Friday, 30 October 2009

Put the Cart Before the Horse

It is a crying shame that most organisations put responsibility for change squarely on the individual. “It is up to you,” they seem to say, “to change yourself, to be positive about change, to work in new ways. To help you, here is some training.” As if the reason why people don’t change is lack of skills...

And, because the business abdicates responsibility for change to the individual, the organisation doesn’t have to do anything different. It carries on managing their people in the same old ways and then acts surprised when things stay the same, blaming their people’s “resistance to change...”

This kind of thinking is commonplace because it is easy. It is also lazy and ill-informed, for it is placing the cart squarely before the horse.

If a business wants to introduce change, it must have a good reason to do so: either what it is currently doing isn’t working well enough, or it wants to do something differently. Either way, the business is seeking a new outcome. If it wants a new outcome, it needs to manage the business differently: set new goals, adjust processes, tweak measurement and reporting, discuss new topics at meetings, establish new feedback processes and revise its reward processes. It is this new context that demands new skills and hence determines the training that is needed.

So next time your business is embarking on change, before specifying training, ask yourself: what have we done to ensure that we are managing the business to achieve our new goals? To make working in new ways easier and the old ways harder? To change things so that we pay attention to new ways of working?

If we can ask and answer these questions well, then our people will want the training we offer, they will know how they will use their new skills - and success, rather than being a struggle, will be inevitable.

- Mike

Photocredit: Javier Gonzalez /

Monday, 12 October 2009

Overcoming the HR Barrier

Most of the time* when I have implemented change in an organisation, success has been either despite HR or through ignoring HR. Where HR has been involved, the result has usually been a signal failure: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing**.

Several reasons suggest themselves for thinking that having HR in a lead role in major change is detrimental.

  1. Out of sight, out of mind Having HR involved makes it easy for the rest of the business to abdicate responsibility for the 'people' side of change to HR and not worry about it themselves. Yet as we all know, the people side of change is most of the battle and all of the war. Change either happens in the operational side of the business or it doesn't happen in any meaningful way at all. It is neither within HR's responsibility or capability to take charge of implementing behavioural change at the front lines.

  2. Uncommon language The land of HR is commonly one where a foreign language is spoken: a place that speaks of 'human resources' rather than people; that speaks of 'organograms' rather than stating who is in charge of what; that speaks of 'learning outcomes' rather than doing things differently. Such language gets in the way, and after a while, compliance with language becomes an end in itself. If the business needs a translator to understand what HR is talking about, then HR's ability to influence the business meaningfully will be minimal.

  3. Own the problem, own the solution No customer ever bought a company's product because they have a great HR department. If a business truly desires fundamental change, then this thinking must be led by those parts of the business that engage and service the customer.

    The role of HR (and Finance, Legal or Procurement for that matter) is to follow this lead, not to lead it themselves; to do everything in their power to enable the customer experience, as required by the customer. In the final analysis, HR does not have the power to make front-line change happen - nor should it.
So what then is the role of HR in change implementation? For what it's worth, I would make leading the classic HR tasks (training requirements, communication, job specification changes) the responsibility of what might be termed customer 'front-line' departments, with HR providing delivery resources and advice on implementation.

Each of the reasons I offer above is structural: each is endemic to the role of HR as it commonly functions in many organisations. This is not to cast aspersions on many of the people who do great work within HR; indeed, some of the most effective change agents - no, some of the best people - I know, work in HR. The problem is that their ability to succeed is constrained, and in many cases doomed, by the structural and systematic problems inherent in the current HR models adopted by many companies that I have observed in both Europe and the US.

Are HR tasks necessary for change to succeed? Absolutely. Should HR specify those tasks, or determine the goals of these tasks, or be responsible for the outcomes that result? Absolutely not - because they can't.


*Most of the time, but not always - some initiatives succeeded because some terrific HR people did their damnedest to deliver despite, rather than because of, the operation of the HR function.

** I couldn't resist the Macbeth quote - not only is it apposite, but it's worth remembering that tragedy of Macbeth was caused by the wrong people taking actions that carried within them the seeds of their own destruction...

(A version of this blog entry was originally posted on the LinkedIn BPM group discussion area).

