Anthony Greenfield’s first-hand experience with the frustrations of organisational change led him to write two successful books focused on helping organisations harness the psychological factors that drive people to support or oppose change.
The 5 Forces of Change shows you how to tap into the human needs that lead people to support or oppose change. It sets out a practical blueprint for leading people through change by approaching it in a way that avoids provoking resistance.
At the same time, it equips you with the tools and techniques you need to engage people constructively with change, avoid common pitfalls and deliver successful outcomes.
5 Tales of Change brings to life the difficulties of managing change through five short stories about real people in real organisations. In each tale, our hero or heroine is beset by one of the major pitfalls of organisational change, leading them to discover an approach that turns the situation on its head.
In short, they learn to work with the grain of human nature, galvanising people to make change happen rather than oppose it.
The Five Forces of Change
– Liberate your organisation’s potential
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin [1809 – 1882]
1.1 The Trouble with Change
Major organisational change should be avoided at all cost. It sucks up time, energy and emotion, distracts you from your main purpose, disrupts operations, annoys your people, undermines morale and rarely delivers the promised benefits. The statistics make grim reading; 70% of change programmes fail1, 75% of all re-engineering projects fail to achieve their aims2 and 83% of all mergers and acquisitions fail to increase shareholder value3.
Looked at another way, the world of work is shifting at such a mind-boggling rate that we have little choice but to continually change or risk being left behind. Information Technology continues to shrink the world and revolutionise the way organisations operate. Between the years 1750 and 1900, the World’s entire scientific knowledge doubled. Now it doubles every 1-2 years. In January 2008, there were 875 million internet shoppers worldwide4, in 1993 there were none. Success is no longer a matter of being the fittest or the smartest it is about being the most adaptable to change. Any enterprise that can introduce new ideas and new approaches frequently and effortlessly has a huge advantage. It is the role of a modern leader to make this possible.
Whereas organisations may have little choice but to change, people do. Large-scale change requires people to invest a great deal of energy and emotion in getting to grips with new methods and in living with extended periods of uncertainty. The role of a leader is to guide, support and sustain people through the trials and tribulations of change. Better still, it is to engage the enthusiasm and ingenuity of people in bringing about swift, painless and sustained change.
At the heart of the matter is the way we experience and respond to change. Extended periods of uncertainty, associated with any major change, cause us stress and anxiety. We are reluctant to let go of familiar things and to abandon tried and trusted approaches in favour of novel and unproven ideas. We like to feel in control of our destiny and hate to look foolish when struggling to do something new for the first time. We want to know where we are going and how we are going to get there, and when the ground begins to shift under our feet we lose confidence and find it hard to remain effective.
On the flip-side, we are capable of amazing things. We love to rise to a challenge and derive enormous satisfaction from overcoming obstacles and succeeding against the odds. We are innately curious creatures who enjoy exploring new avenues, coming up with better ways of doing things and learning new skills. So our response to a given change can vary dramatically depending on how we experience it and how we are led through it.
The key to success, and the subject of this book, is to work with the grain of human nature rather than against it. Like a master of martial arts, you must turn opposing forces to your advantage instead of meeting them head on. In short, if you can help people to become more certain, more in control, more connected, more purposeful, more confident and more successful during change then they will achieve extraordinary results.
This book allows you to learn from the successes and failures of others. It equips you with the understanding and tools you need to become one of those rare leaders who is able to bring about lasting organisational change with a minimum of fuss.
1.2 Heroes of Change
Change may be problematic but there is evidence of it all around us. The last hundred years has been unprecedented in the history of mankind in terms of the change that we humans have brought about. So what can we learn from people and organisations that have been successful in bringing about change? Who are the “heroes of change” and what have they understood about human nature that can help us achieve our goals?
One of the best known heroes of change is Mohandas “Mahatma” Ghandi who led the movement for independence for India from the British Empire through non-violent protest in the 1940s. One of the most powerful things Ghandi did was simply to embody the change he wanted to bring about. For instance, he dispensed with Western dress in favour of a traditional white cotton robe signalling his championing of ordinary people and an India built proudly on Indian traditions not Western values. One brief story illustrates his style of leadership. A mother visited Ghandi with her daughter and asked him to persuade her daughter to give up her habit of eating sugar as it was damaging her teeth and making her overweight. The Mahatma told the mother and daughter to go away and return the following week. On their return, he asked the girl to give up eating sugar. Her mother, somewhat put out, asked why they had had to wait a week for him to do as she had requested. “That’s because a week ago I too ate a sugar” was his reply. As he once famously declared, “We must become the change we want to see.”
The TV chef Jamie Oliver has, in his own way, become a hero of change. He made big news in the UK by working with schools, and eventually the British government, to introduce healthier lunches into schools in the face of rising childhood obesity. As part of his BBC television series, entitled “Jamie’s School Dinners”, he stepped into one school and worked with the head ‘dinner lady’ to prove that children could be persuaded to eat more fruit and vegetables and to give up fried chicken nuggets and chips. Once he had proved that it could be done in one school, he trained dozens of dinner ladies from other schools in the art of creating healthy meals on a tight budget that would appeal to children. One great technique Jamie used to overcome the reservations of a particular group of children who steadfastly refused to even try the healthy food was to get them into the kitchen and to teach them how to prepare healthy meals for themselves. By giving them a better understanding of food and a sense of ownership and control over the creation of healthy dishes they became converts to the cause of healthy eating. The important lessons we can learn from Jamie’s successes and failures are covered in Chapter 3.
Any parent who has helped a nervous child dispense with stabilisers and begin learning to ride a bicycle unaided is a hero of change. They know that any girl or boy approaching something they find daunting needs plenty of encouragement. Even the slightest improvement or momentary unaided pedalling needs to be praised to the skies to help them persevere when facing the perils of grazed knees and damaged pride. Without support through the initial wobbles the shiny new bike, bought at great expense, will simply gather dust in the garage. Self-belief is just as important for adults when trying out new things. People should be recognised for having a go at applying new working methods even if initial results are poor. They need encouragement and support if they are going to persevere through the initial wobbles and win through in the end.
Another unlikely hero of change was the person who tens of thousands of years ago invented ceremony. This may have been the first marriage ceremony or naming of a new-born child. More likely, it was the first funeral ceremony setting out the correct way to mourn the passing of a loved one. Something all ceremonies have in common is the ending of one way of being and beginning of another. There is within these ceremonies wisdom about the nature of how humans deal with change and an understanding that people have a need to mark the passage to a new life and new set of relationships. This understanding can help us in our quest for transformational change in the workplace.
On a different note, Martin Luther King, the great American civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s, dared people to dream of a day when people of different races and religions could live side by side in harmony. In his famous 1963 speech, “I Have a Dream”, delivered to a crowd of thousands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., he painted a vivid and compelling image of a brighter, more egalitarian future. Here is an excerpt:
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…
King knew that if people could glimpse, even for one moment, this brighter, more equal future then it would help them share his faith and conviction despite the hardships and opposition they faced at that time. He also linked the past (quoting from the American Declaration of Independence) to the present and to the future, an important technique for framing change as evolution, not revolution. You may not be changing the political landscape of a powerful nation, but without strong conviction and the ability to communicate a brighter vision of the future you cannot expect people to follow you along what may be a difficult and uncertain path.
Another more prosaic but important hero of change is the first person who tore gaping holes in their jeans and then stuck them back together with safety pins. This type of hero from the 1970s is the Innovator, the trendsetter who dares to be different and to take the lead. Others that follow the trend, the so-called Early Adopters, begin to spread the idea until one day you wake up and something that was once though outlandish has become mainstream and fashionable. Before you know it, a glamorous film actress (Liz Hurley) is wearing a £10,000 Versace dress held together with safety pins to the Hollywood Oscars ceremony.
The fashion industry is a vast machine that manages to drive a perpetual cycle of innovation and change. It takes a trendsetter to set the direction and the fashion gurus to bring it to the mass audience. To bring about change in your organisation you need to allow the trendsetters to take the lead and the Early Adopters to spread the message.
So what can we learn from these disparate heroes? What do they know that will help us bring about successful change? The answer is that in their different ways they have managed to address some basic human needs that must be satisfied for change to take root. What these needs are and how they can be fulfilled is revealed in the pages of this book.
1.3 The Myth of “Resistance to Change”
For thousands of years human beings were farmers, happy to plough fields and raise animals (still a way of life for millions around the world). The pace of life was dictated by the regular progression of the seasons; there was a time for planting and a time for harvesting. Society was held together by traditions and unchanging beliefs. Everyone knew their place and what was expected of them. The rate of change was gentle and one tradition slowly gave way to the next over generations.
The human race would have been wiped out long ago if people accepted every strange new idea without a thought. We like to work things through in our minds, test them out and gradually absorb them into our way of life. Times of major upheaval, such as the Industrial Revolution, have brought with them great hardship and misery for many as familiar ties are broken and only slowly replaced by a new order.
Even positive change comes at a price. We all know that exciting and desirable changes can feel as stressful as going through an undesirable one. Think of examples in your own life, like starting a better job or moving to a new home. You may have been fed up with your old job but at least you could operate comfortably within it, and your new home might have more space for the kids but you cannot help feeling nostalgic about the old place despite it being cramped.
