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.

Why We Need To Learn To Love Project Managers

‘There isn’t a child alive who dreams of being a project manager’ –  so said Scott Berkun.

He pointed out that project managers can unintentionally reinforce their work as (let’s be honest) dull – by trying to get everyone to pay attention to spreadsheets, specifications, PowerPoint presentations and status reports, failing to realise these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the entire world of work.

Last year I suggested that you should never take an idea to a project management team -unless you want it to be accompanied by a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

It was said tongue in cheek, but it upset a couple of people who thought I was criticising project management.  The intention was the opposite: I was trying to show the value of controlled management – at the right time, in the right places. 

The issue is one of differing perspectives.

Exploration and implementation are completely different mindsets, never mind skillsets.

  • The purpose of project management is to predict as many dangers and problems as possible; and to plan, organise and control activities so that the project is completed as successfully as possible in spite of all the risks.
  • The purpose of innovation is to help us see beyond current convention, to counter the natural risk aversion that lies within organisations and to mobilise employees to experiment and discover new value for customers.

The behaviours this requires are fundamentally contradictory as one is about controlling risk and the other is about creating risk, usually in risk-averse environments.

Innovation tends to start with loosely defined, sometimes ill-defined objectives that gradually become clearer over months or even years. The processes used are more experimental and exploratory and don’t follow linear guidelines.

Because failure is a built-in possibility innovation teams have to fail fast and fail smart in order to move on to better options.

This is feasible in a ‘Lab type’ environment as you can control the cost and impact of failure. Whereas innovating in large projects is problematic as there are interdependencies between the components that make changes risky.

Can we combine the two approaches to get better outcomes?

At Bromford we’ve been exploring a better way to deliver change for a few years – and have now combined a broad range of colleagues with very different skill-sets all focused on one thing: solving the right problems.

You can see from our publicly accessible Trello board that the areas we are exploring are completely aligned to projects – indeed Project Managers and analysts are involved at the outset as part of innovation ‘discovery’ sessions.

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 08.06.03

Increasingly, as work gets automated, simple problems should be eliminated. We’ll be left with the complex, messier ones – and these need a different approach to what once served us.

Traditional management models have focused almost exclusively on delivery of products and services. Newer management models, in contrast, focus primarily on the achievement of a result or the answer to a complex question.

As John Mortimer has said – maybe we need to unlearn our thinking that says, before we start doing anything, we need to define what the outcome will be, how long it will take, and what the solution will be.

Whether you are a Project Manager, Business Analyst, Designer, Researcher, Self Styled Innovator or Corporate Rebel – we have a common purpose:

Understanding problems, putting zombies down and reallocating resources to the most promising opportunities.

Everything is a project: and we are all project managers.

An A-Z of Modern Jargon

Yesterday a colleague who had been faced with a lot of long documents filled with confusing language came out with a great phrase:

I didn’t know where to start. So, I didn’t

There’s some science to this. Faced with choice overload and unfamiliar phrases one of our automatic responses is to shut things down and move onto something easier.

On Wednesday I was listening to Andy Hollingsworth of the Behavioural Insights Team talk about inertia being a big driver of our behaviour. How removing very small irritations from a process or communication can help people understand you.

It made me think about jargon and how we can unintentionally alienate people.

Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly. Used well, it does.

The danger comes from using it out of place, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

I’m often guilty of this – words around innovation and design can be especially arcane – often dressing up a simple idea.

So I’ve put together a graphic of jargon and phrases that we could all do with using less often.

new-piktochart-_25805771

You might agree or disagree or want to add more – let me know!

Best Practice, Benchmarking and the Race to Mediocrity

23259.strip.zoom

We must be different. We must be lopsided. No more herdlike regression toward the mean – we must find the things at which we’re great, and build on those – Tim Kastelle

A few years ago my organisation adopted a new way of working. We implemented it , with the help of consultants, as it had achieved glowing praise during a regulatory inspection at a similar organisation.

It was held up as an example of that most intangible of things: best practice.

We all had lots of meetings about it. We all had training. And we all did a lot of work to prepare for the arrival of this system that promised to change the way we worked forever.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Nothing changed.

In fact I don’t think I ever used it. Not once.

The problem with buying in solutions that have performed brilliantly in other organisations is that most of the time, they just don’t work.

That’s not to say they never worked. They may well have worked for somebody else, somewhere else. They may well have worked at another time. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to just port successful practice from one place to the next. 

The public sector predilection for best practice and benchmarking is quite perverse when you think about it.

  • Imagine starting up a new business and the first thing you decide to do is figure out who is operating in a similar space as yourself.
  • Having found them you both start a club and invite others, who are also like you.
  • Then you all start comparing your practices, processes and results and eventually work out who’s the best.
  • Then you copy them.

That’s absolutely not the route to greatness.

If everyone strives to do the same thing the same way, they will end up close to average.

Best practice and benchmarking are just a race to be first at being average. 

A quick caveat: best practice can work in some scenarios. Usually very simple repeatable ones. Chris Bolton points this out in his excellent post, but goes on to say, “The chances of someone else’s best practice working  in your complex environment (particularly if it is forced onto you) seems unlikely.”

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink , and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things.

I’ve heard many in my own sector say “We aren’t brave enough to do the things that (insert someone innovative) are doing, we’d rather watch and learn.”

This is a terrible mistake.

If you watch them and they fail – they have all the learning and you have none.

And if they succeed it means you have failed to keep up with them, and you still have zero learning.

Rather than regressing towards the mean let’s learn by being responsibly creative.

Try visiting lots of people who are unlike you.

The more unlike you they are the more you should visit. Connect with people via social media who are the polar opposite of you. If you are just hanging around with the sector crowd you will become more average with every passing day.

This a slide from Creating a Culture That’s Innovation Ready showing some of the organisations that we have visited and done business with over the years.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 20.14.53

We haven’t attempted to be like any of them but it has been a massive generator of new practices, ideas and possibilities. Never go away and try to copy them though , always adapt the idea to your own culture.

Try learning by doing.

Most of these ideas are best tested by adopting a safe to fail approach: small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles.  We will always learn more by making our own mistakes than comparing each others (usually flattering) benchmarking scores.

Try being an organisation that only you can be. 

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. Trying to be like each other is a criminal waste of time.

The market 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 anyone else.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?