I’ve written previously about chaos and order in organisations and the ‘hand to hand street combat’ required where there is no strong leadership or culture of discipline.

This month’s piece, in a similar vein, outlines some thoughts and techniques to apply to the gritty, hard-nosed reality of change management.

Be warned: this is not for the refined, nor the faint of heart.

Real change (as distinct from mere movement) is difficult, rare and convoluted. The smooth orderliness of ‘eight-step processes’ and so on only apply in the genteel world of academe and the business press. For the rest of us, change is marked by stops and starts, bruised egos, stonewalling and periodic doses of luck – good and bad.

Like it or not: if we want change, we are in the trenches.

Change: A Political Beast
It occurred to me recently that in Napoleon’s time, the chief weapons of conflict and control were sabres, grapeshot and cannon fire. In our world, by contrast, dominated as it is by institutions and real-time media, the weapons are restructures, reviews, and news items planted in the media.

Similarly, it was a revelation to me when, in the early ‘90s I came across Peter Wilenski’s comment that ‘Economic reform was … a political task.’

I had thought that since economics was about figures and calculations, that economic reform would likewise be a relatively quantitative affair, where precision and rigour were the order of the day.

Not so.

And this applies equally to change – reform – within organisations.

Change impacts interests, power balances and agendas; in other words, it is inherently political. As Ethan Rasiel observes: ‘When you look at the boxes on an organisation chart, you are really looking at people. When you move those boxes around, you change someone’s life.’

This political reality of change has a raft of implications …

The Exercise of Power: Setting the Agenda
The way power is exercised within organisations impacts critically on what can change and what can’t. Another gem from Peter Wilenski on the ‘subtle agenda-setting influence’, written originally in a policy context:

Power in society is usually measured in the media by the ability of one group or another to win some particular battle on the political agenda. The far more important question is how the political agenda is set – what forces in society determine whether a problem is regarded as a public policy issue at all.

This is decisive, and it applies also in the corporate and organisational domain. To effect change you must win others over, and to win others over there has to be an agenda for that change – a context in which the discussion occurs. Creating that context is the first, and in my view most neglected, aspect of change efforts. The shortcomings of the present have to be brought into sharp relief; data has to be collected for credibility; the players need to be primed. A comment might be dropped in this meeting here; a particular observation made in that report there. Then agreement is reached to issue a discussion paper. Workshops are held. Reports produced. And eventually a full-scale change program is underway.

The ‘agenda’ - the menu of current priorities – shapes what is and is not on people’s radars. The agenda, especially in public and not-for-profit organisations, is a key unit of management. Who sets the agenda also shapes the conversation, the priorities, and the resources. You accomplish change by first creating an agenda for change.

Attracting, Cajoling, Co-opting, Manoeuvring
This being the case, it doesn’t pay to be too starry-eyed. People will not come to your way of thinking based on its inherent virtues or merits. Rather they will have to be cajoled, attracted, co-opted, steered and manoeuvred to it. You have to understand and play to their interests. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: ‘The one who cannot seduce people cannot save them either’. Given that there are multiple players, each with their own agendas (and these agendas conflict, interact and overlap) the task is far from straightforward. You just have to plot and scheme.

Welcome to the game.

I’ve written previously about the key role stakeholder analyses play here. Power-interest analyses and force-field analyses are vital tools of change management. These are not exercises you only carry out at the beginning of a project as a matter of change management pro-forma; they are tools to be used constantly throughout a project to calibrate the environment.

You should have a clear fix at every moment on whose support you need and where these individuals and groups heads’ are at. Set actions to arouse and keep their interest. If they’re moved by career and profile, provide a regular feed of good new stories … on your issue. If they’re conservative and risk-averse, define clearly the risks of not following through on your program. Make them want to hear from you. View things from their angle and their week-to-week reality.

Define short-term objectives based on these analyses, and shape work programs and messaging accordingly. Get plugged into networks that keep you appraised of what’s going on in the executive suite or other pockets of influence: the coffee catch-up is a key weapon of choice here.

A Case for Change that ‘Bites’
The case for change not only has to be true and right; it has to be biting, compelling and immediate. This is less mathematical calculation than it is campaigning for office. What’s so good about your way of doing things? Why implement this new system? Why should people sign on to your process or participate in your program? Why can’t it wait? The benefits and reasons have to be so finely crystallised, yet so blazingly obvious, that people would be fools to oppose them.

It requires hard work and discipline to think through, systematically and clearly, how your offering impacts people, to pare back the layers of inputs, processes, technologies and other considerations to get to the core of what’s so important about your initiative. Will it produce a quantum leap in staff capability? An ongoing reduction in structural costs? The penetration of a hitherto untapped market and a new revenue stream? The realisation of rights for a section of the community who are otherwise dispossessed?

Taking the time to filter down to this understanding pays huge dividends in winning the hearts and minds of those you need to influence. It must then be expressed in a concise and compelling way. A nice example is the Positive Coaching Alliance’s efforts in the US to promote sportsmanship and address bad behaviour in youth sports by re-orienting the conversation in terms of Honouring the Game.

Short and Sharp Comms Planning
My earlier comment about stakeholder analyses being change management pro-forma too often applies to communications plans as well. I have seen one too many of these that are exercises in arcane conceptual frameworks or generic displays of corporate pseudo-morality (“It’s vital that we communicate with staff …”). Handy hint: given that you need to communicate, if your plan to effect that communication is so dry that you have to run for eye drops, your communications at large are probably not going to land anywhere you want them to.

My view on Comms Plans is that they should be one page affairs that outline:

what’s communicated …
to whom …
through which channel …

With the agenda set, stakeholders analysed, benefits identified and communications shaped according to stakeholders’ respective angles, I recommend short sharp check-in and report-back mechanisms to track progress and course-correct as needed.: weekly or fortnightly is the appropriate frequency.

*   *   *

In the world of change, the rewards go to the adroit, the pragmatic, and the well-networked. It’s a tough ask, in an endeavour where steeliness and resolve have to combine with flexible adaptation.

That being the case, it’s all the more important that you have a clear fix on the gritty realities of what it takes to accomplish change.

How is your change effort faring?

Kind regards,
Director I Michael Carman Consulting

PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374

Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2008) Made to Stick Random House, p.176.
Ethan Rasiel (1999) The McKinsey Way McGraw-Hill p.27.
Peter Wilenski (1986) Public Power & Public Administration Hale & Iremonger, pp. 7 and 17.

© Michael Carman 2015