We all have a conservative streak. It may be larger or smaller according to our nature, our experience and our age. Some people are naturally mistrusting of new ideas and lots of people become more set in their ways as the years pass. On the other hand, many older people in the West are now finding a new lease of life and making dramatic changes in their 60s and beyond, choosing, for example, to do voluntary work in distant and inhospitable corners of the globe. People can and do make remarkable changes when the conditions are right.
Compared to mankind’s early history the speed of change in modern times is astonishing. The world of our children is almost unrecognisable to our parents. Technology, mobile communications and the internet have shrunk the world and transformed our lives. A consequence of this revolution is that frequent change has become part and parcel of working life and, if anything, the pace of change is accelerating. All of this comes at a price in human terms. Sudden or dramatic change can be a source of great emotional turmoil as we are forced to live with a high degree of uncertainty and relinquish tried and trusted methods for unfamiliar ones. However, organisations that want to survive and prosper in the long term have little choice but to continually re-adjust or re-invent themselves to keep pace with changes in the environment. At the same time, they cannot risk alienating their people or leaving them behind altogether in the rush to stay ahead of the game.
Much has been written about overcoming people’s “resistance to change”, but in reality people rarely set out to oppose change through sheer bloody-mindedness. It is, however, all too easy to provoke them into it, especially when they have experienced badly managed change in the past. At the root of the problem is not people’s inability to adapt and work positively to bring about change, but the way that change is so often handled by organisations. That is why this book is about removing the underlying motives for resistance to change rather than dealing with resistance to change itself.
Provoking opposition to change is very easy. You could, for instance, suddenly announce to people who have worked in the same role for many years that their job is going to change dramatically overnight and that they will be working with new people using new methods under a new payment structure. For good measure, you might add that their job title will change from “Manager” to “Co-ordinator”. You can probably imagine the consequences. They certainly would “resist” change. More likely they would be extremely annoyed. People don’t react badly to change; they do react badly to poor leadership.
This example may seem extreme and something you would never contemplate doing, but most experienced people will have come across circumstances at work where change has been handled at least as badly if not worse. For example, I recently came across a case of a senior director in a major organisation being fired by text message! Moreover, there are myriad other more or less subtle ways to really infuriate people when introducing a new initiative.
The good news is that by anticipating and responding to people’s basic needs during change not only can you avoid triggering negative reactions, but you can also harness their talent and energy to help you deliver a far more successful change than you might ever have imagined.
So how is it done? First off, you need to appreciate what makes people tick; the basic things that drive them to do things like strive for promotion, work hard to meet a deadline or help others succeed. Next, you need to understand how these basic drivers are affected when something comes along that shakes up the status quo and threatens to knock things off balance. Then you must learn how to meet people’s needs during periods of transition and so reap the benefits of working with a team that is pulling with you rather than against you. This book leads you through each of these stages.
Change has many potential pitfalls, but if you help your people to adapt, your chances of success will be vastly increased.
1.4 Root Causes
In business and the public sector, continuously re-thinking and reshaping the way we do things has become part of everyday working life. The need to constantly manage transition is not just a matter for specialists like project managers or consultants but is now recognised as a core management skill. Leaders know that organisations that cannot adapt efficiently will wither and die.
Most modern organisations invest huge quantities of time, money and emotional energy each year in planning, organising and executing change. Despite all this, managers and executives frequently find themselves in the aftermath of a major initiative wondering what has actually been achieved. Too often the answer is ‘not very much’. Worse than that, their people become progressively more sceptical about improving things and the next big initiative has even less chance of delivering the goods.
There are countless examples of organisations that have spent a fortune on new warehouses, business re-organisations, marketing campaigns, acquisitions, IT systems, training programmes, incentive schemes and all manner of new initiatives that have seen little or no return on their investment. One common cry is that people’s performance has not improved – “If only they would exploit the new systems and new ways of working to their full potential we would be producing better products at half the cost”. So why are things not improving? Has all the investment been misplaced?
The answer is that change can and does succeed, and the small minority of organisations that are able, time and again, to truly exploit change have a significant competitive edge. It is not for nothing that piles of books have been written on the subject and that an industry dedicated to the management of change has sprung up over the last two decades.
Yet with all this, little has been done to dig beneath the surface issues of change and understand the underlying root causes. Much has been written, for instance, about the need for strong leadership and good communication during times of change. Others have pointed out the need to draw people towards a compelling vision of the future or to get people to take ownership of change. This is all sound advice, but any approach needs to be appropriate to the situation and applied in the right way at the right time. What is needed is the recipe for success not just a list of possible ingredients.
If, for instance, you wanted to build a bridge, it would seem like a good idea to hire some earthmovers and a crane and to equip yourself with steel girders and a large quantity of concrete. Using a bit of common sense and an enormous amount of sweat, not to mention lost sleep, you might even build some sort of a half decent bridge by following a “wing and a prayer” approach.
Many of us, however, would prefer to begin by studying the terrain that the bridge was due to be built on and to understand its purpose before we embarked on such a major undertaking. We would wonder how much weight the bridge might need to support, if there was a river to be spanned or even whether a simple rope bridge would suffice. Before drawing up any plans, those of us who are not already qualified civil engineers would want to understand how steel and concrete can be brought together successfully, elegantly and economically to create our bridge. We would want to appreciate the interplay between the materials and the stresses and strains that it would have to withstand to allow heavy traffic to pass over it safely.
Many leaders and managers follow the “wing and a prayer” approach when they come to deal with change. Often, they will know about the basic building blocks for successful change, such as good communication, through experience or from what they have learnt from others. They pull all this understanding together using common sense, gut feel and a good deal of blood, sweat and tears. What they lack is a clear appreciation of why these building blocks are so important and how they interplay. As a result, it is very difficult to apply the right technique in the right way according to the needs of the situation. Furthermore, if things go awry, as they almost certainly will at some point, there is a great temptation for leaders to stop applying these methods altogether if they don’t understand how and why they work.
Wholesale change means learning to operate in new ways and dealing with unfamiliar issues. But there is much more to it than the inconvenience of having to readjust your approach. When organisations and people encounter change, some fundamental forces of human nature come into play provoking strong emotional responses ranging from fear and anxiety through to disorientation, immobilisation and anger.
By understanding the nature of these forces and how to work with them you can use the materials at your disposal to build a bridge that suits the terrain in which you find yourself and meets the purposes of the transition you wish to achieve. Ignore them and they will almost certainly derail your plans. That is why great leaders are students of human nature and develop a strong sense of how to influence and inspire people, especially when they want to lead them into uncharted territory.
This book provides you with a practical guide to harnessing the forces that motivate people to help you succeed with your next change initiative.
1.5 The Five Forces of Change
Through the work of Maslow4 and Herzberg5 we have come to understand what motivates people at work. Herzberg identified hygiene factors, such as pay, that serve to de-motivate people when they are absent and motivating factors, such as achievement, that serve to motivate people to strive hard at work. It is these motivating factors that help us understand why it is that people respond to change in the way that they do.
By examining how motivating factors are affected by different types of change in a range of different types of organisation, I have identified five key areas of motivation that are strongly affected by organisational change. These human drivers, illustrated in Figure 1.1 and summarized below, which I have named the Five Forces of Change, form the basis of this book. The next five chapters are dedicated to examining each one in turn and uncovering the practicalities of addressing them successfully during organisational change.
Figure 1.1 The Five Forces of Change
An immediate consequence of impending change is uncertainty. At worst, people fear for their jobs and at the very least they can become unclear about what the future holds and their role within it. This causes anxiety and leads to distraction from work and a drop in performance. Chapter 2 is about creating certainty in uncertain times.
During periods of stability it is relatively easy to appreciate the purpose of what you are doing. Whether you are building cars or teaching children it is not hard to understand the overall objective. As an organisation changes course things can become foggy. People’s sense of direction is diminished and they become less confident about what they are doing. Chapter 3 deals with the need for leaders to provide a clear sense of purpose and to communicate it with conviction.
Organisational change, especially when it is imposed from the outside, can lead to strong feelings of unease as people sense that they have lost control over their working lives and become victims to outside forces. This can cause people to rebel against change or to quietly opt out of it. Giving people greater control over their destiny is the subject of Chapter 4.
We all form strong attachments to people and things. We identify ourselves with the job we do and the way we do it. We value our relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers. We become attached to our organisation, our team, or even our desk. When things change we need to change or break these connections and form new ones. Chapter 5 looks at how help people end old connections and adopt new ones with a minimum of heartache.
Anyone who has tried out new techniques when playing sport or following a change at work knows that performance often gets worse before it gets better and that there is a strong temptation to revert back to tried and trusted methods rather than persevere with new ones. Chapter 6 deals with the importance of failure during change and the need to nurture success to create the momentum necessary to ensure change takes root.
1.6 About This Book
If you are a leader (a manager or executive of any sort) who knows what it is like to grapple with the challenges of bringing about successful change or if you are about to embark on an important change of any description for the first time, then this book is for you. It draws on many people’s experiences of managing large-scale projects, including my own, as well as the insight of management experts. Above all, it is a practical aid to anyone who wants to know how to improve his or her leadership of change.
This book is about how people become involved with change, how they take it on board and how they make the most of it. How you go about designing new processes, new organisation structures, new information systems or how you define your organisation’s culture or even how you plan an office move is entirely up to you. This book focuses on helping you introduce and instil change by working with and through your people no matter what the nature of the change might be.
Sudden or dramatic change does not sit comfortably with human nature and much of this book is about the clash between people’s fundamental motives and the consequences of change. Understanding this is the starting point for appreciating the difficulties of change and how to overcome them. This book uncovers the human needs underlying the way we respond to change.
