Facing Up is Hard to Do
Oh, change happens. It will anyway, with or without us. But those big changes that politicians, CEOs and project leaders initiate with grand aspirations, wild promises, and delusional self-confidence: how many of those work and produce the benefits they promised?
The world in which we are now living is complicated. Let’s face it: it’s still work-in-progress: it’s not finished yet. We’re making it up as we go, and working out how to operate within it on the hoof. And we are doing this with all our human imperfections, idiosyncrasies, fallibilities and limitations.
Just acknowledging this is a good start, but it’s not an excuse.
We’re so accustomed to criticizing the process of change and blaming everyone other than ourselves for its lack of success. We go further and blame ‘events’, nebulous happenings, ‘timing’, ‘unforeseen consequences’ as if these things were all entirely beyond our grasp to understand, plan for and factor in.
It’s as if we want to believe that change is a cheeky devil that’s always one step ahead, and is determined to sabotage all our efforts. ‘Change’ has become a living breathing entity with a mischievous character. Our final recourse, then, when the change fails spectacularly, or fizzles out, or leads us down a blind alley; is to castigate this entity we call ‘Change’, and absolve ourselves with the comforting words, “Well change is hard and we did our best’.
Whenever anyone says “I did my best”: or “We tried everything, but it wasn’t to be”, my face involuntarily twists and contorts itself to adopt a quizzical expression. It’s not that I think they are lying. At that point, they probably believe they are telling the truth. But the cynical gene in me is woken and I find myself questioning ‘everything?’ and ‘your best?’ It just seems too convenient. It feels like they are not facing up to their own limitations.
We do have limitations, even though these are often smaller than we give ourselves credit for. However, if we know we have limitations which are likely to lead to the same outcomes when we fail to address them, it isn’t enough to blame failure on those limitations. The fault lies with us for not addressing them.
There are two major limitations in relation to the way we handle change that we must seriously address if we are to successfully deliver progressive change programmes in the future. I call these limitations the Mini Macro’s.
Let me explain.
The Mini Limitation is our failure to understand the broader consequences of the change.
The Macro Limitation is our failure to understand the detail, the minutia which can trip up any change programme.
How do these limitations manifest themselves in reality? Here’s a Mini example.
Imagine you are working in a Sales department of a cushion manufacturer. You decide
Unfortunately, you fail to take into account the bigger picture, and because of that you also fail to communicate with the various stakeholders who will be affected by the change you are introducing. Change isn’t the devil, but the devil is in the detail!
Here’s some of the overlooked devilish detail:
Your manufacturers in China have limited capacity on their production lines. They simply can’t produce more in the medium term.
Shipments from China are in containers that have a limited capacity, and the company only has freight arrangements for a limited number of containers.
Your UK warehouse has limited capacity for stock-holding, even if the stock is coming in and straight out.
The company strategy is to bring in seasonal designs. Therefore, it is less likely that buyers will want to stock up on unseasonal/obsolete products.
Shipment time from China is 9 weeks minimum, so the cushions will be obsolete by the time they arrive.
What’s the result? A change programme that produces chaos, frustration, disgruntled customers, annoyed manufacturers, and a disillusioned sales team.
We can get so focused and bogged down in our own area that we simply fail to recognise the connections and impact that radiate out and away from us. We don’t think about the consequences and even if we did, we don’t know where to look because our field of vision is so narrow. We lose sight of how the small changes and adjustments we make over here could have a huge impact on a different part of the business over there.
What’s more, we miss vital opportunities to link our small change initiative with existing processes of change which, if amalgamated could result in a more positive, integrated & impactful change occurring.
So starting at the Micro level inevitably limits the success-potential of the change.
What about the Macro Limitation?
Starting at the Macro level, which is where we see much more of our change happening (partly because it tends to announce itself with a fanfare!), is also a limiting factor.
Examples abound in government circles and when new CEO’s are appointed. The ego-driven imperative to ‘make your mark’ fuels massive change programmes.
These programmes are often hailed with words like “Out with the old, in with the new”, “Radical overhaul”, “Back to basics”, “Decentralisation”, etc.
Their claims are that what went before was fundamentally broken, no longer fit-for-purpose, and must be dismantled. These claims are often made without any true understanding of what’s actually going on, but it’s important to trash anything your predecessor did, so it has to be nothing less than wholesale redesign! This is the belief that say tinkering will never be enough because the whole idea was fundamentally flawed in the first place.
That’s the cynical view! Sometimes, the intentions are more laudable and rational.
And that’s why, when it comes to rolling out the programme, it stalls. The devilish detail that had never been considered rears its ugly head and crunches its teeth into the fleshy parts of your big idea!
It’s to be expected. Our work systems are so complicated that no-one can possibly understand all the connections, intersections & interdependencies. It’s simply too big for one person to hold in their head. That’s how it is with many IT systems such as SAP. There probably isn’t a person alive who could claim to be an expert on the entire SAP software programme.
So at the Macro level, human frailty kicks in.
Two Negatives Can Make a Positive
But it’s only a worthwhile admission if it spurs us on to change the way we introduce and manage change.
Standing alone, neither the Mini nor the Macro change approach fit the bill. The Macro is too big to understand the detail, & the Mini is just too focussed on selective detail. But standing together, both approaches stand a better chance of bringing about the change they desire.
creating Change Teams that reflect and balance out the limiting factors by incorporating both the Mini & Macro preferences.
incorporating Mini & Macro approaches to the change design phase: adopting a Systems Thinking approach to the change whilst also having the capacity to dream a little. In this way, we can jointly develop a better appreciation of the different approaches.
using both approaches even if the change is small; just a little tweak or adjustment. You still need the Macro overview to see how it relates to other adjustments being made elsewhere, and how these can be brought together into a coherent whole.
resisting the urge to make huge pronouncements about what’s wrong and what your solution is until you’ve done the digging for detail.
leaving your ego out of the equation!
The detail, if ignored, is a trip hazard; and knowing where you want to get to is vital. There’s no good reason why Mini & Macro shouldn’t become great partners. I think that would make a very refreshing change!
Director, Kay-Lambert Associates Limited