Photo credit: Scott Liddell /

Friday, 9 October 2009

There's No Need to Drown

My chum Steve Towers drew the attention of the Business Process Management Group on LinkedIn (of which I am a member) to version of the wonderful 'Shift Happens' presentation. If you didn't already know, the World is changing faster than we can imagine...

There is no longer (if ever there was) any way for us to control the flow of information that engulfs us every day.

If we accept this, however, as a good thing, then we will see that we don't have to drown. In the flow we can also find more valuable, worthwhile and downright inspiring information as well - all we need are the strategies to find and use it...


Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Don't Let The Size Of The Mountain Scare You

When we want to implement large-scale change, we need to ensure that the scale of the journey doesn't overwhelm us before we begin.

I was talking recently to some people in a manufacturing company who, quite rightly, want to reshape their business around the customer experience. This is something I happen to know quite a lot about, so we had some excellent discussions as we worked up a plan to deliver the outcomes they wanted in the timeframes that they needed.

And then they chose not to proceed - in part, it seems, because it was too much, too fast. Instead they came back and asked if we might omit some of the activities and maybe take a little longer.

They didn't see that doing that would be worse than doing nothing - leaving them (if we might stretch our analogy) stranded halfway up the mountain having taken a long time to get there.

The scale of the plan reflected the scale of the challenge, and the timeframe was the one which they had understood and agreed was essential. But still they did not want to proceed.

They, like most people who recognise the need for genuine change, had not been able to work out how to do it but when we showed them how, all they could see was the scale of the climb - they had lost sight of the summit.

So we've gone back and confirmed that yes, they really do need to do this thing, and yes, they need to do it quickly - and, yes, everything in the plan is needed to deliver the outcomes they are seeking. So while they are still somewhat apprehensive, they have started to take the first steps.

I sometimes wonder if more of us don't suffer from this problem - shying away from the task because it all seems too big, too quick. But the more I work in the business of change, the more I realise that success comes from a willingness to think bigger, bolder and faster.

After all, can you think of any human achievement of note - any building, enterprise or social movement - which does not have, at its heart, someone's desire to achieve something great and the willingness to turn this desire into reality?

We can be too timid, too self-editing. Think big, and then worry only about getting to the summit, not the scale of the climb.


(Photo Credit: Malta333 /

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Welcome to the Blender

We are facing huge change - but we've faced huge change before. And even if the economy is slowing, it's still enormous and full of opportunity. The future belongs to those of us who accept that things will be different and refuse to play the recession game.

We are in the midst of a set of unprecedented changes that are reshaping our world and which will leave us living in different ways. Things like the global credit crunch, global warming, the spike in worldwide food prices, the spike in oil prices, the spike in commodity prices, war and instability in the Caucasus, technology as a source of social leverage, the dismantling of privacy by Governments and technology, the attrition (in the West) of traditional civil liberties, the growth of China, India, Brazil and Russia, the accelerating erosion of the social contract, the rise of liability litigation and consequent growth of cotton-wool living, the cult of celebrity, increasingly voracious 24-hour multiplatform media, the democratic deficit, nanotechnology, genetic technology, the Aids pandemic, the emasculation of antibiotics, the loss of the idea of public service, famine in Africa - any one of these issues will change how we live.

In combination, well...let's just admit that the law of unintended consequences will apply exponentially. Everything is in the blender, and we don't know what will come out. So that makes many people unhappy and uncomfortable.

But it was ever thus. Sixty years ago, we were climbing out of the abyss of the second world war, the cold war had turned frosty with the Berlin blockade and airlift and (here in the UK) we were hosting the Olympics, and launching the National Health Service. Change.

Forty years ago, we had students rioting in the streets around the World, the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, drug culture, the start of civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, the Nigeria - Biafra civil war, the birth pangs of modern feminism and the permissive society.

Twenty-five years ago, we still had the cold war and tactical nukes in Europe, we had boom-bust economics (but we were used to it), we had constant inflation, we had war in the Middle East, we had personal computers and computers in businesses, a few people had mobile phones, we started getting junk mail, we had Japanese industrial quality, we were recovering from race riots in the streets, we had Princess Diana, CNN was still new, we had continued social scandals, we had microprocessor technology, we had drug trials and a new 'cure for cancer' every other week, we had STDs and HIV, we were still aware of the thalidomide scandal and no-one I knew would stand for public office and we didn't trust anyone who did (Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Neil Hamilton, anyone?)