Section 1 of this book, comprising Chapters 2 -5, deals with each of the Five Force of Change in turn, illustrating them through real examples of successes and failures, and explaining how best to work with them to achieve your goals.
Section 2, comprising Chapters 7 -10, deals with the practicalities of applying the Five Forces of Change to successfully implement organisational change.
In Chapter 7, we examine a paradox of change; on the one hand we are curious creatures who enjoy new things, but at the same time we place great store in the predictable. We also examine how our desire for variety can be used to tip the balance in favour of change.
Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the realities of introducing major changes that affect people in a range of ways, both good and bad. They provide tools and techniques that can be used to help people implement change successfully whilst minimising any downturn in performance and ensuring that any change introduced results in lasting improvement.
Chapter 10 brings together many of the important themes of this book to describe the characteristics of great change leadership.
This book contains many examples from work and society at large to illustrate how other people have dealt with change in the past. Through these stories you will begin to understand what you need to do to steer your own teams through the difficult waters of change. You will also see that the root of the problem invariably lies not with the proposed new processes, new technology or new structures but with the way they are taken up by people. You will discover the deep-rooted human needs that govern the way people respond to new ideas and the prospect of change. Great leaders seem to know instinctively how to tap into these needs to win people over, whilst others trip over them, often ending up worse off than before they started.
SECTION 1 The Five Forces of Change
Chapter 2 Certainty
“A leader is a dealer in hope” – Napoleon Bonaparte
If you have ever been travelling to an important meeting and waited on a station platform for a delayed train you know the meaning of uncertainty. As time ticks by, you may consider the possibility of dashing to the car park and taking your chances on the motorway. As you glance at your watch for the fifteenth time you might begin mentally writing a letter to the managing director of the train company calling his or her competence into question. Then, out of the blue, comes an announcement that your train has left the previous station and will be with you in 11 minutes, leaving you plenty of time to reach your meeting. As you board the train, thoughts of incompetent railway management evaporate and you begin contemplating a cup of coffee and the pre-reading for the meeting. Certainty has been restored.
These sorts of irritation are part-and-parcel of the stress and strain of modern working life. They cause short bursts of frustration that generally pass quickly. More serious problems arise when people experience high levels of uncertainty over long periods of time, as is often the case with major organisational change.
We all need a degree of certainty. At different times in our lives and for different people the level of certainty required may vary but, whoever we are, we all need people and things we can rely on. They can take on a variety of forms such as friends and family, a place to call home, a regular routine, a job or a dependable set of rules and beliefs to help us navigate our way through difficulties. They provide a firm foundation on which to base our lives, steady us in times of uncertainty and help make us feel safe and secure. Take them away and we are soon in trouble.
As every skilled interrogator knows, the first step to breaking down a person’s resistance is to strip them of familiar things. Take away someone’s possessions, isolate them from friends and family and even deprive them of the assurance that night follows day (by keeping them in constant light) and they become confused, distressed and more susceptible to questioning.
At work, we come to rely on things such as standard practices, organisation structures, business processes, values and cultural norms. Over the years, we create a mental map of how things work, how to get things done and how to deal with problems. We use this mental map to navigate through work, to guide our decisions and in our dealings with other people.
If we move to a new organisation, we spend many weeks trying to work out the unwritten rules about how people work together, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, power relationships and the ethos of the organisation. Most of this is gathered through observation of our new colleagues; how do they talk to each other? How do they deal with crises? Do they show up to meetings on time? Consciously or unconsciously we gradually identify patterns of behaviour and cultural norms and pretty soon we conform to them and ‘go native’. If we cannot adapt to our new surrounding it is likely that we will find work difficult. We may become isolated, unhappy and eventually leave. So a good mental map is vital to our success.
But when change comes along, certainty is the first casualty. Our mental map can no longer be relied upon to guide us. We need to make adjustments and test our new map against new experiences. For small changes, like an amendment to a procedure or the introduction of a new person into our team, we can make the adjustment with little apparent effort. For major changes, we may go through a great deal of turmoil as we are forced to make wholesale revisions to our mental map of the workplace. Following a change in organisational structure, for instance, new teams are formed and new roles created. As a result, people need to adjust to new ways of working together, new responsibilities and even new attitudes. This is most challenging in situations where people have done the same thing in the same way for many years, creating a mental map that is deeply ingrained and has become the indisputable truth.
Small changes may raise people’s levels of stress for a while, but major changes can be a culture shock as mental maps are torn apart causing severe disorientation. People can experience the sort of emotional roller-coaster ride more normally associated with extreme personal upheaval such as divorce or the loss of a loved one. There may be periods of denial, frustration and dejection before people eventually come to terms with the new reality. Without an effective approach that enables people to adjust to change they can easily become demoralised or even immobilised as they feel the rug being pulled from under them. The resultant drop in performance at work represents a serious danger to their organisation.
This chapter explains how uncertainty can be minimised during change, greatly increasing your chances of improving performance quickly and with a minimum of disruption to operations. In particular, we look at the importance of open and honest communication, a subject which may already be familiar to readers with extensive experience of change. We also highlight the importance of a clear vision of the future and the need for confident and determined leadership. Most importantly, in this chapter and in those that follow, we look at how leading change in the right way can motivate people to work with it rather than against it.
The popular British comedian Eddie Izzard is a transvestite. During his live performances, his partiality for women’s clothes and make-up doesn’t seem particularly out of place as we are used to seeing performers in strange costumes on stage. However, he tells a number of great stories about how people react to him when he is going about his daily business wearing a dress. He recounts walking up to the counter in a corner shop and the shopkeeper staring at him obviously startled. The shopkeeper’s brain registers ‘a man in a dress’ but is unable to process this information based on any past experiences and is reduced to mumbling idiotically. In the face of seemingly nonsensical information that does not fit into his mental map of the world, the shopkeeper is left stunned.
This is a great example of how people can react to a novel situation where past experience cannot be used as a guide to current behaviour. It gives us a strong clue as to one of the reasons why change is often stressful. Change requires us to abandon old approaches and to adopt a new and unfamiliar set of rules. It requires that we reprogramme our brains to be able to operate efficiently in a new environment. It involves a tricky process of adjusting to unfamiliar terrain requiring a period of trial and error characterised by uncertainty, apprehension and mistakes. No wonder then that people can become fearful or frustrated and respond in ways that obstruct change and damage organisational performance.
Negative reactions to major change can persist from when it is first announced until well beyond the time that the change has supposedly been installed and things should be back on an even keel. This difficult period of transition, often characterised by anxiety and confusion, is known to some people familiar with organisational change as ‘Crazy Time’.
Take the example of a mass transport organisation that went from public to private ownership. Unsurprisingly, there was a good deal of uncertainty and concern amongst people at every level in an organisation that had a proud history of over 100 years of public service. What did private ownership entail? Would a new commercial focus mean longer hours or fewer jobs? Would shareholder’s interests come above those of the travelling public?
As is typical of many large-scale organisational changes, the rumour mill went into overdrive and a lot of time and energy was diverted away from work to focus on people’s personal worries. Some people expressed deep concerns and battled against changes while others tried to avoid it altogether in the hope that by keeping their heads down, the whole thing would blow over. But after a period of anxiety and frustration people learnt what was expected of them under the new regime and made a more or less successful transition.
However, in one corner of the organisation, the whole range of emotions and negative behaviours had yet to play out. This was the organisation’s training centre, which was largely overlooked during the shift to private ownership. The focus of people’s efforts during the transition period was on ensuring that operations continued to run smoothly and that investment in new infrastructure was driven forward. The training centre was left to its own devices.
Months later, problems became apparent. There were unreasonably long waiting times to get people onto basic training courses, including the Safety Training course, which was a prerequisite for almost all new recruits before they could start work. Even when people got on to courses, a large number of them were being failed by instructors. On top of that, operations managers were heavily critical of what people were being trained on and how they were being trained. A battle was developing between instructors who felt they were the guardians of high standards of practice and operations managers who felt that people were not being equipped for the practical commercial realities of the organisation. Some parts of the business were trying to set up their own training courses while others were trading insults with the training centre, including accusations of verbal and even physical abuse.
The training centre was still working with an old map of the world. This was immediately obvious on arrival at their premises where you were greeted by an old public service sign above the front door rather than the new company logo. On the one hand, instructors were in denial that things had changed, and on the other, they were battling against what they believed to be a drop in standards prompted by the advent of profit-driven privatisation.
The fact that the training centre was caught in a time warp was however not of their making. It was hard to blame them for not embracing change with open arms when they had not been given the wherewithal to do so. As a consequence, they inevitably clashed with the rest of the organisation and became a serious obstruction to successful change.
Any organisation going through major change has to face a difficult period of uncertainty as the old ways give way to the new ones (see Figure 2.1). The trick is to minimise the length and strength of Crazy Time by increasing people’s level of certainty.
Figure 2.1 Crazy Time – the transition between new and old ways of working
This book aims to help you reduce or eliminate the drop in performance that accompanies change. When people lack understanding about where they are heading and how they will cope when they get there, they become anxious about the future, confused about what is expected of them and frustrated by lack of clarity. As a result, they become distracted from the day job. Performance drops and customer service suffers. Uncertainty is one of the main causes of this loss of performance and so must be addressed proactively.
