Gone are the days of command and control. Change doesn’t happen by simply telling (ordering) people to do something differently or to work in a different way – ‘Just do it’ is not an effective approach to organisational change and transformation.
With businesses facing increasing and continuous change/uncertainty, our ability as Leaders, to navigate the choppy waters of change are essential for organisations to prosper and thrive. Get it wrong and you will limit productivity, performance and motivation within your business. Hopefully this blog will provide some insight into how to deliver sustainable change!
(make sure to read until the end to find out about an exciting pro-bono offer…)
When Leaders lack the ability or confidence to deal with change, it can make things worse. This typically leads to complex people and team issues/conflict, which starts to leak externally to your partners and customers.
When we need to enact change within organisations, our lack of confidence or experience can mean we focus and rely on process, policy and procedure. It becomes transactional. The problem with this, is that it overlooks the complex and messy nature of people. Humans don’t tend to fit neatly into boxes or comply with process. Transactional change lacks a person-centred perspective, it may be compliant but it’s unlikely to bring the sustained change you are seeking.
Think about the person behind the processMy Leadership Mantra
Now to pre-empt the challenge that may be starting to bubble in your mind as you read, this isn’t about stopping you making decisions as a Leader. It’s not about management by committee. It’s about making sure you have all the information and perspectives on a problem, before coming to a decision on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the changes you need to make.
The organisational world is too complex and of such a scale, that you can’t possibly know all the ins and outs of operations and delivery, what goes on and how things work day to day. That’s why engaging your people in the problem and listening to a diversity of views and perspectives to broaden your understanding on what needs to change and how, enables you to make better decisions (with the added plus of bringing people with you!).
I’ll say it louder…
Collaborative consultation enables you to make better decisions on changeIt’s a strength, not a weakness to collaboratively consult
Figure 1. Bridges Transition Model
Change starts when something ends. We often think change starts with a new beginning, but it actually starts with something ending (See figure 1. William Bridges Change Model).
From an organisational perspective, this could be the end of how a team is structured, it could be the merging of two teams or organisations, it could be the end of working on a product line or project, it might be the end of a job title or role.
The next stage of change is the transition from the old to the new, which I call the ‘middle bit’ of change. There’s no escaping or bypassing the ‘middle bit’ of change. Very often, in my HR roles, I’ve been asked to deliver a quick and smooth change process… you can do a compliant and engaging process, but change is never quick and it’s never plain sailing! You’ve to go through this tricky ‘middle bit’, before you reach the final stage of change, the new beginning.
All change, especially organisational change, is difficult and hurts. It’s an emotional process that triggers feelings of fear, shame, stress, anger and worry within people (see figure 2. Kubler-Ross change curve). It triggers our defence mechanisms, we react by fighting change (resistance) or running away from it (denial), often we fluctuate between the two, as we move around the emotional reactions to change (it’s not a linear process, despite what the picture looks like!).
Change can also trigger our survival mode. I’ve seen and experienced this a lot with organisational change, mainly because our means of living is potentially threatened, we feel unsafe.
In addition, an often overlooked aspect of change is Trauma. Change can trigger past trauma in people. This when things that have happened in the past, ‘there and then’, surfacing in the ‘here and now’ (Vaughan – Smith 2021). This can lead to Organisational and Team trauma, a topic I’m researching and will write more about soon!
The ‘Middle Bit’ of Change
But let’s get back to the tricky ‘middle bit’ of change, because this is what organisations typically tend to bypass or task HR with avoiding. So, in this ‘middle bit’, people are trying to make sense of what the changes mean for them. They are seeking to understand where they will fit and reorient themselves to the new situation they are facing. People are discombobulated and emotions run high whilst they are figuring this out.
The ego comes to the fore in this stage, often seeking to place blame. The ego can lash out and be highly critical of others. This is our defence mechanism at play, our survival response to change. It can start to feel highly personal and difficult to cope with, on all sides.
This ‘middle bit’ is the most energy sapping – I use the metaphor of white water rafting, trying to stay afloat whilst navigating challenging and scary rapids, desperately battling through to reach the calmer waters of a new beginning.
This gnarly ‘middle bit’ has no set time period. The duration of this transition will be different for different people, which is really tricky to manage for Leaders and HR delivering organisational change.
You can’t ignore the rules/codes of practice that need to be adhered to around consultation for changes such as Redundancy, TUPE and Contractual Terms. However, these are the minimum an organisation needs to do for a compliant process. The question you want to ask is, Do you really want just a compliant process? or Do you want to deliver actual change, that ultimately improves the performance (and profitability) of your business?