The point is this: at any time in history from the fourteenth century onwards, the nature of human society has always been unstable. The macro factors in our lives - environmental factors, politics, society and technology - have all changed our lives in a complex minuet that carries on continuously and will continue to do so.

We have adapted - and people have thrived. In absolute terms, I will contend that more people are better off, have more opportunities, and live longer now than in any time in history (and yes, I know that there are many millions of people still living Hobbesian lives and that none of us should stop striving to help them, but my point still stands).

We should not be surprised by this: the defining characteristic of Homo Sapiens is our ability to adapt and shape our environment to our purposes - to think about our situation and then to take steps to bring it under our control. And every change offers a new opportunity to do so.

And when billions of people are faced with new circumstances, that's billions of people looking for and taking opportunities to bring their lives under more control. Some will fail - but many more will succeed.

So let's accept that we are all in the blender and that we all have to live with change. There is no point, therefore, in getting unhappy about it. The trick, instead, is to work out how best to live with it, or better, take advantage of it.

As a friend of mine pointed out to me the other day while we were talking about the economy, "Recession? That's just a six months of negative growth. The economy has stopped growing for a while, that's all. It's still going, and it's still huge and it's still full of opportunity."

If you think of the economy as an elephant - then my business, your business or any else's business is just flea on that elephant. Does it matter to the flea if the elephant is a bit fatter or a bit thinner? Not really. The flea can still thrive.

The good folks at BNI have got the idea. That's their badge at the top. An excellent philosophy and one that all of us should adopt.


Saturday, 25 July 2009

Change We Can All Embrace

In reality, we enjoy and embrace change all the time - so let's not get hung up on it. Let's hit the beach instead.

It's funny. So much of the literature on business change is predicated on the notion that people resist change. Yet in our lives we invoke it, create it, seek it all the time.

Take the notion of a holiday (or what my American chums would call a vacation). We uproot ourselves from our normal, everyday, comfortable existence to go on often uncomfortable and frustrating journeys to places where we have no frame of reference, eat things we would never consider at home and meet people with whom we have little or nothing in common, save that we find ourselves in the same place at the same time.

Why? Because it is fun. It is enjoyable. It opens us up to new experiences. And sometimes it is life-changing.

Do we resist this change? Do we need a stakeholder engagement plan? Do we need a force-field analysis? Do we need a communications plan?

Do we heck. We just need to get out there and do it - and when we do, we have a great time.

I'm just off to implement just such a change for a couple of weeks with my major stakeholders - my kids and my wife.

I'll be back online in mid-August. Until then - play differently.


Photocredit: Mike Bird /

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Need For Speed

Cost Removal is one of the hardest kinds of change initiative. Yet some of the new thinking on change may go some way to helping companies transition to lower-cost business faster, with less pain than before.

As the economic crunch bites, so does the need for companies to cut costs. Cost removal is one of the toughest kinds of change initiative. For one thing, when you are downsizing, successful implementation can't rely on positive engagement and buy-in (although they help). For another, implementing a change that you did not choose and do not want is the very definition of a forced change. And as we saw in the recent Bloomstorm change survey, the defining characteristic of most forced change projects is that they fail.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel. Unlike in previous economic downturns, thinking and practice in change has evolved. Many of us are better equipped to handle cost removal better than we have been before.

And of the many lessons we have learned, one of the most important is the need for speed. This applies to systems, to reorganisations, to workflow redesign - and to cost. In almost every case, it is better to implement something quickly and adjust it, than delay in the vain pursuit of perfection.

So as we think about the changes we need to make to remove costs from our business, we need to think hard about what we can do to make things happen straightaway - in the next hours, not the next months. You can do more faster than you think.


(Photocredit: Flávio Takemoto /

Saturday, 11 July 2009

A Lack of Surprise

If people believe that existing approaches to business change have little chance of success, then maybe we should do it differently. Luckily, that is increasingly possible...