In the particular case of an organisation faced with being taken over or merged with another organisation, it is not unusual for some people to lose practically all of their motivation and drive. On the surface, they appear to continue to function as normal. However, in reality, they are simply going through the motions. Whilst people’s mental maps are thrown into confusion they simply tread water until they get a clearer picture of the future.
It is at times of major change when great leaders come to the fore, providing reassurance and restoring confidence in the future. These leaders intervene early to establish certainty as quickly as possible so as to minimise the severity and duration of any disruption in performance. Figure 2.2 is a graphical illustration of the effect of great leadership in minimising the dip in performance associated with uncertainty (where performance can be measured in terms of sales, productivity, customer service etc.). In the earlier example of the training centre in the privatised transport company, the absence of any discernible leadership of the change resulted in a spectacular drop in customer service.
Figure 2.2 Minimising the dip in performance
Each of us responds differently to change according to the nature of the change, our circumstances and our personalities. Some of us may be ‘change junkies’, always looking for the latest trends and grabbing hold of novel ideas. Others may be naturally more cautious, waiting for things to be tried and tested before even contemplating change. In Chapter 7, we will see how most populations can be divided into distinct groups according to their propensity for change. Figure 2.3 illustrates a simple continuum where people on the right end favour ‘Exploration’ (i.e. new ideas and methods) and people on the left end favour ‘Stability’ (i.e. current ideas and methods).
Just for fun, you might want to test your own propensity for change by placing yourself in the continuum in response to five questions:
Figure 2.3 The Stability – Exploration Continuum
Change is in the eye of the beholder. Each of us will score ourselves according to our current circumstance, the nature of the change and our natural propensity for change. People with young children may want to work abroad but are likely to be concerned about the health and schooling of their children in foreign parts and so, most likely, will score themselves less than 10 on question one. We may have been dedicated followers of fashion at one time in our lives but now perhaps pay little or no attention to it.
People have different predispositions to change. Some are naturally cautious while others may learn caution from working in a risk-averse environment. Doing the same thing in the same way year after year will also make it far more challenging for people to change. When working on a major change project I am always relieved to find that at least some members of the senior team are relatively new to their roles. Such people are generally more likely to be willing to live through a period of uncertainty in pursuit of improved organisational performance as they are less emotionally attached to current ways of thinking and working. In Chapter 8, we will see how to measure people’s tolerance for change so we can identify areas of concern and gauge how difficult the journey will be.
It is in times of uncertainty when great leaders are worth their weight in gold. Great leaders have a strong vision of where they want an organisation to go which they communicate constantly and passionately. They help people imagine the future, let go of the past and ready themselves for change. They are a source of confidence and reassurance in difficult times and back their words up with actions. They are honest about the difficulties associated with change and foster trust – a vital ingredient of a successful change. A survey conducted in 2003 by the business research specialists Prosci1, asked people within 288 different organisations about their experience of organisational change – the single greatest contributor to success identified by those surveyed was executive sponsorship. Effective sponsors “show visible and active support [for change], provide compelling justification for why the change is happening” and “communicate a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of change.”
During periods of upheaval people look for clear and decisive leadership. In times of war, we are drawn to leaders who are courageous, confident and determined. During times of transformation, people will naturally take their cue from the demeanour, actions and words of their leaders. At a time when a leader might be feeling uncomfortable about their own future, they need to be a guide and a steadying influence. What they say in private must match what they say in public, and most importantly, their words must be backed up by their deeds. Nothing will kill a change quicker than half-hearted leadership. If a leader merely mouths the words or betrays their discomfort with the change then there is little chance that others will want to embrace it. Furthermore, leaders at every level need to be as one in communicating the change. They are all links in the same chain. It matters little to a soldier what the general says if the captain or the sergeant major say the opposite.
If you are leading a change you need to begin by working on yourself, eliminating your own doubts and redrawing your own map of the world. You need to leap into the river before encouraging others to take the plunge. You need to take it to heart and talk about it with conviction. As we saw in Chapter 1, Ghandi, the consummate leader, embodied the change he wanted to bring about and would not ask anyone to do anything he had not first done himself.
You must also help other leaders (especially those that report to you) to become self-assured about the change, reminding them that people will be more interested in their tone of voice, their confidence and their body language than in the words that they use. Even more than that, they will be convinced by their actions.
Some managers will feel like they are stuck in the middle between an enthusiastic leadership group promoting change and concerned employees wary of what it all means. It is at the middle management layer that change often breaks down. It is all too easy to assume that all managers will give their unquestioning support and get on with making the change happen. However, it is reasonable for them to have their own doubts about the change and unless they are brought on board (using the Five Force of Change) they can become a major blockage in the works. On top of this, they may be ill-equipped to manage their own teams through the change process and so either make a hash of it or avoid trying altogether. Gaining the confidence of midlevel leaders and educating them in the art of bringing about change are critical tasks for senior leaders. It is the midlevel leaders who are responsible for putting a vision of change into practice within their area of responsibility and for ensuring that the organisation continues to run smoothly during crazy time. If a large proportion of them they are not fully on board then change will not become a reality.
During times of change, when certainty is in short supply, an effective leader will do everything they can to ramp up levels of communication across their organisation. As with any difficult journey, people will want to know from the outset why they should leave the comfort and security of familiar surroundings. It is up to leaders to spell out the benefits of change and the dangers of staying put to help convince people that the trip will be worthwhile. They need to help people redraw their mental maps of the world as quickly as possible by erecting new landmarks and charting new terrain. Thus a vivid picture must be communicated of what it will be like at work once the change has taken place – how it will look, how it will feel, and what is expected of people in terms of tasks, roles, attitudes and behaviours. If people are to develop confidence that they will be able to travel safely to the new world they also need to know how they will be provided with the resources and support they need to succeed when they get there.
Effective communication is not about painting a rosy picture of change. It is vital that people are told the truth. In fact, being open about the difficulties that may lie ahead demonstrates your respect for people’s intelligence and boosts people’s confidence in you as a leader. When people are uncertain about what they can rely on, they need leaders they can trust. Furthermore, you should be up-front about uncertainty. Let people know that it is all part-and-parcel of the transition process and that it is alright to feel insecure. In this way, they can accept the feeling more easily, even joke about it and get on with the job in hand.
Trust is a particularly crucial issue when a change involves job losses. The people left behind inside the organisation may feel that the unwritten contract between the organisation and its employees has been broken and mistrust can easily take hold. Two important strategies that can help ensure that this does not happen are the fair and equitable treatment of those made redundant and a great deal of open communication. Choosing not to talk about difficult subjects for fear of stirring up bad feelings or having to handle difficult conversations will inevitably backfire as concerns are simply driven underground where they will fester.
In Chapters 3 and 4, we will see how a clear sense of purpose and a feeling of control over your work environment are essential ingredients of successful organisational change partly due to the fact that they boost people’s levels of certainty. Before that, we will focus in more detail on the vital task of communicating change.
Think of a major change you have been involved in. What did people want in terms of communication? How did this compare to what they actually got? In a survey into organisational change conducted by Prosci (see Section 2.5) the single biggest complaint people had about how change had been handled in their organisation was ineffective or insufficient communication.
Take the example of how important changes were communicated in one financial services company. A common gripe amongst call centre sales staff was that the first time they got to hear about a new product or new promotional offer was when a customer asked them about it. Investigation into what had happened with a particular special offer revealed that the call centre staff had been informed about it several days in advance. However, the means of communication was a single sentence in a standard weekly update e-mail sent out to all staff covering a wide range of different issues. Only a small percentage of staff could recall reading that part of the email so in practice almost no communication had taken place.
In this age of the email, it is all too easy to assume that communication can be achieved at the click of a mouse. Communication is not a one-off event, especially where a large-scale change is involved. You may be a fabulous orator, but confidence in a major change cannot be conjured up out of thin air by a single presentation. We may fondly imagine that the polite applause at the end of a presentation signals the all clear for change, but it is just part of an extended process of winning people over. The measure of successful communication is not that it has been sent or received but that it has been acted on effectively.
Communication of change should be viewed as a process extending over time. People progress in stages from initial recognition of a change to understanding it, before moving on to testing it and accepting it. Finally, they absorb it fully into their lives and their mental maps of the world. People’s needs vary according to the stage that they have reached in accepting change and so the style, content and means of communication must vary to match these needs. For instance, giving people a huge amount of detailed information the first time you talk to them about a major change is a waste of effort as all they really want are answers to the big questions about how they will be affected. Equally, using email to announce a major change to people whose roles are going to be heavily affected by it will undoubtedly lead to all sorts of misinterpretation in the absence of opportunities for dialogue. Not to mention the fact that people will feel insulted that you have not shown them the respect of speaking to them face-to-face on such a controversial issue.
The timing of communication is also crucial. Communicate too soon and you risk extending the period of uncertainty ahead of introducing a change. Communicate too late and you risk people feeling that you have been keeping it hidden and that they have not had sufficient opportunity to provide input or prepare for the change. Even when a change is going to be difficult and involve negative consequences for people, an open and inclusive approach is far more likely to achieve a positive outcome. Letting people work through the change for themselves helps them to feel more in control. They can come to terms with what’s required far better than hiding the ‘bad news’ until the last minute and turning people into victims of change. See Chapter 4 for more on the subject of giving people control over change.
