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

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?

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 Can We Move Towards A Better Normal?

We are living through an era of intense turbulence and disillusionment. Even before COVID-19 we were faced with circumstances which the scholar and critic Ziauddin Sardar has described as uncertain, rapidly changing and chaotic.  

He describes this as a period where the old orthodoxies are dying, but new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. In a word, the postnormal.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual. And if there’s one thing we can be certain of at the moment – it’s that the last thing anyone truly wants or needs is business as usual.

We have seen some great examples of innovation and collaborative working across the social sector.  Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard though. The Bank of England has forecast that the coronavirus crisis will push the UK economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. You can add to that a rapidly ageing population, the increasing automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. Even one of those trends would hit our communities hard, add them together and the picture can look decidedly apocalyptic. Perhaps hangovers are a daily part of the new normal. 

So, how many of our companies are looking at investing more in community driven innovation than they were pre-COVID? I’m betting: not many. 

There cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs right now. Offices stand empty, projects and programmes have been derailed and the medium term outlook is problematic at best.  Any investment deemed high risk and low return will be the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. 

We have to accept that we will all have to contend with increasingly limited resources – but conducted in the right way innovation can thrive under such constraints. 

The challenges emerging from, or accelerated by, COVID-19 require innovation on a scale never seen before across the social sector. This demands that we overcome organisational and sector boundaries and join forces. 

The big challenge for the social sector will be putting aside any organisational ego and working in new partnerships. We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources, linking expertise in areas where one can compliment another. We need to be bold enough to admit that many of our organisations no longer need to exist.

In reality this requires a significant behaviour change – we need to move away from gathering personal career plaudits or seeking awards. The nature of the challenges we face – let’s use climate change by way of example – are not problems that can be solved by individual organisations. They require innovation at scale by hundreds of partners if we are even to make a dent in the problem. 

There’s a window of opportunity here that may last for as long as two years. COVID – 19 has temporarily removed many of the normal barriers to innovation, and sped up regulatory approval, access to funding, and internal decision-making.

So now is the time to accelerate much tighter collaborations between companies, communities, think tanks and start-ups.  Many of these startups are already bringing ideas and solutions to the table and are unhindered by legacy business models or thinking. 

Research has shown that strong innovators are more likely to embrace ideas from external sources and partnerships. Yet only a few companies have built a mature open-innovation competency. There are many reasons for this, ranging from a fear of sharing intellectual property, to perceived regulatory hurdles such as data privacy, to an outright disbelief that external collaboration is needed.

Orthodoxies are widely held and unchallenged assumptions that often start as truths at a certain point in time but aren’t revisited or challenged as realities change. COVID-19 has changed our reality and normal no longer applies.

What we’ve thought of as normal was never natural. Normal was the problem in the first place – and we now have an opportunity to fix it.


Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

A version of this post was originally published in Inside Housing

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

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

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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.

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.

What Digital Transformation Is Not About

#WAODigital18
I’m hearing a lot about testing multiple small things and spreading what works – rather than investing in single Big Bang solutions. The world is moving too fast…

— Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont) June 14, 2018

“How ambitious can organisations be in using digital technology?” was the theme of two recent events I contributed to for the Wales Audit Office Good Practice Team. 

It served as both a reminder of the issues our organisations are grappling with – as well as unearthing some opportunities we are yet to exploit.

Here’s a round-up of my post-match thoughts:

Success in digital transformation depends on mindset, not technology

The problem is that digital change requires a completely different mindset, not just skill-set. The consumerisation of IT means we are forever playing catch-up.  Employees are using popular tech and devices at home and then introducing them in the workplace, whilst customers are using better tech than most of our organisations can hope to provide.

Redesigning our services around this is cultural rather than technological. It means we need to adopt very different organisational behaviours.

Stop talking, start experimenting

Organisations are still over-thinking digital and being cautious – waiting for the landscape to settle before they decide what they do. Arguably this ‘wait and see’ option is more ‘wait and die’.

When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these low-cost practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions are correct and what they mean for your business.

