Calling a halt to mindless change - 13 years on, have we learnt the lesson yet?

It was a sad day this week, when I learnt of the death of an old colleague, John Macdonald.  This isn't an obituary, there are times and places for those, but I would like to reflect on one of his key messages.

In 'retirement', John was an author and speaker, and it was as a speaker that I first met him.  We were both 'on the platform' at a series of conferences in India, organised by their Institute of Directors.  We soon discovered that we shared the same publisher too.  Several of John's writing projects in the 1990s were books in the "Successful Business in a Week" series sponsored by the Institute of Management - I lost count of how many titles he contributed.

Earlier in his life, he had been involved in local politics but much of his work was in the field of quality - quality improvement, quality management, and total quality management.  He ran the Philip Crosby organisation in the UK and, perhaps as a result, was a proponent of a systems and procedural approach to organisational change.

Over dinner at several conferences, we bounced different interpretations of these themes around. He understood the ethology and behavioural approach that was my background, but insisted that the technological of his own was of higher priority.  We didn't differ, we complemented, and I believe that the Indian audiences enjoyed this contrasting perspective - possibly more so than UK and European ones did.

On one of these trips, John's baggage was mislaid by British Airways, and so he used it as an excuse to have a distinctive suit made by an Indian tailor in less than 24hrs.  A few months later, I heard him address a UK conference on the lessons we could learn from India on 'just-in-time' manufacturing.  He warned the delegates that if they failed to move with the times they would soon witness an Indian takeover of British industry just as the Japanese had a few years before.  How right he proved to be.
John's seminal work, though, was still to come. In 1998, his book; "Calling a Halt to Mindless Change: A Plea for Commonsense Management" was published by AMACOM.  For a while it achieved celebrity status, and he was interviewed on radio and TV, and did a speaking tour or two off the back of it.

His thesis was essentially captured in the title. However, it needs a little unwrapping.  After a working lifetime of promoting change, he was not suggesting that change initiatives should stop. Nor was he suggesting that all such programmes were 'mindless'.  What he was challenging was the degree of understanding and focus that many organisations had before they instituted the latest shift. 

We had often swapped stories of the Boards that began a process and then failed to follow through - usually because they were so keen to begin that they hadn't really understood where they were going, and what the inevitable consequences would be, before they started.  As a result, they got frightened and drew back.  Sometimes, of course, it was too late - in fact, usually it was too late.  The decision to change had already been a last ditch attempt, though many would deny it, and when the scale of the effort that was needed became apparent they would fear what outsiders might say - especially the financial analysts - they would look for a face-saving opt out.

In the last few months, we have heard politicians promoting change in the NHS, in the military, in the police, the judiciary, and the coastguard - not to forget their demands for change in the Civil Service as a whole.  We've heard them baying for change in the media, banking and financial sectors.  Under pressure to deliver results, these pronouncements have usually been followed by a commission of one kind or another, a hurried report full of ambiguities - generally leaked ahead of publication, and then an event that proved the vulnerability of the Nation should any change actually happen. 

I am not suggesting that this is purely a political or governmental issue - there are, I am sure, plenty of commercial enterprises that are reorganising, reinventing, or just reviewing, as I write this column.

This all leaves me wondering whether anyone has learnt John's essential lesson and whether change processes are any more enlightened than they were 13 years ago?

Dr Graham Wilson is an organisational psychotherapist who works as a confidant to people in positions of power helping them understand company psychodynamics, unfolding situations, politics, and their own and other people's behaviour.  His latest book is "The Senior Executive's Emergency Job Hunt".

Comments

Interesting first blog Graham.  What would you say are good 'trigger points' for initiating a change process?

Interesting post.  Isn't this the very nature of government though?  Every newly elected party will feel duty bound to change things.  After all, if the incumbent was any good they wouldn't have been elected in, so you get patchwork changes every four years or so, each building on top of the last lot of changes.  There's very little continuity, very little chance for changes to embed, and often change purely for the sake of doing something.

It's little wonder our public services are often so shoddy.

A really interesting first post, what do you advocate as the measures and indicators that signal change is required? SLEPT plus C or PESTEL? or a combination of the three environments internal, near external and far externalities? Or as Mike Davies ask's what are the trigger points, assuming some similaralities between different companies, that in your experience bring change to the table?

Mike

Ha! Thanks, Matt.