Figure 2.4 illustrates the gradual progression that people make from becoming aware of change to being fully committed to it. The dotted lines on the graph illustrate how support for change can fall away at any time along the way if the communication process stops or becomes ineffective putting the whole change back a step or derailing it altogether. People’s support must never be taken for granted. Even after the change has supposedly taken place (e.g. new working practices have been launched) it is vital to keep up the dialogue as many people will still be weighing up the pros and cons of the change and can still easily backtrack or opt out.
Different people will progress at different speeds in becoming committed to a change. Some enthusiasts will have already established themselves in the new world while others are still cautiously testing the water. As we will see in Chapter 7, tipping the balance of opinion in favour of change requires the commitment of a large number people, including many who are wary of change, as well as the early adopters.
In the case of the privatised transport company referred to earlier, an entire division of the organisation (the training centre) was still stranded in the awareness stage whilst the rest of the organisation had long since settled into a new way of thinking and operating.
Figure 2.4 The 4 Stages of Support for Change (based on chart by Daryl Conner2)
Each of the 4 Stages of Support for Change (Awareness, Questioning, Exploring and Committing) illustrated in Figure 2.4, requires a distinct approach to communication. The Table in Figure 2.5 highlights key messages to be communicated during each stage.
Figure 2.5 Key information to communicate as support for change increases
In the Awareness Stage, people are exposed to the change for the first time. They have had little time to assess the likely impact of the change and to formulate detailed questions. Most likely, they just want answers to the most urgent questions, such as, “How will I and my colleagues be affected?” “Will I still have a job?” “Why do we need to change?” “When will it happen?” It is up to leaders to fill the information void. Do nothing and it will quickly be filled by misinformation and gossip leading to all sorts of unpredictable and largely negative consequences. People can become fearful and inward looking, less productive and less caring of customers.
The Awareness Stage is the time when you first set out a clear and compelling purpose for the change giving people a sense of direction and establishing a level of certainty (more on this in Chapter 3). It is time to paint a positive picture of the future where, for instance, current frustrations about access to data have been eliminated and to re-enforce this with messages about the dangers of standing still such as losing market share to a new more innovative competitor.
This is also the time to answer some of the basic questions about what, when, where, why and how. Importantly, this is your first opportunity to set the tone for how you plan to handle the change.
It is doubtful at this stage that you will have all the answers. It is possible that you will have very few. Be open about this. Explain that this is just the first step on a journey. Explain how you intend to get people involved, how they will have opportunities to ask questions and be kept informed along the way. Be open and honest also about the difficulties involved in making change happen. Recognise that you are asking them to invest their time and effort to make it work and that you need their support. Spend time answering people’s questions. You need people’s trust, so be clear about where you want to go and honest about not having all the answers.
Where possible, those who are most affected by the change (or at least a representative group of them) should be involved directly in formulating the plans so that they have a strong sense of ownership for the change (see Chapter 4). Whatever the case, people need to be taken on a mental journey and see the logic of the decisions that have led up to the change so that they can start to rationalise it and accept it.
It is all too easy when you are close to the detail of project to lose the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone completely unfamiliar with what has been done. It is a rare expert who has the ability to explain their area of expertise clearly and succinctly to a complete novice. But this is what you need to do. So in setting out the vision for change you should explain the history of the initiative, how it came about and why each important decision has been made along the way. For instance, start by explaining how competitive pressures and market conditions mean that you need to adopt new technology to stay ahead of the game or risk losing sales and market share. Explain how you are going through a process of selecting the best new technology for the organisation and what this might mean for the people who are going to have to use it.
It also important not to fall into the trap of implying that people’s efforts to date have somehow been misguided or faulty and need to be replaced by a superior new way of doing things. Belittling what has gone before can easily provoke people into defending the status quo (with which they strongly identify) and pick holes in the planned change. Rather, position the change as arising out of changed circumstances, such as new customer needs or new legislation. Make it clear how the approaches that have served you well in the past will no longer be as effective in the future.
Be aware of your audience in shaping your messages. Some people will welcome change and just want to get on with it, whilst others need evidence, logic and detail to convince them. Some are mainly concerned about how people will be affected and want assurances that the change has worked elsewhere. Others need to see a clear plan of action. Everyone is more or less interested in what it means for them and preferably how the change will benefit them in their daily lives.
There is a fine balance between providing people with information and making it clear that they have the opportunity to influence things. It is important, for instance, to show people a high level plan for the change to give them confidence that things are under control, but providing them with a detailed plan in which everything has already been decided denies them the opportunity to fill in the details for themselves, an opportunity which would promote a sense of ownership for the change, as is explained in Chapter 4.
Remember, this is just the first step in a long process of communication so don’t expect too much at this stage. There will be some early enthusiasts who get it straight away and want it all to happen tomorrow but the majority will be slowly absorbing the messages and will need time to reflect before moving onto the next stage.
Once people have a general understanding of what is about to happen, they begin to formulate many more questions over the coming days and weeks. This is all part of them evaluating the change, getting to grips with how they will be affected and choosing how to respond to it. It is the crucial period during which you can eliminate doubts and win people over. It is important at this stage to go out of your way to encourage people to ask questions and voice concerns and to take time to respond to them (small group discussions, for instance, are useful in overcoming people’s reticence to ask questions in large forums). Do not be afraid of awkward questions or people appearing to be negative. This is all just part of people testing things out and gives you better insight into their biggest concerns. The last thing you need is a hidden undercurrent of concern especially when merely exposing people to the facts can eliminate it. On top of that, welcoming difficult questions and responding to them honestly is an important means of setting the tone for change and fostering trust, a very important commodity during times of change.
Don’t forget to reiterate the purpose and benefits of the change, something that cannot be repeated too often at each stage of the journey. Remember that communicating a message just once does not mean that it has been understood and absorbed.
Much effort is rightly spent in the time leading up to a change in explaining what is going to change, such as new team structures, new job roles and new working methods. What is often overlooked is an explanation of what it will be like to inhabit this new world. What will people be expected to achieve and how will they be expected to behave? What are the new rules and the new cultural norms? What will be rewarded and what will be unacceptable? Without answers to these questions, people can only develop a patchy mental map of the future lacking detail and colour and which is insufficient to navigate the new world effectively. During the Questioning stage and beyond, you need to communicate how it will feel to inhabit the future as well as describing it formally in terms of organisation structures, process and roles.
Too often, change fails to take root because people have not had future expectations spelt out to them. For instance, introducing a more entrepreneurial culture into an organisation where people are used to strong hierarchies and centralised control is doomed to failure if people are not told about the new rules of the game and what will now be expected of them. It is not enough just to tell people that they are empowered to make decisions for themselves and to innovate. They need, for instance, to understand and come to terms with the radically new role of their manager as a coach and facilitator rather than a boss.
It is also important to describe the structures, people, expectations, methods and traditions that will remain unaltered. This will reassure people that the future will not be too different from the past and helps ensure that in their haste to transform people do not cast off things that remain crucial to your organisation. Introducing a more entrepreneurial culture that encourages people to innovate, for instance, is not license to ignore the basic values of respect for colleagues or quality standards that have brought you success up till this point. Big changes provide an excellent excuse, if one is needed, for re-emphasising your organisation’s unchanging ethos and values.
As the time for change approaches, detail becomes the order of the day as many people start preparing themselves to succeed in a changed environment. During this Exploration Stage, people will also begin to ask more about how the transition is going to be managed. They will be keen to know when and how they will be trained in new skills and how they will be supported during the difficult early stages of a change (when they may struggle to cope and be tempted to fall back on old ways of doing things), so now is the time to set out your proposed programme of training and ongoing support. Questions about your approach to implementing the change should be welcomed as an indication that people have started to prepare mentally for the journey. It also represents an ideal opportunity to engage people by involving them in determining how to implement the change in their part of the organisation.
People like to hear about change from their peers. There is nothing more powerful than the testimony of colleagues who have already made a successful transition to build confidence and understanding amongst those who have yet to experience it. People generally trust that their colleagues will share the same concerns as them, talk the same language as them and will be honest about the pitfalls as well as the benefits of making the change. So if you plan to introduce change in one part of your organisation ahead of the rest, bring some of the people who are involved in the first wave of change into the project team. They can then spread the word about how to make the change a success, and even work alongside their colleagues to implement the change in other areas of the organisation.
Much of the communication in the Exploration Stage takes place through some form of training. Having your team gathered together in a classroom or workshop represents a golden opportunity to set the standards and expectations for how people should operate in the new world as well as ensuring that they have the skills and knowledge to succeed. However, in the rush to meet project deadlines, training can be seen as a necessary evil. There may be much debate within the management team about the difficulties of taking people away from their day jobs and the expense of training venues. Many major projects trip up at the last hurdle due to poor training.
Take the example of a UK Government Agency that had managed its information on spreadsheets for many years. Over time, these spreadsheets steadily grew in number, complex and size until they eventually become hugely inefficient and nearly impossible to manage. So a decision was taken to install a new computer system that could do everything that the spreadsheets did only far more quickly and efficiently, saving enormous amounts of time spent entering data on multiple spreadsheets and trying to keep the whole spaghetti mess together. Six months later, when the shiny new computer system was up and running people were still double checking everything on the old spreadsheets. When asked about why they were doing this one user explained that they didn’t trust the new system to get things right and anyway it didn’t do everything that the old spreadsheets did. Asked about what training they had received on the new system they replied vaguely some consultants from the systems supplier did come in to train them for a couple of days before the system went live. One user then rummaged around in her desk drawers and eventually produced a thick binder entitled User Training Manual. It turned out that there had been some teething problems when the system first went live, leading to people’s doubts about its effectiveness. Closer inspection of the User Training Manual also revealed that the new system did everything the old spreadsheets did and more. Training had simply not been taken seriously, nor had it been backed up with support after implementation so a huge amount of time and effort was wasted in working with two systems in parallel.
