The global pandemic has provided a real-time/real-world insight into how organisational change works – or doesn’t. External shocks like Covid-19 have the effect of shaking us out of our complacency, our comfortable routines, our flabby organisational designs, and our unexamined prejudices masquerading as management orthodoxy. It can be uncomfortable to say the least.
But this is what learning feels like. At Impact we often talk about the sense of adventure inherent in any meaningful, transformational learning process –that feeling of being uncomfortably excited.
Whilst the pandemic has left too many of us at the emotionally uncomfortable end of things, there is also a sense of hope and a possibility for renewal, which can create new energy and dynamism in ourselves and in our companies – the excitement at the other side of uncomfortable.
Over the past few months, I have had countless conversations with clients, companies, leaders and investors in which everyone is repeating the same, uncomfortable theme: ‘things really need to change around here.’
There are huge variations in what is meant by ‘things’. For example:
‘We really need our middle managers to step up and take more responsibility in leading the business’
‘We simply are not agile enough; it takes us ages to do anything’
‘We need to be much more customer-centric instead of all this internal navel gazing’
‘We need a new performance culture’
‘We need to sell a lot more, the market is there we are just not competing’
‘We need to reduce costs and increase productivity’
I could go on. One of the interesting things about these conversations is that they are all caught in the same paradox: they are long on the problem and short on the answer. When I ask questions about the ‘how’ – how do we actually do this stuff? –then the answers fall into two camps.
The first is broadly to do with structures and processes, and maintains that the answers lie in a flatter structure or a leaner process. There is often a call for data or, if it is not available, an imperative for ‘research’, and there is always a bit of digital stuff (to do with replacing people with machines or the use of some better tools for doing things).
The second is broadly to do with behaviour and culture. Here the talk is all about ‘aligning incentives’ (they mean carrots and sticks) and the immutability of culture (‘we seem to be immune to change’). These conversations eventually conclude with the idea that they simply need different people to the ones that they have, who are more talented, more dynamic, and more performance orientated.
But the interesting thing is that there is little confidence that any of these approaches are possible (can we have a different system? can we hire different people?), nor that they will successfully address the problem. Why is this?
The reason is that at the heart of all organisational change is the need to change how people behave; but we have no idea how to do that, so we focus our attention on the things we think we do know how to change, in the hope that that will work.
It does not. That is why so many change initiatives fail. They fail because they are designed to change the way that employees behave by changing something else.
But there is an exciting opportunity on the other side of the pandemic: to put people back at the centre of our need to change our organisations, and to understand behaviour change, not as a problem to be ducked, but as an opportunity to put meaning and purpose back at the heart of our organisations. By doing this, we create the possibility that we can do organisational change differently.
There is a lot to say about how we think this will work. As a starting point, we have some underpinning ideas that should guide our approach to a new, human-centred approach to change:
People are not an asset to your organisation, they are the organisation
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that relationships matter to us all much more deeply than we thought. Ask anyone what they miss about their working lives during the pandemic, and they will talk about the connection to colleagues, and the everyday interactions that bring meaning and purpose into our lives. All organisations are simply groups of people working in service to other groups of people. The sooner we see organisations for what they really are, the sooner we can develop a change practice that works.
People don’t resist change, they resist being changed
One of the reasons why trying to change employee behaviour in organisations is ducked in favour of changing structures or processes instead is that people resist change. There is something in us all that reacts badly to being told what to do and how we should do it. There is a phenomenon in social psychology called reactance, which seeks to understand and explain why we often react badly to potential threats to our freedom (as we see it). Sticks don’t work (see the extensive research demonstrating the ineffectiveness of carrot and stick incentives in driving desired behaviours in organisations); we need another approach.
People own what they create
Putting people at the heart of organisational change means putting people at the heart of designing the change. But senior leaders resist doing this because it means they have to change the way they do change. We heard a story about a retail company that was trying to improve the productivity of its in-store bakery. After much data and workflow analysis, senior managers decided what needed to be done, they briefed the store managers on the changes, and issued a manual etc. Some senior managers had suggested that they consult the people who worked in the bakeries but were rebuffed – those employees were perceived as being in part-time, low-paid, high-turnover positions and therefore wouldn’t understand the business. Months later, a senior leader was visiting a store and checked on the changes in the bakery. They hadn’t been implemented. When he asked why, the staff patiently explained how the bakery actually worked and that the proposed changes did nothing to improve things. The senior leader was outraged and wanted to understand why bakery staff had not told managers of the problems. ‘No-one ever asked us’ was the short reply. Putting the bakery staff in charge of designing the changes in the first place would have been far more effective.
The idea that the people whose behaviours are the subject of any change initiative should be involved in the design of those initiatives seems obvious. But it simply isn’t done. Or if it is done, it is done badly (hands up all those who have filled in a survey asking for their opinions about a proposed change). When I ask senior leaders in organisations about why this is, they generally follow the line of the retail leaders and argue that the people we are talking about don’t have the skills or the incentives to redesign, reimagine or improve a process – they are too junior to be trusted with this kind of responsibility. And if I really push, they will say that they haven’t got time for expensive and slow consultation processes, they just have to get on with it.
But if we really want to get excited about the future of all our organisations, we need to stop treating people as if they are the roles that they play, or the salaries that they earn, or the number of direct reports they have. They are not. They are fully functional human beings with hearts and heads. They are not part of the organisation; they are the organisation.
A human-centred approach to change puts the people whose work will be changed in charge of the design of that change. If that makes senior leaders uncomfortable then that’s a good sign that we are moving in the right direction - an exciting one.
Grahame Broadbelt is Head of Global Communications, Research and Development at Impact.
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Leading learning, leading change