Three Simple Ideas To Stop Change Failing

“The essence of transformation isn’t incremental. Transformation means ‘radical change’. And few companies truly countenance that because it’s, well…too radical.” – Anne McCrossan

Maybe we are being too ambitious.

Perhaps the hype of business change is becoming all consuming, leading us to aim for things our leadership can’t possibly deliver.

In my last couple of posts I explored the current failings of digital transformation and the rise of complexity – two things that are to my mind inextricably linked. The former was my most popular post for over a year and brought with it some great comments and follow up conversations.

What we really need to address is summed up by Anne McCrossan in her comment.

We have a skills deficit.

Transformation means acquiring new skills, new capabilities around data management, processes that support rapid, iterative design and collaborating more openly.

That’s just not happening.

The Myth Of The Complete Leader

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As Chris Bolton said –  it’s tempting to link the rise of overly complicated systems and processes to the creation of the MBA and a proliferation of Management Consultants. The inexplicable rise of leadership fads correlates with a sharp decline in productivity and a general disengagement with work.

Perhaps the actual practice of change is being complicated by a profusion of tools and ideas about strategy and management. 

What if we’ve got it wrong?  What if the management practices we hold onto – the leadership development courses we exalt – the behaviours we seek at recruitment – are not fit for purpose?

What if there’s another way?

Three Not-So-Radical Ideas

1 – Let the People Closest to the Problem Lead Change

Perhaps change would be better served if leaders and consultants stepped out of the way. After all – when you hire a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

As Stowe Boyd writes – change is often about transfusion rather than true transformation. A small set of not-particularly-revolutionary ideas transfused into the existing system, based on the implicit strategy of changing the business as little as possible.

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The people least invested in change (but with the most to gain by it) also have the biggest impact upon it. McKinsey report only a 3% success rate of transformations that fail to engage line managers or frontline employees.

If their role is that mission critical maybe they should have a commanding , rather than supporting, role in the design and implementation of change itself. Perhaps they would be braver.

Designing a form of governance to devolve responsibility to ensure executives and managers are unable to engage directly in these initiatives sounds radical. However – it is in effect no different to the strengths based thinking emerging in community practice.

Basically – change is best served when we devolve power, and the institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.

2 – Sweat The Small Stuff

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change and moved towards marginal gains. According to Steve Sewell  – most change programmes concentrate on modelling, planning or design work that takes months if not years.  People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

Staying below the executive radar and letting the small changes flourish through iterative design and testing sounds like rebellious behaviour but there’s much sense here.

The evaluation of the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab recognises this importance of looking for cheap and small ways to test ideas and concepts, breaking larger change down into small chunks.

3 – Rethink the Love Affair with Change

Perhaps it’s time to escape the idea of organisational transformation once and for all.

Zachary First points out the tremendous, if largely invisible, cost to chasing management fads. Instead of the constant call to keep pace in times of rapid change we might be better placed thinking how we can avoid the need for customers or colleagues to face yet another choice.

Our change programmes rarely answer the question “Why are we changing?” in a truly coherent way.

This – combined with our cultural bias for execution over problem definition – is why change often fails. We may solve a problem – just not the right one.

Really – none of this is that radical at all.

  • Recognising that a digital age requires new mindsets alongside skill-sets.
  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing slowly through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until you have evidence that it works.

That sounds incredibly simple.

And maybe it is.

What Uber, Comms Hero and HouseParty tell us about the future of the conference…

(A version of this post originally appeared on 24Dash – go visit them as they’re great!)

Marco Rubio Speech On Innovation At Uber's DC Offices

2pm 11th June: London grinds to a halt.

Cab drivers have downed tools for an hour.

Uber, a smartphone app that offers an easy and cheap taxi booking service, has rolled into the UK. Our taxi drivers, required to do training of between 4-7 years, are understandably outraged at this tech startup rocking up and suggesting services can be delivered in affordable ways that are more tailored to the customer.

The howls of anguish from the striking drivers were heard all across Europe. But far from highlighting the cause of taxi drivers it served only to promote Uber itself- which saw an 850% increase in subscriptions.

The hackney carriage – a tradition dating back to 1654 – faces potential disruption.

Plenty of howls of anguish in Manchester too this week as the annual housing conference rolled into town. This year though the conference had an Uber-like startup to contend with.

HouseParty – an unofficial fringe – had parked its (mini)bus just over the road.

Much like Comms Hero, it would be easy to dismiss HouseParty as a bit of inconsequential fluff. A bunch of malcontents fiddling around with social media and shiny tech whilst Rome burns.

But both formats deserve closer scrutiny. Both have super smart business brains behind them in Asif Choudry and Matt Leach. Both have got the sheer balls to deliver something different in a market starved of original thought. And both show an implicit understanding of their customers.

Comms Hero was developed after speaking to Comms people and asking them what they would design if they could create their ideal event.

HouseParty has evolved through social media connections and captured the imagination of people who would never have thought of attending a housing conference. Additionally it’s been co-designed by Esther Foreman a social entrepreneur who also happens to be – guess what? – a real life housing association tenant.

And they are new and achingly cool. Whereas the annual CIH conference has roots in a tradition starting back in 1931. On that basis it’s unfair to compare and contrast the three. But anyone who has attended them, or followed their social media feeds, will do so.

Let me be clear. This isn’t an attack on the CIH, an organisation I have huge respect for and who employ some inspirational people. Neither is it a ringing endorsement of Comms Hero or HouseParty – concepts that are taking their first awkward baby steps into the world.

But the fact is the annual conference , and public sector conferences like it , have to change.

You can’t blame the CIH. The public gets what the public wants. And, if we’re honest, the UK housing public wants an annual sideshow to the real business of getting together and having a chinwag and a few beers.

The conference this year certainly had a unified message: We need more social housing and we need more money. We need more of the same. Impassioned stuff and I, optimistically, hope it’s heard.

But at £525 for a one day non-member ticket you’d expect passion at the very least.

How attractive would this be to people in the top 5 of the digital Power Players list. People like Anne McCrossan, John Popham or Helen Reynolds? Sole traders who could help the sector be much better than it currently is.

How attractive would this be to a tenant?

Comms Hero has undercut its rivals by a good £100. HouseParty offered an innovative ‘pay what you can afford’ option.

Much like ‘affordable’ rents, our conferences need to consider their purpose, pricing and accessibility.

Thom Bartley has made the brilliant point that it’s now cheaper to fly to Amsterdam to see a 3D printed house than to pay to go to a housing conference and hear someone talk about it. We all know that housing has to revisit its purpose but that also involves a restatement of its values.

This is less an issue for the CIH than it is for the sector itself.

In reality neither Comms Hero nor House Party are competitors to traditional conferences – they offer something different. But just like Uber,  Spotify and Netflix they are bringing the question of customer value into the spotlight.

The annual conference, just like black cabs, will be around for a good while yet. But if nothing else the new kids on the block have made us consider “would we do it this way if we started again?”

And that’s always a pretty good question to ask.

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