Arse-Over-Tit Change Management - Kay-Lambert Associates Limited

Kay-Lambert Associates Limited

Training, Coaching & Consultancy for Growth

Arse-Over-Tit Change Management

I recently attended a meeting of the Change Management Institute, where members were invited to share a particular change challenge they were currently dealing with.

One of the situations described related to a systems migration project within a major bank. The project had already been agreed and set up, with deadlines in place and a budget allocated. The Project team was in place and third parties had already been signed up. However, the Project Manager was experiencing significant frustration because she couldn’t get time with really busy people to scope out the design requirements of the new system. There was a danger that the project would stall, or, even worse, proceed on faulty assumptions about what was actually required.

Frustration can make us do and think crazy things. It can drive paranoia, anger, resentment. It can encourage us to adopt punitive measures. The Project Manager freely admitted that she was on the verge of locking people in a room and not letting them out until she’d got what she needed. And much of the discussion was around escalation: getting senior managers to enforce their people to meet with the project manager.

When projects reach a point where the only remaining option is to start banging heads together and enforcing compliance, the integrity of the project (and its ultimate success) has suffered.

Two critical things come to mind when I see situations like this. One is “Where is the Why?” and the Other is “What about the How?”. Let me explain further.

Where is the Why?

At the start of any change initiative, there has to be a Why, and this ‘why’ has to be compelling. After all, why would we choose to change something if there wasn’t a compelling reason to do so? Whilst the Why may be understood and accepted by the project originators and sponsors, it doesn’t always cascade down to those who will be most affected by the change. What is more, their why might be very different.

The point of change is that it makes an impact, and there is often some pain associated with it, particularly in the early stages. This is true even if the change is truly desired. Just think of the stress associated with planning a wedding. What keeps people focused on seeing the change through, is the recognition of how it will improve outcomes for themselves and those whom they serve. When we see the point, and want the associated benefits, it’s easier to get behind the change, even if it’s sometimes tough.

New change programmes are often introduced with a fanfare, spelling out why this is so good or necessary for the company. Phrases such as “We have to do this to remain compliant”, or “This will improve our competitiveness” are all well-and-good, but do they really engage the hearts and minds of the people on the front-line? These people will have different reasons to get behind the change, or vested interests in resisting or frustrating the change. Failure to engage with them at this early stage means accepting that you won’t have their commitment. People will continue to have more important things to do and focus on, and the change is either considered irrelevant or a damn nuisance.

What about the How?

We are coming to accept that change is a natural and necessary part of life, even if we don’t always like some of it. Some is forced upon us, and some is chosen freely. If we have a clear and compelling ‘why’, we can even be enthusiastic about the change ahead. However, this acceptance (albeit reluctant at times) rarely translates into accommodation. We have come to assume that change can be introduced on top of what we are already doing.

Most people are already busy. Okay, so they might not be being productive or effective, but generally, people are maxed out at work. Very few people are sitting around, twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do. When change comes along, it almost always demands something else, on top of what people are already doing.

Our organisation has developed a programme called Making Space for Change, which we run in organisations that are on the verge of any change programme. This programme acknowledges that change brings extra work and extra strain, and space needs to be created within our work schedule to accommodate it. If we don’t free up this space, people become overloaded, overwhelmed and unsupportive of the change.

Whenever we change something, there is a transition moment when we are doing more: we are maintaining the legacy system or process, trying to get our heads around the replacement or enhancement, and then moving from one to the other. During this time, we are having to concentrate more, absorb more data, and develop competence with the new approach. At the same time, we are having to learn to ‘let go’ of something that was familiar and (at one time, possibly) important to us. The anxiety this creates has an effect on our productivity during the transition. This is often referred to as ‘the loser trap’. It’s the point when we might even begin to doubt the value of continuing with the change, and possibly start back-tracking, trying to hold on to the old.

This knowledge isn’t ground-breaking. There’s no ‘ah-ha’ moment when we read this. It’s total common-sense. We know these things WILL happen whenever we go through change. It’s totally predictable. However, we don’t design our change programme to reflect the journey that people (including ourselves) will go on. We tend to blithely assume that somehow, we’ll cope and make it happen: it’s delusion dressed up as optimism.

Creating Space for Change is a vital part of the change management journey. It’s the point at which we start to fully understand the impact of the change on people and their work, and how much time we need to create to allow people to contribute to it, accommodate it, and make it a success.

Once we have this understanding, then we can start to reconfigure our workload and priorities to ensure that time, energy and resources will be available to make it happen, a bit like defragmenting a computer hard drive. What is more, we also need to ensure that we continue to run our businesses and meet our stakeholders’ needs with the same high degree of quality and service, whilst implementing the change. This needs to be done without killing our people in the process.

Both points shared above are activities that need to take place at start of the change journey. If neglected at this stage, they will have to be addressed at a later stage, which is much harder. By that point, resentment has set in, and you’ve lost the goodwill of your people. Projects are much more likely to fail when you are forced to do these things retrospectively. That’s why I call this ‘arse-over-tit change management’. It’s back-to-front and guaranteed to trip you up.

However, if you get the Why and the How sorted out early on, you’re much more likely to have a smoother ride.

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