That could be a whole new article in its own right. There are lots of obvious candidates: new IT systems, industry-wide shifts, competitor- initiatives, innovation-driven, and so on. However, in my experience, they are NOT the most common.

Lots of organisations embark on the process of change first, and then decide to bring in new technology, new systems, or restructure around the people.  The starting point of the discussion is more likely to be about 'needing' to do things differently.  Which begs the question, why do they NEED to do so?

I doubt many organisations would agree with this, openly at least, but a lot of the change initiatives that I've been asked to help with might be called "skin of the teeth" driven.  That is, the organisation has managed to deliver an acceptable set of results, but the top team realise (whether consciously or unconsciously) that it was 'by the skin of their teeth' and that they won't be able to sustain that performance for another year.

Best wishes, Graham

Thanks Mike.  Well, I suppose the more cynical among us might certainly say that. :wink:

It has always intrigued me when I hear US politicians justify another invasion with the explanation that they are going to reinstate a democracy.  Maybe it exists somewhere, but I've never seen any evidence that a democracy out-performs (however you might measure that) any other form of stable power.  Of course, there are spectacular failures of non-democracies but there are also of democracies too.

My impression is that the UK civil service has managed a pretty consistent performance for many decades. It's only with the latest government that an expectation has been created that they will perform to the same efficiency criteria as commercial organisations, though clearly the process had begun many years ago, with things like the outsourcing of catering and janitorial services from schools as an example.

I don't, personally, believe that the civil service should be as 'efficient' as commercial organisations can be. There are lots of ways in which their inefficiency brings social benefits.

I once knew a chap who was the milkman in a district hospital.  He did a good job, earned a pretty basic wage, but was probably fairly unemployable outside the security of the hospital. He loved his role - took pride in it - brought an air of maturity to the wards when he arrived and was always happy to help in a myriad of little ways that made things run smoothly.  Someone decided that the hospital had to be run on a commercial footing and this chap was told that he would not be needed any longer.  The hospital paid through the nose for deliveries to wards performed by outsourced porters - every litre of milk was charged with a delivery fee and the cost far exceeded what it had been before.  The staff were discouraged from making drinks in the ward, and patients had to use the outsourced trolley service.  The guy tried to find another job but he was over 60 and there weren't any suitable ones nearby.  Within six month's he'd developed a neurological condition that most observers would say reflected a huge internal torment and he died three months later.

When the present lot finally agreed who could use the comfy chair in future negotiations, they made a sweeping statement about a radical clean sweep of the civil service with swinging cuts to bring about a transformation in efficiency.  Of course, those in the know, suggested that this merely meant that the local authorities would be required to take on more and given no extra money to do so.

Now, if we want a conspiracy theory to go with the cynical one, I've been noticing how many different enterprises have been accused of naughty dealing lately - we've had the politicians, the bankers, the media, the police.  Corruption, you might think, is rife if not endemic. Yet, I've not seen a single report suggesting that any civil servants (ie in Central Government) have done anything untoward. It seems they are squeeky clean.

"Surely, Sir Humphry, they are, after all, only human beings?"

"You may well think so, Prime Minister, but far be it for me to say so."

Hello Michael.

I guess I've answered your question with my reply to Matt about "skin of the teeth" change.  To pick up on the PESTEL point though...

I have a very limited opinion of people who create 'models' and pedal them as if they were somehow divine enlightenment.  It's something I've written about at length and also used as a creativity exercise with MBA students.  (http://www.the-confidant.info/2008/when-is-a-model-more-than-just-a-pretty-face/).

Now, PESTEL, as I understand it, is the economist, Gillespie's classification of possible influences on an organisation or other complex structure.  It is a kind of structured thinking tool, not disimilar from the Ishikawa diagrams or Fishbone diagrams beloved by the quality fraternity.  It applies at the societal or macro level, but to apply it to an organisation is, I fear, likely to lose and confuse many senior managers.

If I am designing a workshop for a top team, then I usually prefer to give them some thought-provoking material about possible future scenarios and the factors that define them, and then allow plenty of time for the group to explore by discussion their own equivalent.  As a source of such futures, in the past, I've drawn heavily on the extraordinary study conducted by the USAF University back in the 1990s.  Although it is getting a little long in the tooth now, most management teams are quite spaced out by it!

Best wishes, Graham

 

Graham Wilson wrote:

Ha! Thanks, Matt.

