Are managers really ready for change?

Blog posts

8 May 2019

Ed GriffinEd Griffin, Director of HR Consultancy and Research

I’ve just joined IES as Director of HR Consultancy and Research, and this is my first blog post. I’ve started scanning through our wealth of research reports and practical guides produced in recent years. Having had a particular interest in OD, I’ve been looking specifically at the work we have done in this area. One thing that has really caught my eye has been IES’ 2018 work on Change Readiness and Change-Capable Teams. Here’s a handy infographic showing some of the key factors for a change-ready change-capable team.

I have been fortunate to experience the benefits first hand of developing teams that have the resilience, readiness and capability to manage and deliver change. It can be rewarding, exciting and enjoyable! It’s the kind of team I always want to work with again. The challenge seems to be how we equip line managers and HR to enable this. The benefits that come with doing this successfully and sustainably are significant for those who crack it. Perhaps it’s worth revisiting how you’re setting managers and teams up to be successful in change.

Over the past 20 years there was major growth in the presence of Organisation Development (OD) in UK organisations that has run across sectors. We saw an initial rise of OD in the form of a growth in roles with “OD” in the title, we saw OD become part of the skill set for HR professionals and we saw a growth in courses, qualifications, research and publications in the field. I have to hold my hand up and admit to my part in that – I’ve been a Director of HR and OD, I’ve written about it and I’ve run training programmes in OD mind-set and skills. After the crash in 2008 there was also a shift in the times of austerity from OD to Organisation Effectiveness (OE), and subsequently I suspect a reduction in the number of roles with the “OD” label.

Despite my natural biases, I’m left with some questions – has the drive for OD/OE and HR’s leadership of it, left organisations in a better place, better able to manage change, and has change been more effective as a result? In turn, this is leading me to question if we ended up letting line managers off the hook for decent change management and leadership? And finally, I wonder if it’s time for us to bring a clearer and simpler focus to how get ready for change?

Over the past decade, my experience has been that in practice many HR professionals have had a positive impact on how their organisation changes and develops in the face of major challenges. That decade has seen organisations fighting for survival, whilst others have experienced rapid growth. In many cases, it has been the commitment and expertise of HR that has played a vital role in making and implementing difficult decisions, and equally a key part in dealing with growing pains.  However, at the same time I have seen too many instances of HR picking up the pieces at the back end of poorly conceived and poorly led change. My impression is that we have more HR professionals who are ready, able and willing to support line managers in how they manage and develop their part of the organisation. The part that is sometimes missing is those line managers being willing to engage with their HR colleagues at the earliest opportunity.

There still seems to be a heavy reliance on external expertise to manage change rather than helping clients build their own capability. A quick Google search for “Change Management Consultancy” returns over a million results. A search for “Organisation Development Consultancy” in turn throws up over 18 million results! This alone could be a powerful indicator of how we continue to struggle to find effective and sustainable ways of bringing about change in organisations today. We continue to see examples of major public programmes falling behind plan and going over budget, mergers or acquisitions failing to deliver the expected benefits and new products being pulled after launch. We clearly still have much to learn. Experience continues to suggest to me that we can do more to help teams build their own capability and confidence to lead and deliver change. This feels like a much more sustainable approach.

With old models of change predicated on more stable contexts, there has been an understandable growth in a focus on organisations becoming “agile”. Almost by definition, an organisation that is able to thrive with higher levels of uncertainty has a better chance of surviving in today’s less predictable world. OECD’s recent Employment Outlook for 2019 identifies some of those likely challenges, including the potential for 14% of jobs to face a high risk of automation. This being just one major factor which could significantly disrupt both organisations and employees. Perhaps the need to be agile has never been greater.

I have too often seen that we still have much to do to strengthen managers and teams in their change-readiness. It’s an area that doesn’t take rocket science – better to have robust evidence and clear pragmatic approaches that teams can understand and apply together. As I get my feet under the desk at IES, I’m keen to see how we can continue to help organisations better deal with change and to help improve the world of work.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.