This example may seem like an obvious case of poor management of change, but it is not simply an isolated incident. Even when people are equipped with the skills they need to be successful in their changed roles, things can still fall apart. If training focuses on developing people’s skills and overlooks the need to instil a new understanding of how the organisation will operate following change and the new ethos required to make it successful (e.g. a greater focus on customers or on quality) then people will still fail to meet expectations.
Training and developing skills, attitudes and behaviours is an enormous subject in itself, but some of the key factors to consider when training people ahead of a change are:
Finally, there is great benefit to be had from getting line managers involved in delivering training. Not only does it illustrate their commitment to the change which will have a strong influence on their teams’ readiness to accept it, but is also cements the change in the minds of the management team and ensures they have the wherewithal to coach their people effectively following the change.
It is tempting at this, the Committing Stage, when the change has been put in place (e.g. new working processes have been launched), to assume that the change has ‘happened’ and every thing can now return to normal. However, there will be a large swathe of people who will only now be starting to become convinced of the change in the face of hard evidence that it is up and running and delivering results.
Once a change has been set in place, the role of communication is to help ensure that the change is cemented into place. This involves broadcasting how the change is progressing, providing information on how to overcome the ‘teething problems’ which inevitably accompany any new initiative and, above all, keeping people bought into the process despite any drop in performance. Trumpeting early successes is vital for keeping up morale during this difficult transition stage and helping to ensure that people follow through to completion. It is up to the leaders to coach, encourage and support their teams and to act as role models for the new ways of working. Without all of this activity it is possible support for change will fall away at the final hurdle and all that has gone before will have been a waste of time.
Finally, it is sobering to recall how a certain proportion of the population respond to the massive, imminent and inevitable change. Take, for instance, the way some people react to the news of an approaching flood. Despite repeated warnings of danger to life and limb and clear evacuation procedures, there are always those who steadfastly refuse to abandon their homes until they are perched on the roofs of their houses with the water lapping around their ankles. There is a lot more to change than just loss of certainty as we will see in the chapters that follow.
Change causes uncertainty, which can lead to anxiety, confusion and a drop in performance levels. It is the job of an organisation’s leaders to minimise any loss of performance by leading from the front and articulating a clear and compelling vision of the future.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs [12:18]
Being caught in a storm at sea teaches you the value of a compass. You may not be able to see exactly where you are going or steer a perfectly straight and steady course, but you can at least keep moving in the right general direction until the storm settles. So it is that a clear sense of purpose keeps you on track during turbulent times at work.
During periods of stability, when little is changing (a rarity these days), doing your job becomes relatively straightforward. You become accustomed to the constraints and trade-offs that need to be taken into account when making decisions. Problems take on familiar forms, as do their solutions. But introduce a significant change and the rulebook needs revising or even rewriting. Experience can no longer be relied upon. In these uncertain times a strong sense of purpose is indispensable.
If people understand and identify with an organisation’s purpose they will more readily travel down a difficult and unfamiliar path to reach a destination they believe to be worthwhile. If this firm sense of purpose is supported by a strong set of guiding values then people can achieve extraordinary things in spite of the difficulties encountered along the way.
Whether or not an organisation and its people have a strong sense of purpose, it is vital to the success of any important change that leaders articulate repeatedly a clear purpose for the change and why it is worth making. This purpose should give people a strong sense of direction to help keep them motivated as they make the journey. The more closely aligned this purpose is to the purpose of the organisation the better, as misalignment between the two makes people feel like they are being pulled in two different directions at the same time causing confusion and making the journey a great deal harder to complete successfully.
3.2 Worthwhile Work
Imagine you work as an operator in a factory and you are told by your foreman that an unusual order has come in that he wants you to complete. You need to cut hundreds of shapes out of wood. Another Operator will have the task of painting them different colours. To begin with, you are asked to cut out squares which will be painted red. These squares need to be precisely 5 cm by 5 cm with smooth edges and corners, and the paint must be even and unblemished. You need to cut out the shapes using an electric hand saw and smooth the edges with an electric sander at a rate of over 200 a day, 5 days a week, for a fortnight. You are paid a basic wage and a bonus based on the quantity and quality of your output. The work is quite fiddly at first and a number of the squares you produce are rejected as out of spec or because of imperfect paintwork.
After two weeks you are told to move on to producing wooden triangles to be painted yellow. A fortnight later it is blue semi-circles, then green rectangles and brown squares. After a couple of months you are a dab hand at cutting and smoothing wooden shapes. You find the work dull but the pay is ok and at least you enjoy your weekends. Eventually, you are told that you have produced enough wooden shapes and you are being moved on to an order for plastic shapes. You don’t ask why.
How would you feel about this sort of work? Have you ever carried out repetitive and uninspiring tasks over a long period of time? How easy do you find it to stay motivated and focused on this kind of work?
One day, on the way to work, you are walking past a major public building and there in front of it is an enormous and beautiful picture. You stop in your tracks to admire it. It must be 50 feet tall. You notice other people stop and admire this great work of art that has miraculously appeared on the high street. After a while, you examine it a bit more closely and suddenly realise it is a giant mosaic made out of painted wooden shapes! As other passers-by stop to wonder at it you cannot remove a huge grin from your face. This is your handiwork.
Eventually, you continue your journey to work. But now there is lightness to your step and you are filled with a great sense of pride. The time at work seems to fly by. You work with extra care and begin to wonder what great use the plastic shapes you are cutting out will be put to.
This story demonstrates a simple truth, namely that any work becomes more engaging when there is a clear and useful purpose to it. Knowing that your effort is contributing to a greater good gives you a sense of pride and a reason for taking care to do a good job.
On the other hand, an absence of purpose is dispiriting. For example, think how you feel just after you have completed a major project or after working for weeks or months to meet a tough and important deadline. It is quite common to suffer “post-project blues” and feel a sense of deflation and listlessness for a day or two. It may seem odd that just as you expect to be delighted at achieving your goal and having the burden lifted from your shoulders you feel dissatisfied. In truth, a deadline gives you a strong sense of purpose and without it you can feel a little adrift. Similarly, after school exams students feel relieved that the weeks of revision and the nerve jangling exam papers are over, but they can be surprised to find themselves at a loose end and slightly depressed in the days that follow as they lack that clear and present danger of failing their exams. At work, one of the great attractions of crisis management is the sense of unambiguous purpose associated with handling emergency situations.
Without a clear sense of purpose it is hard to stay motivated. It is all too easy to suspect that you are heading in the wrong direction and all your effort could simply be a waste of time. Yet in many enterprises people are not sure how they contribute to the overall purpose of the organisation. They often have a narrow view of their role, seeing it as a series of tasks rather than having an overall purpose or contributing to a wider goal. For instance, when working with meter readers at a utility company I asked them to explain the purpose of what they did. The answers they gave were along the lines that they were there to take accurate meter readings. It was only after some prompting that they began to view their job as providing the essential information upon which the entire company depended and that ultimately they helped provide clean and safe water to millions of people.
3.3 A Great Purpose
“We chose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win — and the others, too.”
– John F Kennedy, 12th September 1962.
During the space race between the Soviet Union and the USA in the 1960s, US President John F Kennedy visited NASA to see first hand the American preparations for space exploration. While he was touring the headquarter buildings he came across a man carrying a bucket and a mop. Kennedy asked him asked what he was doing. “Putting a man on the moon” was his simple reply.
When Nelson Mandela became President of the Republic of South Africa he talked of building a ‘Rainbow Nation’. He was of course referring to the multi-ethnic nature of South Africa, which has 11 official languages. But the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ means more than this. It conjures up the beauty created by placing many contrasting colours together side by side. It uses the hopeful image of a rainbow to lift our thoughts up from the mundane and dares us to believe in something greater than ourselves despite the difficulties encountered day-to-day in learning to live harmoniously.
This vision played an important part in helping to create the belief that something extraordinary could be achieved in South Africa. It became symbolic of a miraculous transformation; the democratisation of a divided and embittered country without recourse to violence.
A great purpose is a powerful thing, but not everyone has the opportunity to build a new nation or put a man on the moon. However, every organisation has its part to play and has reasons to take pride in its contribution to society. Consider what different types of organisations might contribute:
Ø A pharmaceutical company – “We eliminate diseases from the world”
Ø A bank – “We help people achieve their dreams”
Ø A hospital – “We save lives”
Ø An insurance company – “We support you in times of disaster”
Ø A school – “We enable children to flourish”
Ø Cosmetics – “We help you look good and feel good”
Ø Beer – “We help you relax and enjoy time with your friends”
Ø Airlines – “We open up the world to you”
A strong purpose binds an organisation together in the pursuit of its goals. At best, it transcends the day-to-day, captures the imagination and gives people a sense of contributing to something greater than themselves. It challenges people to reach further than they might have thought possible to achieve something they can be proud of. It unleashes people’s energy and creativity.