That could be a whole new article in its own right. There are lots of obvious candidates: new IT systems, industry-wide shifts, competitor- initiatives, innovation-driven, and so on. However, in my experience, they are NOT the most common.

Lots of organisations embark on the process of change first, and then decide to bring in new technology, new systems, or restructure around the people.  The starting point of the discussion is more likely to be about 'needing' to do things differently.  Which begs the question, why do they NEED to do so?

I doubt many organisations would agree with this, openly at least, but a lot of the change initiatives that I've been asked to help with might be called "skin of the teeth" driven.  That is, the organisation has managed to deliver an acceptable set of results, but the top team realise (whether consciously or unconsciously) that it was 'by the skin of their teeth' and that they won't be able to sustain that performance for another year.

Best wishes, Graham

Thanks Graham.  I wonder how many change projects are done almost to justify a senior managers position?  They feel the need to do something, so partake on a vanity project to create a legacy for themselves.

Hello Matt

Most of the processes that I've been involved with have been organisation-wide or, at least, where the top-team are pretty much independent from their parent company, and run their business autonomously.  In this situation, I would say relatively few get off the ground unless the rest of the team are behind them.

Though consultants are reluctant to admit it, most of the exemplary change processes, where the main driver is cultural rather than technological, have happened in owner-run businesses.  The classic cases are all like this, or where the original founder's family are still at the helm.  In this case, I don't think it is so much a case of vanity as personal values.  The leader may have had a bit of an epiphany and seeks to transform the business into something they feel is a little healthier than it has become.  I wrote up quite a few cases in one of my books - "Self Managed Team Working".

Where the process is focused on a smaller part of an organisation, then the leader usually has to have won the approval of their bosses - often quite a long way up the hierarchy.  In this case, again, I'd say that it isn't so much 'vanity' but it can certainly be used to justify their position. If a part of the business isn't delivering then their manager may well seek to justify their position by initiating a major change process - often, of course, they will be right to do so.

Probably one of the most ridiculous gripes/claims that I hear in performance appraisals, though, is the one that goes: "Well, I have transformed the department."  I once sat in on a disciplinary meeting where a manager came out with that line - citing the inefficiencies, poor procedures, demotivated staff, inept sales people etc that he'd inherited and how it had taken him all year to begin to get these 'sorted'.  The chair listened attentively then pointed out that it was because of the success of the previous incumbent and the high performance of that particular division that he'd been promoted and the vacancy had been advertised.  He should know - he was the previous incumbent!

Best wishes, Graham

I wonder if it's how we set about change that's the issue.  If you look to nature as an example, lots of variations are tried, with experimentation allowing the best solutions to be found.

Moving this to a corporate environment, you would need many small experiments that each have a low cost should they fail, with failure encouraged to enable greater organisational learning.

Alas what often seems to happen are grander, centralised projects that have a high cost of failure and rely on very imperfect information.  Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky believed you needed three variables to succeed in complex scenarios:

Variation is the process of seeking and trying out new ideas. And it is not just thinking about new ideas and innovations, but putting those ideas and innovations to work in a productive manner. Innovation does not automatically improve productivity; only effective innovation improves productivity. So how do you know if an innovation is going to be effective? Well even after extensive analysis, you sometimes need to just give it go! …. but, in any case, make sure you can survive the experience.

Survivability is an important criteria because when you try something new, you need to make sure you do it on a scale where failure is survivable. There is no use pursuing big ambitious stretch-goals only to stumble, fall and go bankrupt. Despite how unglamerous this may seem, small steps can be ok, in fact one step at a time is also ok. The key is to create proximate objectives or goals that are achievable and within reach. But even still, understanding the business environment is paramount. Ask the “what if”questions and play “devil’s advocate” with projections and forecasts. Better still, get a trusted adviser to help you because you need the benefit of a good selection process.

Finally, Selection is also important, because you need to seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along. Like Natural Selection in evolutionary biology, selection is about how an organism adapts within a system. Here, decisions need to be made based on changing evironmental cicumstances. Those decisions which do not account for the world around us may result in our extinction. So in a business setting, operators need to avoid an instinctive reaction of denial and need a mechanism to measure and adjust. If you are learning and questioning new products, personalities, processes or ventures, then you are open to the benefits of the selection process. By incorporating variation, survivability and selection, you can adapt to changing situations and develop new and effective strategies.

As long as change brings the whole organisation along together.  Everyone understanding why, when and how then change is empowering and motivating.