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Leading organisational change – Become the Master of Change – Part five


Publication date:

10 June 2020

Last updated:

11 June 2020


Jon Dear

Change is difficult for individuals, and even more complex for organisations which are made up of individuals, groups, systems, processes, procedures, culture(s), customers, suppliers and so on.

It is a foregone conclusion that introducing change into an organisation is only to be undertaken by the bravest amongst us. Machiavelli,  who doesn’t have the greatest of reputations, but who was an important spin doctor in the fifteenth century, is quoted as saying:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things” Why? Well, he goes on to say, “Because the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.”

Basically, he was saying, that the person who wants to introduce change is on their own!

But, we know that change is inevitable, and that we have to change to remain competitive, or even solvent. So, if you can answer the question’ “Do I absolutely have to change things?” with the answer’ “YES, I do”,  then here are some steps you can take that will give you a fighting chance of succeeding.

External pressure

For a change programme to be effective, then members of the organisation have to perceive the need to change as real and pressing - something which they can almost touch and feel, and which is really bothering them. It has to be a high priority; it has to be both urgent and important. The best place to start, if you can, is the apocryphal “burning platform” - some sort of crisis that threatens the very existence of the organisation or part of it. Generally speaking, internal pressure - this is a good thing to do - will be insufficient (just like more New Year’s Resolutions), as people revert to type (old habits die hard).  So, let’s assume you have persuaded organisation members that there is real and pressing external pressure for change. The Coronavirus is a great example here - persuading people to stay indoors was only possible because just about everyone bought into the thought that the virus was life-threatening - a burning platform.

Vision for change

This is why we have leaders - it’s the job of the leader or the leadership team, to convey a powerful vision for change to the members. Members have to be persuaded that the future will be better than the past - otherwise, why bother to change? If there is a leadership team, then each member of the team must share the vision - there can be no dissenting voices, otherwise the message is diluted. (If you don’t believe this, just look at the Government’s Cabinet, and ask yourself what the single, unified vision for the future is. And then ask yourself, why you don’t believe that there is any direction. Democracy is a system of government that makes decision-making very difficult, because there are so many competing sources of leadership - there is never a single, unified voice. Add to that, the impact of social media, and you can see why we find it so difficult to agree on a vision (for change.) But, it is insufficient to have a single, unified vision - it has to be communicated… again (and again) and again. Sending an email won’t cut the mustard; standing up at a conference to tell everyone where we’re going won’t do it either (although that’s better than the email approach); the leader has to live and breathe the change and has to take every opportunity to express their belief in it, the disadvantages of the current situation, and the benefits they can see accruing to the organisation. The Government’s daily briefings are an attempt to convey this vision - “we will beat the virus, if you do as you’re told” - even though some of the surrounding actions undermine the message. The Cummings’s trip to Durham, whether justifiable or not, was a great example of not living the vision.

Capacity for change

To make the change happen is likely to require the use of the organisation’s systems to facilitate it. First, and foremost, can the organisation’s members act in line with the change? If not, then you will have to train them - grow their skills; develop their attitudes, broaden their knowledge. Secondly, use all the other systems to reinforce the change, the most powerful of these are, of course, performance management and rewards - you can recognise those members who act in line with the change, and, well, you know what we mean. Thirdly, use all the communications channels at your disposal - don’t be shy to announce successes; let people see and hear how the change is working out. Finally, and this may not be a system, you have to persist - remember Clavin Coolidge - people will resist the change, and you have to overcome this resistance. In whatever way ensures the ultimate success of the change and the organisation. In the current situation, the furlough system, paying people to stay at home, showing them how to wash their hands, fining people for misdemeanours, Thursday clapping for the NHS - all these examples, and many more you can think of, reinforce the change we are going through.

Actionable first steps

Once the time for talking is past, and the time for action is here, then create short-term wins. Implement parts of the change that are relatively easy, or implement the whole change in parts of the organisation that are positive about it. Load the first steps for success - don’t give the cynics an even chance. By the time you reach the hardest part of the change, or the toughest part of the organisation, you want momentum on your side. Complacency may be your biggest enemy - don’t declare victory after a single battle - it’s a war you are fighting. (Sorry to be so pugnacious, but having experienced many change programmes, it’s possible to recognise why they fail, and complacency is a big reason). Again, it’s possible to see good examples from the current pandemic - coming out of lock-down into the “new normal” is as big a change as going in, and people will require evidence that it is the right thing to do at the right time. So, the messages about declining death rates, about the “world-class” systems that have been developed, about continued social distancing - all these things, and many more, are ways of fighting complacency, of passing responsibility to the population at large, of overcoming cynicism and of maintaining momentum.

All four steps are critical. You cannot omit any one of them. If you don’t create or utilise a real external pressure for change, then the change will receive a low priority in people’s minds and you will get no or only slow change. If there is no clear vision, you will likely get a false start, followed by diffused effort. If the internal capacity of the organisation is not lifted, then people will become frustrated and angry. And, finally, with no actionable first steps, then chaos will ensue.

So, if you are responsible for implementing an organisational change programme of any size, remember these four steps; build them into the technical change programme (e.g. a systems upgrade), so that you capture hearts and minds, and make yourself the Master of Change.

This document is believed to be accurate but is not intended as a basis of knowledge upon which advice can be given. Neither the author (personal or corporate), the CII group, local institute or Society, or any of the officers or employees of those organisations accept any responsibility for any loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the data or opinions included in this material. Opinions expressed are those of the author or authors and not necessarily those of the CII group, local institutes, or Societies.