Essentially, collaborative consultation is engaging people in the problem and the subsequent changes that need to be made to improve performance, productivity, profitability and motivation.
It’s being transparent and sharing all information so people can make informed decisions and contributions.
It’s allowing time for change and providing genuine support/knowledge input, not only for those experiencing the change but those delivering it too – it’s tough for everyone concerned, this stuff is not easy, fun or nice to do.
But let’s get practical, what can collaborative consultation look like –
Hackathons are a great and fun way of engaging people. I have run these on changes to reward. We had a number of activities to engage the thoughts, views and perspectives of a broad range of stakeholders. Not only did this aid better, more informed decision making, it developed a good understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the issue across the workforce.
Iterative workshops – led by Executive Team Members, with HR support, these workshops enabled a diversity of people to help shape and inform proposals for organisational structure changes. We took the feedback from each workshop, iterated the proposal and tested again with colleagues until the Leader of the change felt they had sufficient input to reach final decisions on a way forward.
Action Learning – I’ve also read a number of case studies and research on how Action Learning has been used in organisational transformation, change and mergers. A large gas and electric company initiated a corporate-wide transformation programme using Action Learning as a method for consultation and problem solving (Freedman, 2010). It’s also used frequently within Health & Social Care settings where multi-disciplinary perspectives are taken into consideration for organisational change (Edmondson 2019, Conklin et.al 2012). I’ve also seen examples recently within Red Cross, Boeing, Microsoft and Heineken.
To reiterate, collaborative consultation won’t bypass the tricky ‘middle bit’ it will help navigate you through it, in order for your new beginning to be the sustainable change you are looking to create. This is because people feel they’ve been included and engaged in dialogue, they haven’t been blindsided or paid lip service.
Using the white water rafting metaphor to explain this better –
Do you want to air-drop someone into the rapids and leave them to navigate the white water on their own, clinging to some drift wood they found… or
Do you want to ease them into the white water, along with their colleagues as a team, equipping them to navigate the transition by providing a boat, a map, life-jackets and oars.
The latter is a lot less lonely and isolating, you’ve given people the tools and information to be involved and navigate the choppy water of change – I know which option I would rather!
Tools and Information are key
To aid the navigation of change, you need to invest in the process. Simply budgeting for severance costs won’t cut it. Unfortunately, I haven’t won this argument many times. But where I have, the change process has been simply amazing.
The best example I can give here is a change I supported at Smiths News. I worked with the leadership team and we delivered a change process that reduced the size of the sales team by half. A difficult and challenging process which we delivered, but the differentiating factor here was that we co-created a series of workshops, team coaching and 1-1 coaching to support the team leader and the team to come through the change to develop as a high performing team – the results of the team demonstrated the return on investment.
I would argue the case for 1-1 coaching for everyone going through change. However, if budget is an issue, invest in the Leader and HR person delivering the change. They are the face of the change and often bear the brunt of the emotional processing of change from colleagues. I remember a colleague saying to me once that HR was the emotional punch bag for the organisation.
Having an independent, safe space to work through the challenges that are thrown up through a change process can make a huge difference. I’ve often funded myself to receive such support during large scale change programmes I’ve delivered. The difference it has made to my resilience and decision making during those times has been profound.
I also learnt from my most recent change programmes that providing knowledge input, up front, on change processes and the natural reaction/triggers of change has provided people with greater self-awareness of what they are experiencing and feeling. Training Leaders in understanding this process has also made a big difference. If new ways of working require a change in skill set or behaviour – make sure to provide the knowledge and information to up-skill people in these new approaches.
Having a team coach facilitate discussions with the team can provide a forum for dialogue and constructive challenge/debate. It can help to get to the root of challenges within the team and how together, the team might change their ways of working, to overcome challenges and change to meet the business needs.
As mentioned previously, Action Learning is perfect for complex, urgent and large problems like organisational change. It’s a powerful problem solving tool, that is inclusive, encourages equity of dialogue and also develops leadership skills.
DBKT Coaching can help in providing these tools and support – it’s our aim to equip people to deal with difficult situations, problem solving, collaboration and leadership for the 21st Century ways of working.
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WIAL Pro-Bono Offer
In recognition of the unprecedented changes that organisations are facing with COVID, the World Institute of Action Learning (WIAL) are running ‘WIAL Gives Back’, a pro-bono Action Learning programme to support organisations recover and thrive again. If your organisation could benefit from this or you would like to find out more, please get in touch with me: email@example.com or learn more about it here – https://wial.org/wialgivesback/