus groups and user involvement. Well-intentioned paternalism or a cynical tick box exercise? The post got quite a bit of criticism on Twitter, so much so I had to write a follow-up post.

4 – The Rules Of Digital Transformation

Digital transformation: the response to being technologically left behind by the wider world – a great quote from Neil TamplinYouthquake may or may not be the word of the year – but I’m calling transformation out as the most overused and inappropriate.

For all the digital hype can we please remember one thing: strategy, not technology, drives transformation.

3 – Three Simple Ideas To Stop Change Failing

Maybe it’s time to rethink our love affair with change. This post considered devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem and changing slowly through small-scale experimentation rather than ‘big no-change’ programmes.

2 – Why We Solve The Wrong Problems

A big theme for this year and every year:

  • What is the critical problem we are trying to solve?
  • Where do we spend most of our time: responding to specific problems or on resolving underlying causes and finding new ways to improve?
  • Do we ever really learn from problems or are we continually fixing the same problems over and over again?

1 – Digital Transformation Is Failing. Why?

By far and away the most popular post this year – reflecting a common concern.  If we are seeing a failure to realise the transformative potential of digital then why are we so hooked on it?  And what will we do differently next year?


Thanks to everyone who has inspired, read and shared my posts this year. I’m especially grateful to those who have continued the conversation and debate both online or face to face.

I wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and a peaceful and rewarding 2018.

Why Transformation Fails – And How To Avoid It

The concept that 70% of change and transformation programmes fail emerged in the mid 1990’s. There’s actually little evidence that this is true.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success looks like – and that most people have a bad experience of them.

My contention is that programmes fail for three reasons:

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It

When was the last time you heard an organisation openly talking about what didn’t work? The problem we face is that large scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

The irony is that this silence is the root cause of failure – as we become eternally doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (2)

Most organisations exist in a fixed state of transformation – time-limited programmes of change (usually 3-5 years) rather than a flow state. 

Amazon, we hear, have never had a transformation programme. That’s because they exist in a flow state – where the culture is accepting that change is perpetual rather than something that – if we just grin and bear it – will be over in a few years.

The danger with a fixed state is that the driver becomes a business plan focused on implementation not experimentation. 

Accordingly we end up with optimisation not transformation.  Or, as Emma McGowan has said, we end up digitising the status quo.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

Too often we focus on transforming parts of organisations rather than looking at whole system change. This results in the creation of more efficient silos rather than anything fundamentally different.

There are cultural reasons for this. We have a western bias towards individualism rather than looking at the whole picture. Rice farmers in South-East Asia tend to be more collaborative and cooperative as a successful crop requires a holistic approach to nature and irrigation systems rather than just a focus on the self.

Most change programmes do not look at interconnected systems – they narrowly focus on efficiency.

Accordingly , as Andy Reeve said, transformation gets a bad reputation as it often becomes equated with fewer jobs rather than creating a different world.

The End of Change Management

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change. People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

We need to get back to basics;

  • We need a clear vision of why we need to change and what benefit it will bring. If you step behind the rhetoric of transformation you’ll see it is usually about reinforcing existing business models rather than truly challenging them.
  • We need influence devolved to people closest to the change. Change is best served when we devolve power, and institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.
  • We need change through small experimentation. We shouldn’t initiate change without a clear problem statement and some evidence that any proposed solution would result in a net positive outcome.

And we need a new honesty about what’s not worked well. Chris Bolton has suggested a Museum of Failed Products for public services.

Perhaps we need a Museum of Failed Change Programmes too?

Surely the best way we can avoid repeating our mistakes is to put our previous ‘failed attempts’ on show for everyone to see.


This is an edited version of a talk that was originally given at #HQNFlight on 11th October 2017

How To Find And Nurture Digital Readiness

When someone in public service says, ‘I don’t use social media. No one wants to know what I had for breakfast!’ I hear, ‘I don’t have the vaguest interest in understanding how an increasing number of citizens get information or choose to interact.’  – Leah Lockhart

What are we doing about boosting the Digital IQ of our organisations?

As we continue to transform and tilt ever further towards automation, it’s time to question the amount of support we are giving our colleagues.

The latest report from PWC says that confidence in our digital abilities is at an all time low.

pwc-digital-iq-moving-target

In a global survey of Executives 52% rated their digital IQ as strong. Down from 66% just three years ago.

Our people , it seems, simply can’t keep up with the advances in technology.  So what are we doing wrong?

First of all the scope of “digital” has changed. It used to mean our IT capabilities, then extended to take in social media awareness. Now it’s much more pervasive, touching on strategy, culture, customer and colleague experience.

Employing people with the right digital skills is now non-negotiable.

Yet some organisations are adopting a wait and see tactic:  let the old guard retire and be usurped by a new breed of younger digital natives.

Except that won’t happen.

‘Born digital’ millennials are a figment of our collective imagination. A review paper has concluded that “information-savvy digital natives do not exist.”

Instead we need to focus on seeking out what Pew Research call ‘digital readiness’.

This exhibits itself in two ways:

Digital skills: the skills necessary to adapt to new technology, browse the internet and share content online.

Trust:  people’s beliefs about their capacity to determine the trustworthiness of digital resources and to safeguard personal information.

These two factors express themselves in the third dimension of digital readiness, namely use – the degree and aptitude to which people use digital tools in the course of carrying out their day to day work.

Being digitally ready doesn’t mean having a CEO on Twitter or chasing the latest apps. It means knowing what your personal goals are and what tools to use to achieve them. It means creating new networks and sharing knowledge to benefit your team or organisation.

In the Pew research, only 50% of people describe themselves as very digitally confident. Therefore it follows we all have people in our organisations , from Executives to the frontline, that are falling behind.

Perhaps we need to identify the digital laggards and connect them with the leaders who are often hiding in full view from the organisation. They are often overlooked by traditional Leadership Development programmes which tend to perpetuate a hierarchical model of ‘identifying future leaders’.

In my experience the most digitally ready often operate in ways that are wholly inconsistent with the current operating structure. They take a more radical approach to decision-making, and they don’t recognise a command-and-control model.

We haven’t really discussed the implications of this for our leadership. The new potential of artificial intelligence and robotics poses major new challenges for organisational development.

Really we need a new set of questions:

  • What are the implications of new technologies for leadership at all levels?
  • How will these changes disrupt and impact the business model?
  • What knowledge and skills should be our priority?
  • What do we hold on to from our past? What do we discard?

Just like knowledge has been democratised through social media, leadership will become democratised and ever more flattened. Making the transition from the individualist nature of leadership to a more collective focus won’t be easy.

It requires moving away from thinking that tools and systems can transform us.

It requires moving away from seeing ‘Digital Leadership’ as the preserve of an elite few who we all follow.

Unless we all feel that our Digital IQs are improving – that we are ready for the challenges of an increasingly automated future – we may find we have no place in it.

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