Changing change management: From executive edict to empowered employees

Blog posts

12 May 2016

Duncan BrownDuncan Brown, Head of HR Consultancy

I love the Scott Adams cartoon where a consultant is telling the IT workers they must ‘embrace change’.

‘Can we change anything we want to change?’ asks Dilbert, naïvely.

‘No! You don’t get to say what the changes are. I do that.’ replies the consultant, ‘So embrace it, or I’ll fire you’, inducing hysterical cries of ‘We love change!!!’ from Dilbert and colleagues.

Colleagues and I have been thinking quite a lot about change in organisations in recent weeks, both from an academic research and practical consulting perspective.

We have been working with a university’s HR function to build their Organisation Development (OD) and change capabilities, as a number of its new policies, which look excellent on paper, have not had the impact they anticipated. We have also carried out a project for the Local Government Association (LGA) examining the research evidence and practical experiences of 10 council partnerships with joint chief executives, to better understand what HR and OD functions can do to support the aims of successful partnering and the changes that involves.

I confess to sharing Dilbert’s cynicism about change management at times. A lot of the time, in fact. We continue to be confronted in practitioner literature with simplistic models and ‘solutions’ for change: the ‘four building blocks’, ‘the Seven Ss’, ‘Blue oceans’ and so on. This despite the research evidence continuing to highlight that ‘in today’s dynamic environment, a majority of transformations continue to fail’, as an article in the latest issue of the McKinsey Quarterly summarises.

Or, as Ron Ashkenas put it in the Harvard Business Review: ‘Change management needs to change.’

The direction of travel it needs to be heading in was illustrated at our recent HR Network workshop on High-Involvement Change, with the clue very much in the title. Two excellent case studies highlighted that we need to move not only from imposing to consulting on major changes, but go further and empower staff to co-create as well as just deliver the change plan.

At the UK Vehicle Inspectorate in the Civil Service, as Valerie Garrow, IES principal associate, explained, staff have started to become genuinely engaged with change and performance improvement. This was achieved through self-directed ‘positive action groups’, in a large organisation where there was a history of unsuccessful re-structuring and re-badging and a legacy of low confidence and blame.

At Guys and St Thomas’s in the NHS, as last year’s Care Quality Commission inspection report put it, ‘the trust-wide engagement of staff in a culture of improvement and compassionate care led to a proud and empowered workforce’ and the highest staff survey ratings in the NHS.

So what has been their secret? Why are these change initiatives succeeding when so many fail? Although in different settings and stages, their experiences reinforce some of the key conclusions from our LGA study.

Focus on the process, not just the plan. Forget rigid structural and HR ‘alignment’ with detailed strategic plans and instead allow for and build in adaptability, taking opportunities as things evolve, pushing where the going is easiest at a pace that makes sense, related to the capacity and resources available, building capabilities as you go. ‘Succeeding at partnering’ we concluded, ‘requires a flexible, even paradoxical mindset, trying out different initiatives to see what works in each unique situation’. Get ideas and learning from others, but don’t boiler-plate what others have done; it won’t fit your situation.

Most of all, as one senior interviewee in the research told us, ‘let go’: replace top-down executive diktat with bottom-up, employee-driven and owned change and heavy engagement with all stakeholders. In one local authority partnership in which we ran focus groups, staff complained they had come up with proposals a number of times to merge two teams, so as to run more efficiently, and been ignored and eventually rejected by senior managers. However wonderful your organisation design, team building, training or reward policies, in that sort of low-involvement context, change is very unlikely to succeed.

As Valerie puts it ‘high-involvement change brings huge benefits’ but also ‘big challenges to leaders’. Perhaps the problem has been we have focused too much in the past on changing employees and not enough on their executives and leaders. Ashkenas concludes similarly, that ‘The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped.’

Middle management numbers and capacity have been decimated in many organisations. Meanwhile senior management risk being seen as though they are ‘from another planet’, as Richard Lambert, former Director General of the CBI, put it - only further illustrated by their ballooning remuneration.

An article title in the forthcoming Harvard Business Review: ‘Embracing Agile’, did I confess make me wince.

Here we go, I thought, another rebranding of ‘Lean’. Yet another inflexible, over-engineered, ‘sheep-dip’ process to be pushed down by executives and consultants onto long-suffering employees to try to induce them to do even more work with even less resources. But hang on a minute, what’s this?

 ‘Agile methodologies are a radical alternative to command-and-control style management, spreading across a broad range of industries and functions and even into the C suite’

‘Highly empowered cross-functional teams … the initiative owner doesn’t tell the team who should do what or how long tasks will take’

‘By taking people out of their functional silos and putting them in self-managed and customer-focused multidisciplinary teams, the agile approach is … accelerating profitable growth’

Exactly the sort of approach our most successful local authorities were taking, if with less flowery language.

As the authors identify, in researching their case examples of Agile, ‘a serious impediment’ exists: executives. They note General George Patton Jr advised leaders never to tell people how to do things, ‘Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you’.

HR and OD professionals need to surprise a few more organisations in this way if we are to improve the abominable record of major change initiatives in this country.

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