A focus on cost-cutting is a danger in transformation plans

Focusing everything on cost savings is outdated and will ultimately have longer-term implications for business in the digital era. There’s a huge opportunity for companies to broaden the lens and widen their ambition:

  • Rebuilding organisation’s as a platform – enabling people to select the suppliers and services they themselves want
  • Rewiring your organisation for the network era – stripping out hierarchy and management and making a transition to decentralised decision making
  • Automating everything that can be automated. But not before stripping out legacy protocols and systems.  Decommissioning old world services as you launch new ones, reserving your people for worthwhile jobs that add value to their lives and those of others.

In reality, many of us are delivering the same services as we did in 1970,  just with shiny websites and ‘customer portals’. That’s not transformation, that’s stagnation.

Technology cannot solve your organisation’s deep problems

If someone gives you the digital sales pitch as a golden bullet for systems that are fundamentally broken my advice is, don’t believe themShirley Ayres

The problem I have with digital cheerleading is two-fold:

  • The implication that all our problems are easily ‘solvable’ 
  • The subsequent rush towards technology – as if digital is the only solution.

The evidence that technology makes us more productive is weak at best. There’s an ever-increasing gap between technological sophistication and work actually being performed.

This is because we are simply taking existing ways of working and digitising them – effectively just transferring today’s problems to another platform.

‘Digital transformation’ is rarely about digital, or transformation.

It’s actually about the processes by which you change your business model or approach. Some of which will have digital elements.

We need to talk about leadership in a digital age

Digital illiteracy will get you fired long before a robot does. Digital is now not just part of the economy — it is the economy. Rather than it being the responsibility of an elite few surely anyone in a publicly funded role must be digitally literate?

Perhaps leadership in the digital age is less a set of skills and more a set of behaviours.

The challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model disconnected from citizens living digital lifestyles.

What is digital transformation anyway?

If your transformation doesn’t significantly change the customer experience of interacting with you, then it is not a transformation.

Indeed, the first rule of digital transformation is not to talk about digital transformation.

As Tony Colon writes – most employees wouldn’t be confident and nearly a third would be “extremely uncomfortable” in explaining what this concept actually is:

Let’s think about that for a second. The concept that businesses are betting on is something that the general population just doesn’t understand – even though they need to play a part in that transformation at work – and the entire premise of digital transformation relies on people.

Making the opportunities of digital real for people is becoming one of the most pressing priorities for our organisations.

Our biggest challenges are dealing with people’s belief systems, addiction to legacy processes and cognitive biases.

Digital transformation is not a ‘thing’.

It’s a race you can’t win with no end destination.

 


Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

 

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.

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

We Need To Stop Talking About Change Or Get Comfortable With Failure

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging environment.

70% of these programmes will fail.

Or will they?

The concept of the 70% failure rate seems to have emerged in the mid 1990’s most notably through the work of John Kotter and McKinsey and Company.

Except there’s no evidence at all that this is true.

David Wilkinson has presented an entertaining dissection of the myth that concludes that many sources are personal observations, estimates, or smoke and mirror survey results. Not serious research.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success, and indeed failure, actually looks like.

Also – 70% feels about right, which is why it gets traction. Change gets a bad rap.

Many people who’ve been involved in change initiatives self report poor experiences. However colleague feedback is inherently unreliable as we all respond in a way that makes us look as good as possible.

Perhaps we are looking at it the wrong way around.

Maybe our organisations are setting themselves up to fail by the way we talk about change. 

Nick Tasler has written that we don’t do ourselves any favours. When we say “change is hard” people equate “hard” with “failure”.

Change = hard, quickly becomes change = failure.

That’s compounded by the fact that while us as individuals are pretty comfortable talking about failure , organisations certainly aren’t. Nearly everything is successful.

So we need to stop saying change is hard, but we also need to stop saying change is exciting.

It isn’t.

Most of us are up for change – except when it affects us personally.

Who-wants-change-Who-wants-to-change

Change evangelists , just like those who cheerlead for innovation, piss people off.

Giving them a platform to outline their vision is just about the worst thing you can do.

As Stowe Boyd has said, most people hate the future: “the unknowability scares them, and that leads to hatred of even the idea of the future, and especially those that talk about it.”