As you might imagine, I have had quite a few conversations with people over the past few days about the results of our recent survey on factors governing change. The most striking thing about these discussions is the lack of surprise at the result; in particular the first result of the survey: in the experience of more than half of those surveyed, 25% or fewer change projects have succeeded - and, for more than 80% of those surveyed, no more than 50% of projects succeeded.

In other words, most people think that most change projects fail, and four of five people rate a change project's chance of success as no more than the 50/50.

On these numbers, why would anyone embark on a change initiative? Someone wanting to lose a lot of money, obviously. And lose it they do. Billions are spent on change programmes around the World every year, and on this estimate, they'd be no worse off putting the same money on the black numbers at a roulette table...

But as my friend Steve White has always pointed out to me: "If what you are doing isn't working, try something else instead - for if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." (He's a very smart boy - see his article here for the sanest description of ITIL I've ever seen).

But the problem for most of people is that there is no alternative. Sure there are change methods and practices: ADKAR, Prosci, Kotter and many others that people will sell you: more than 90% of members of the UK's Management Consultancies Association, for example, profess expertise in change management.

So what happens when we next need to implement a change initiative? We continue with the routine, don't we? Formal project management, communication plans, stakeholder maps, workshops to secure 'buy-in', sponsor workshops, kick-offs, early training as part of the 'hearts and minds' engagement and so forth.

Knowing in our hearts, as our survey respondents know, that most of our efforts are doomed to failure, but hoping, this time, it will be different...

The problem is analogous to the days when the formal requirements-led 'waterfall' approach was the only method available to defining and developing new IT systems. People tried to put some structure to it: SSADM, Jackson structured programming, OOP and so forth - but no matter what anyone did, most software projects ran late, over budget and compromised on functionality. But still we carried on, because no-one could think of an alternative. Gradually, however, a few mavericks started using alternatives: SCRUM, eXtreme Programming (XP), hothousing, and the range of techniques that now come under the umbrella term 'Agile', which an increasing number of people are using.

These new ways became possible because the pioneers reframed the fundamental question of software development from "How do we organise ourselves to deliver software to meet a set of requirements?" to "How do we best quickly produce code people can use, so that we can get feedback and iterate fast to get it closer to what our customers want?"

We need to do the same thing with Change: we need to reframe the basic question from "How we overcome resistance to change?" to "How do we quickly make it easy for people to work in the new ways we need?" Phrased this way, the business of change is not about resistance or engagement, nor about overcoming barriers; it's about rapidly adjusting the work environment so that the new way of working is the easiest, has the least ambiguity, is rewarded, is noticed, and is understood.

And that is a very different game. Of course, I'm biased: it's the game we play at Bloomstorm, and it's one that works.

It's also a lot more fun to do.


(Photo Credit Michal Zacharzewski, SXC)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Change Time Machine

If we concentrate more on working differently and less on thinking about "the change" then we reduce the prospect of resistance and make the chances of success significantly easier.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - one of the biggest barriers to business change is the term 'change' itself. I have been struck by this as I do some work for a very successful web services company. Here, the work environment is geared to giving people freedom to deliver in whatever ways they think works best and significant amounts of change are happening in this company all the time. But because change is the stuff of work - it is part of what they do round here - it's not a big deal. They don't get hung up on the term. So stuff gets done faster, in practical terms, than in many other places.

That's not to say that things are perfect - every now and then some structure is needed (which is why I'm here) simply to ease the friction and make sure that people can work together more effectively. But the fascinating game as far as I am concerned is that I'm giving them some ideas and then working with them to help them understand how these ideas work best in their environment. It's challenging work - but great fun.

And one of the best things we are working on is using structure by stealth - to use these new ideas by asking relevant questions at the right times - but not to tell anyone that they are using a method or a tool. In this way, the people they work with just focus on the question, not on the method, and the process simply works.

This is why I despair sometimes of so many of the management fads to which companies succumb periodically - six sigma, lean, BPR, TQM, ERP and the like - because before you can get any work done, you have to sell people on the method and the language and the concepts and before long you have a six-month rollout programme to give people a 'positive orientation' to the process of change before you start to see anything improve.

The most successful programmes that I have seen begin instead by getting some people to do something different - something real that makes a visible difference. When others ask "how did you do that?" - then you're into the real change game...

It's like putting 'standard' change in a time machine and running it backwards - make the change happen, then let people know about it.


(Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix /

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Fight the Right Battles

An incorrect assumption about the purpose of change management causes many change projects to fail. By thinking differently about change, however, we can take control of the process and significantly increase our chances of success.

One of the ways you know a technology is advancing is that it becomes easier to use. Windows is easier to use than MSDOS, the command language Microsoft originally offered on PCs which an ex-colleague once described as "...being as friendly as a cornered rat." Web browsing is more straightforward now than the days when the ‘internet’ was primarily a combination of bulletinboards and FTP. Most of us rarely have to worry about (or even lift up to find out) what is under our car’s bonnet anymore. This happens everywhere – as technology becomes more sophisticated, it becomes less obtrusive. The better it is, the less we have to think about it.

Bizarrely, however, the opposite appears to be happening in management practice. As management thinking and tools develop, it seems that they are becoming more obtrusive and less easy to use. In WW1, the United States moved an army of more than million men across the Atlantic in less than six months using common sense, some forms and a willingness to deliver. Nowadays, companies changing their CRM system take that long simply to ‘engage the stakeholders’. We have allowed management jargon and its evil stepchild, enterprise software, to get in the way of getting things done.

One reason why these things have become cumbersome, awkward and difficult to use is that they are solving the wrong problem. Let's take a look at the business of change, for example.

A tenet of orthodox thinking is that a primary purpose of management of change is to 'overcome resistance' and 'secure buy-in'.

On the face of it, this is a very seductive logic: "We are trying to introduce change. People are resisting change. We need to persuade these people to overcome this resistance if our change is to succeed."

The insidious nature of this logic is that it hangs together and appears very plausible.

But it is wrong, for a couple of reasons.

One is that by focusing on the business of 'change', we do, in fact, create resistance. If we make a big deal of a proposed change, we give would-be sceptics something to resist.

Another is that this logic leads us to believe that unless people buy-in to change, the change won't succeed. The effect of this assumption is give the wrong people an unnecessary ‘pocket veto’ by withholding their support.

Because we have allowed ‘change’ to become a concept in itself, people now focus on the business of change, rather than the change we need. Because we encounter (and inadvertently encourage) resistance, overcoming this resistance and securing buy-in is now seen as the number one aim of change management. Because we have given this idea legitimacy, we have now given people the right to stop, alter or delay our programme because they are unhappy about it. The result is that our projects go late, cost more and fail. Focusing on resistance to change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nor do the classic answers to these problems solve anything. The normal response to resistance is to train people in the new way of working, or to work on ways to engage them and to help them to understand "What's in it for me?"

These strategies assume that the reason why people resist is that they don't have enough information - so if we give them the right information their resistance will crumble. But if the cause of the resistance is not to do with their knowledge, then more information will not help, and may, in fact give them more reasons to resist.

What, then is the alternative?

If we take as our start point that our goal is to improve business performance by having people work differently, then the goal of change management ceases to be about overcoming resistance – and becomes instead about putting in place those things that enable, encourage and support working differently. If we think this way then rather than making other people responsible for change that we need, we can take responsibility for making the change happen ourselves. How? Like this.
  • Instead of just trying to persuade others to change, let us make the new ways of working easier than the old.
  • Instead of imposing training on people, let us require new things of our people so that they recognise that they need new skills and so seek out and want to use the training on offer.
  • Instead of asking people to work differently, but managing them in the old way, let us pay attention to new ways of working in the same way we pay attention to existing aspects of performance.
  • Instead of trying to change everything (or, for example, our culture) let us change only those things that make a big difference to the end result, so we all understand the focus and can prioritise.
  • Instead of hoping that people remember to do new things at the right time, let us give them a clear trigger that tells them: “...and now do something different.”
  • Instead of trying to sell the change, let’s have people buy it.
In short, if we want people to race through the water, then let us by all means train them to swim and tell what we want – but let us also take responsibility for cleaning up the water, making it warm, giving them a swimming costume, giving them starting blocks, firing a starter’s pistol and coaching them on their technique rather than complaining about their speed. In other words, make swimming faster the easiest and most natural way to get through the water.

And, by thinking this way, we don't need the panoply of jargon and nonsense that attends upon 'standard' change management - we can just concentrate on working differently. And isn't that what we set out to do?