Take the example of the Body Shop which was launched in 1976 as a cosmetics retailer that banned animal testing on its products and now has over 2,100 stores in 55 countries. The ethos of the company, embodied by its founder Anita Roddick, was one of caring for the planet decades ahead of the evidence of global warming. It is not just a retailer, it is a champion of ethical practices in business and for the preservation of the planet. It attracts people who identify with its ethos as well its products. It doesn’t just have staff and customers – it has loyal fans, which is a powerful thing in business.
Many organisations have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes that give back to the community by raising money for charity or carrying out voluntary work. These are important and praiseworthy schemes that enable organisations to contribute to society as responsible “corporate citizens”. However, they are no substitute for a grand purpose that touches everyone who comes into contact with an organisation and is truly taken to heart by its people.
A strong sense of purpose is vital to long-term organisational success. It binds people together in a common cause and helps inspire them to strive for difficult goals. A well crafted purpose provides a short-hand description for what needs to be done, simplifying decision-making and coordinating the efforts of hundreds or thousands of people. Without it an organisation can be easily blown off course or even destroyed the first time it faces real difficulties.
Like Moses leading the children of Israel through the desert for 40 years, it is an essential role of leaders to convey a steadfast vision of the Promised Land. This in turn needs to be supported by a set of enduring principles describing the rules and behaviours that underpin the way in which the journey should be made.
3.4 Guiding Values
When you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up they will usually reply ‘fireman’ or ‘nurse’ or ‘ballet dancer’ or ‘pilot’. It is a rare child indeed who would reply ‘kind’, ‘generous’, ‘loved’ or ‘admired’. In the same way, most organisations are clear about what they want to achieve in terms of tangible goals but less so about how they want to be.
If an organisation’s purpose is a guiding star that helps people navigate over great distances then an organisation’s values are signposts that direct its people as to how the journey should be made. Do we want to win at all costs or to be a responsible citizen? Do we sell products to customers (a series of transactions) or do we serve them at a deeper level? Are we about high quality or low cost?
Many successful CEOs understand the benefit of investing time and effort in defining their values and engaging their staff in applying them in their every day working lives. This is based on the belief that a strong set of values helps unify an organisation and channel people’s energy into the things that really matter. As an organisation grows, lines of communication become longer. Improvised cultures can develop in different parts of the organisation in the absence of any clear guidelines, so it becomes increasingly important to communicate a clear set of values
Even if not explicitly stated, every organisation has a set of values. They may simply be understood by people as “the way we do things around here” without anyone ever putting them into words or committing them to paper. Just coming into contact with an organisation will tell you how much they care about their customers. Do they take great pains to help you get what you want or are you just another person to be processed? Whatever the case, somewhere along the line each person has come to understand that great or indifferent service is par for the course. To some degree it is down to individuals to respond to the messages sent out by an organisation, but in the main it is up to leaders to embody and ingrain desired attitudes and behaviours.
3.5 Resilience to Change
So why are purpose and values so important in the context of organisational change?
One clue comes from considering the characteristics of people widely regarded as great leaders. You might think of Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King. Whether or not you admire these individuals it is undeniable that they were popular leaders in their time who brought about change or led people through times of great turbulence. Two things they had in common were an unerring sense of purpose and a clear set of beliefs which they communicated through words and deeds.
Such leadership is epitomised by the words of Abraham Lincoln in his speech at Gettysburg in 1863 honouring those who fought and died there during the American Civil War:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In full, this speech contains only 266 words but remains the most famous speech in US history. It may appear to be about honouring fallen heroes but it is really about the enduring purpose and values of the United States of America as set out by its founding fathers. Its intention is to inspire people to sacrifice their comfort and even their lives for a grand and noble cause and an enduring set of beliefs. It is perhaps not surprising then that almost exactly 100 years later Martin Luther King, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, referred to the same values when calling for racial equality in America.
At a more everyday level, all enterprises have to overcome difficult circumstances and make bold changes at different points in their history. Events, such as the introduction of government regulation or the arrival of revolutionary new technology, may force a change in tactics or even a wholesale shift in direction. However, if people have a strong sense of their destination (organisational purpose) and the principles to be followed in getting there (organisational values), then it seems likely that this would make them more able to remain resolute in the face of dramatic changes, allowing the organisation to adapt and prosper in the long run. This feeling is borne out by the evidence.
In their book Built to Last1 James Collins and Jerry Porras demonstrate the value of ingraining a strong purpose and clear set of values within an organisation. The authors draw their conclusions from six years of research into what enables certain companies to outperform their competitors over a period of decades. These ‘Visionary Companies’ did not just survive and succeed over a long period of time; they outstripped competitors and the general stock market to a remarkable degree. Between 1926 and 1990 Visionary Companies outperformed comparable companies (that were also successful businesses) by 6 to 1 in US stock market returns and the general stock market by 15 to 1.
Collins’ and Porras’ discovery exploded a number of myths about what makes companies successful and uncovered a set of characteristics that distinguished Visionary Companies from similar successful companies. The greatest correlation they found with success was the existence of a ‘Core Ideology’ championed by leaders and internalised by staff. They describe Core Ideology as “Core Values + Purpose”.
Many, if not all, of the Visionary Companies described in Built to Last have had their ups and downs, including near disastrous periods in their history. However, in the long run and despite great difficulties, they have remained successful. They have found the secret to longevity.
This is well summed up by Thomas J. Watson, Jr., former IBM Chief Executive, in explaining the role of core values (referred to as ‘beliefs’) in his 1963 booklet A Business and its Beliefs (quoted in Built to Last1):
“I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can very often be traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people. What does it do to help these people find common cause with each other? … And how can it sustain this common cause and sense of direction through the many changes which take place from one generation to another? … [I think the answer lies] in the power of what we all call beliefs and the appeal these beliefs have for its people….I firmly believe that any organisation in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions. Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs.”
Looking at things from the opposite end of the spectrum, organisations lacking a clear purpose and clear values certainly struggle with change.
Taking the example of Marks and Spencer stores (M&S,) a hugely successful retail business started in 1884 and the first retailer in the UK to achieve pre-tax profits of over £1bn in 1998. This company, much loved by its customers (at one time 80% of women’s underwear in the UK was bought from M&S), went through a period of decline around the turn of the century. Pre-tax profits fell to £145m in 2001 and two Chief Executives left within three years.
At the end of 2004, a new Chief Executive, Stuart Rose (now Sir Stuart Rose), brought in from outside, but a former M&S man, began to turn the ship around. By 2007 it was widely acknowledged that M&S was once again a highly successful organisation. Pre-tax profits for the year ending March 2008 topped £1bn once again.
When Stuart Rose took up the helm at M&S one thing he did was to return to what had made M&S so successful in the past. Prior to his arrival, there had been a number of years characterised at first by denial that there was a need to change and then by loss of direction. In the 1990s the marketplace changed dramatically. M&S had been a byword for quality and reliability, but now its competitors, such as Next, were able to undercut M&S on price and still deliver similar quality. Rather than looking for durability, customers were treating clothes as disposable. ‘Fast Fashion’ arrived on the scene led by organisations such as Zara of Spain who were able to respond rapidly to emerging trends by manufacturing on an as needed basis, bringing in extra stock for lines that sold well and abandoning unpopular lines with very limited wastage. M&S, who had stood supreme in the market for so long, failed to anticipate these trends or even to react to lost market share. A new CEO arrived and attempted to move M&S into home furnishings rather than fixing its core clothing and food businesses. Internally, it launched a campaign known as “Be Free” which encouraged people to abandon the old shackles of a command and control culture and to become empowered. However, for an organisation built on 100 years of strong centralised leadership and procedure, it was a recipe for disaster and different areas of the business set off in different directions.
What Rose did was to keep it simple. He put the focus back on giving the customer what they wanted; great product, excellent customer service and an appealing environment in store. He also returned to the core values of Quality, Service, Value, Innovation and Trust; a return to the core principles that had made M&S great whilst bringing them up to date. For instance, great product now meant ‘regular newness’ in store i.e. a continuous flow of fresh new product and keeping up with fashion trends using the principles of Fast Fashion.
In terms of setting out a clear sense of purpose, Rose also kept it very simple. 2004/05 was dedicated to ‘Focus’ on the core business and stemming losses. 2005/06 was about ‘Drive’ i.e. improving product, customer service and the environment in store. 2006/07 was termed ‘Broaden’ and is evidenced by M&S’s ambitious ongoing expansion abroad.
Whilst this is a great simplification of the M&S story, which was of course not without its trials and tribulations, looked at as a whole, it is a classic example of a great company regaining its sense of purpose and values after having lost its way for some time. It illustrates the power of a clear purpose and set of values in bringing about change.
In Built to Last, Collins and Porras also discovered an important lesson about change. Visionary Companies continually drive progress through experimentation and innovation but they never let go of their Core Ideology (Purpose + Core Values) whilst doing so. It is this Core Ideology that provides people with a firm foundation and makes them resilient to change. It allows them to respond quickly and successfully to changes in the environment whilst holding onto what has made them successful in the past and maintaining an unerring sense of purpose.
3.6 A Purpose for Change
When an organisation embarks on a major change a clear purpose for the change is an essential ingredient for success. This purpose should be clearly and passionately communicated by someone at the executive level, preferably the Chief Executive, and linked to the overall purpose of the organisation.