The 70% failure rule has become mythic precisely because we are predisposed to the notion that the future is worse than the past.

If we agree that this future is best explored through experimentation then things get even messier.

  • Experimentation is confusing – it offers no certainty. There’s no one true path to innovation.
  • Experimentation means shutting down failures – and killing people’s ‘brilliant ideas’. Get ready for discord.
  • Experimentation means being comfortable not fully knowing what you are doing or where you are going.

The future of work requires employees to be continual explorers rather than passive recipients of time limited programmes. They are individual nodes in the organisation , permanently connected to social networks quicker and more powerful than your internal comms plan will ever be.

Our old models of change narrative are defunct.

Dead.

That’s challenging to the traditional practices of leadership as it means getting comfortable with your people being uncomfortable.

Change is changing  – there is no end date on experimentation.

Now more than ever we either need to stop talking about change or get comfortable with failure.

Embracing Challenge to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture

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

As Chris Bolton has written organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. As Chris says – It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

The stronger your culture – the more resistant it can be to change.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture.

I’m writing this on the way to talk to a group of Non Executive Board Members alongside Helen Bevan – on the subject of embracing challenge to build a stronger innovation culture.

We need a system upgrade for sure.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-1

 

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

Scalable innovation in our world is often about joining the dots & making optimal investments. Marginal gains rather than big bang programmes. This involves less reporting and more doing. Discreet tests and pilots that explore a new world without fully committing to it.

However – larger scale innovation 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.

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-2Boards themselves, not just executives, need to reflect on whether innovation receives sufficient attention during meetings, and also consider what role they should play in supporting transformative efforts. Supporting the attitudes and mindset from which effective innovation is born is a responsibility of all leaders.

Establishing a governance that supports disruption

If the culture is risk averse you have a problem as innovation always entails risk. A culture of innovation must accept and even encourage considered risk-taking – including failure.

Risk-aversion of corporate governance structures has the potential to quash innovation.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation.

There’s an inherent tension here – and for good reason. Permissions need to be managed or chaos reigns.  The trick is finding the balance – and creating an innovation process that also practices good risk management.

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-3

The first step to change is recognising there is  often a cognitive bias against new introductions.

Most Change Fails because the case for change has not been made strongly enough and communicated well enough.  If it’s only leaders and managers who understand why the change is important it’s doomed.

Our track record of introducing change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

It’s less a time limited programme and more a way of life.

It’s a culture where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and is rewarded for it.

It’s a culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

It’s a culture that can sustain as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

Why Change Fails: Four Ways To Hack Your Culture

Org Structure

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

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging market environment.

70% of these programmes will fail. And it will largely be down to your culture.

Blog 2.001

Generally organisations don’t change. They 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, most 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 disrupt your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA.

But 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.”

Here are four ways to begin hacking your culture and challenging the status quo:

1 – Hack your Hierarchy

Blog 5.001

As Tony Hsieh has 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 don’t necessarily need to go the ‘No Manager’ extremes that Zappos are doing, but we do need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few. Social networks are wonderful opportunities to do this but, even in 2015, are still underused.

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

2 – Innovate from the edges

One of the mistakes change programmes often make is starting with managers. 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 innovations from the outside in.

3 – Create an innovation dispersal system 

Keeping innovation 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.

As part of our own Lab work we helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems and getting things to test quickly. This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

4 – Make everyone a disruptor 

Philippa Jones has recently called for people to use common sense rather than policies. For Bromford colleagues to bin the rulebook and think on their feet. For leaders to praise those who bend rules as long as it gets the right results for customers.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation

These are all 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.

The endless emails, the one to ones and appraisals, the meetings, the reports they have to write and the reports they have to read.

Most of us have the power to change these things. The power to test ideas and run experiments on doing these differently.

Our track record of introducing incremental change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption. For sustaining as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

The challenge is to develop a DNA that embraces those new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilates them.

  • A culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated by leaders and consultants.
  • Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo.
  • A culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

If we all get to that, we’ll never need change programmes again.

[ Lead image rights: Integration Training

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