A well defined purpose for change helps inspire people, creates simplicity and focuses people’s effort. Inspiration may be in the form of a challenging goal that goes beyond simply what will be changed. For instance, the purpose of implementing a new call centre system could be defined as “To install the new call centre system to greatly reduce the number of inbound calls missed”. Alternatively, it might be “Never miss a call”. Most likely, this second definition is beyond people’s expectations and motivates them to think more widely and creatively about what they need to do beyond simply installing a new system to eliminate lost calls. It is simple, unambiguous and more inspiring than “greatly reduce missed calls”. It also simplifies decision-making, as anything that does not contribute to eliminating all missed calls can be ignored or done away with.
As explained in Chapter 2, a clear purpose for change also provides a degree of certainty during uncertain times. We can feel confident of our destination even if we are not entirely clear about how we are going to get there. A well-crafted purpose provides a rallying call, cuts through complexity and focuses the efforts of maybe hundreds or thousands of people. However, this is only one piece in the overall jigsaw puzzle of change. Too often it is imagined that simply pointing towards the objective and shouting “charge!” is enough to motivate the troops and that if anyone chooses to stay in the trenches rather than taking to the battlefield, it’s their problem, not the organisation’s. Organisation change is not simply a matter of getting people revved up to charge at some objective, it requires a change to ingrained attitudes and beliefs. Therefore the purpose for change must reflect the changes in these attitudes and beliefs required for the vision of change to be achieved.
Where there is no clarity of purpose, large-scale change can easily run into trouble. For starters, some people will inevitably rail against anything that appears to be change for change’s sake. Others will get lost in the complexity of the change, spending too long prevaricating over decisions in the absence of clear direction. As a result, major projects can drift and ultimately get killed off when they lose their momentum and are no longer seen as a priority (especially where benefits take a while to accrue).
The flipside of a good purpose for change is the risk of doing nothing. In other words, if the current situation is sufficiently perilous or painful it may encourage people to see change as salvation from their troubles (often referred to as a burning platform). For instance, call centre staff are much more likely to welcome a new call centre system if they are losing out on monthly bonuses due to the high numbers of missed calls. So it pays to spell out the dangers of standing still. However, it is important not to make the mistake of assuming too much. Yes, people would like bigger bonuses, but they will still have to put up with the inevitable disruption associated with the introduction of a new system. On top of that, can they be sure that it will work any better than the last system or that it won’t work so well that they lose their jobs? So you still have your work cut out even when a change appears at first to be nothing but good news. The idea that things are so bad that people have no choice but to change is a false one. It may encourage more people to come on board, but there will always be some who will not budge until they are up to their chins in floodwater.
An excellent example of a purpose for change is the target set by Marks and Spencer (M&S), to become carbon neutral by 2012. This vision, known as Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”) was announced by its CEO, Stuart Rose, in January 2007 amidst great publicity, making it the first major UK organisation to set such a target.
M&S have set themselves a very ambitious goal, which by its very nature will challenge people to devise innovative solutions and require everyone to play their part. It is also a very simple statement of intent that leaders in every part of the company can easily translate into goals for their part of the business. As a result, it is easy for everyone to achieve clarity and a clear sense of how they can contribute to the delivery of Plan A. Figure 3.1 below illustrates just a few of the objectives that might fall out of Plan A in different parts of the business.
A further important feature of Plan A is that it is not simply a set of initiatives but a brand. As a result, it does not impose limits on activity and can take on a life of its own. It also becomes shorthand for a great many different activities, simplifying communication and focusing activity within the company. Branding your change helps position it not just as another project that must be completed but also as a major shift in attitudes and behaviours.
At M&S the purpose of Plan A is unambiguous. This empowers people at M&S to take action as they see fit as long as it supports the overall goal. It also gives them room to respond flexibly to changing circumstances and reduces the likelihood of people wasting effort pursuing activities that do not support the overall purpose.
Figure 3.1 Plan A – Example objectives that might be set by different areas of M&S or for different external stakeholders in support of the objective of achieving Carbon Neutral status by 2012
3.7 Alignment of Purpose and Values
Figure 3.2 Alignment between purpose and values of an organisation, its employees and an organisational change.
There is an important relationship between an organisation’s purpose and values and the purpose and associated values of any major change it embarks upon. If the purpose of the change is clearly aligned with the overall purpose of the organisation (i.e. there is a large overlap between the top two rings in Figure 3.2) then it is easy and helpful for leaders to be able to point out this alignment and demonstrate that the change is all part of the ‘grand plan’ and not a great diversion from the current path. The bridge that must be built between the present and the future is not too long or too difficult to build. People will be more tolerant of an incomplete picture of how change will be brought about if they know they are still heading towards a familiar destination. This is a tremendous boon when, as is inevitable, plans change, making the road to success a circuitous one.
Of course, it helps if your overall organisational purpose and values are already well understood within your organisation. If not, you will need to improvise by building your change on what people at least perceive to be the purpose and values of your organisation.
There is, of course, a danger when organisations embark on fundamental change, such as a new strategy or a merger, that the purpose of the change will conflict with the existing purpose and values of the organisation. A fundamental change in strategy can lead to ‘organisational schizophrenia’ as people are dragged in different directions by incompatible or contradictory priorities. This in turn leads high degrees of stress and a drop in morale driving down performance. So if the change you are undertaking requires a radical departure from the current culture you need to make a big investment of time and effort in bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be (using all the methods described in this book). Getting stuck half way between where you are now and some desired future state can be far worse than not changing at all. In the words of Benjamin Disraeli “The most dangerous strategy is to jump a chasm in two leaps.”
The research on which James Collins and Jerry Porras based their book Built to Last showed that one strong indicator of a Visionary Company was a ‘Cult-Like Culture’. In other words, a condition for long-term organisational success is a strong alignment between people’s personal purpose and values and the purpose and values of the organisation that they work for.
In Figure 3.2, the bottom ring represents the purpose and values of the individuals within an organisation. According to Collins and Porras’ research we would want there to be a great deal of overlap between this and the purpose and values of the organisation. Where the overlap is small, people find themselves at odds with the organisation they work for and generally unhappy at work. That is why many successful organisations seek out individuals who share similar values to themselves. For instance, the recruitment process for one UK supermarket includes putting potential recruits out on the shop floor to see if they are have a natural bent for customer service (one of the company’s core values).
Major change can put people at odds with the organisation that they work for. A policeman who wants to arrest criminals may find himself sat behind a desk, an ambitious go-getter may find herself in a flat organisation structure with nowhere to go and a computer geek may find himself having to work directly with customers. These people will try to escape to a new situation inside or outside of their current organisation or else they will stay put and suffer frustration and deliver poor results.
Introducing a major change is easiest when the purpose and values of the organisation are aligned well with those of its employees as well as those associated with the proposed change i.e. the central shaded area in Figure 3.2 is as large as possible. So starting off with employees who are already well aligned with their organisation’s purpose and values gives you a better chance of succeeding with any given change. Another way of putting this is that the greater the alignment between an organisation and its people, the more adaptable that organisation is to change. No wonder then that Collins and Porras discovered that long term organisational success correlated with a cult-like culture.
When an organisation makes a fundamental change to its strategy it can come into conflict with its own purpose and values as well as those of its people.
Take the example of a large US bank that made its name over many decades as a bastion of responsible investment through conservative management of its clients’ funds. Then one day a new CEO decides that the company needs to push ahead with an aggressive strategy of expansion into Europe through acquisition as well as organic growth. The result was a case of organisational schizophrenia.
On the one hand, there was a desire to venture out into new markets and new cultures, to experiment and make bold decisions. On the other hand, there was a leadership team used to pondering new ideas at length to weigh up the pros and cons and to select the most prudent course of action. Those charged with driving expansion in Europe were stuck in the middle between a centralised, consensus-orientated decision-making machine and a fast-growing heterogeneous organisation that needed quick and decisive leadership.
At the same time, one of the newly acquired businesses in Europe was suffering its own personality disorder. It too had a highly conservative culture and valued its long-standing approach to developing personalised client relationships based on intimate knowledge and trust. People at every level felt threatened by changes being introduced by the new parent company such as a new computer system for tracking customer communication and new requirements to report progress both to the US and to functional heads dotted around Europe. They felt that these changes signalled a more bureaucratic approach and an end to their tradition of personalised service.
The US bank had not taken the time to explain to the people in their newly acquired European organisation that far from wanting them to change their ways they also valued building long-term client relationships based on trust and that new technology was merely a tool for enabling this process. Ironically, the parent company was so sure of its own purpose and values that they took it for granted that its new employees would somehow absorb them by osmosis. It was only when they faced near-revolt by staff that they worked with them to uncover the causes of their concern and began to dispel the misconceptions that had gained credence in the absence of any open dialogue.
When two organisations merge, it is often the case that the cultures of the merging organisations differ greatly. Opting for one or other culture to become the new dominant culture runs the risk of alienating a whole section of the population and is often at the root of the many problems associated with mergers and acquisitions. Where possible, it is better to start again from scratch and create a new single unified purpose and set of values that both populations can sign up to. Where this is not possible, then attention must be paid to inducting the people into their new organisation as if they had just been recruited, setting out the purpose and core values and helping them understand what has remained unchanged for them and what they must now leave behind.
For any major change, understanding how far a change is shifting you from your existing purpose and values helps you identify the cultural issues that you will need to tackle to be successful. It also helps ensure that people have an accurate view of what needs to change and reassurance about what will remain the same.
During periods of great change, an organisation’s purpose and core values help people maintain a sense of direction. It is up to leaders, especially those at the top of an organisation, to convey a purpose for the change, linked to the organisation’s overall purpose, which inspires people and provides the confidence to embark on an uncertain journey.