Challenges for change management?

change mgmtDespite having been a supporter, follower and practitioner of the art that is ‘change management’ for many years, I only recently reflected on why it is worth doing.


I first picked it up as a formal discipline in the early 1990’s, and simply used the insights and lessons that it provided because it made sense to me. They seemed to fit well with much I had  learned about what really helps creativity and innovation, where the learning and adoption of new products, processes and structures clearly depended on both finding great new ideas and persuading others that they were worth pursuing.

As a consultant who became heavily involved in the ‘re-engineering’ of business processes, it became obvious to me that merely ‘having the right answer’ even with an ironclad business case, may not get you very far. Change management seemed to offer ideas, approaches and frameworks that helped with this sort of difficult change in organisations.

Helped meant ‘helped made things work’. As such the ‘why’ for change management has always been for me – because it helps make other change work. Not paying attention to it makes it more likely that changes will fail.

Perhaps that was enough for me.

Yet with the increasing pace of technological advance, the convergence of markets, and the impact of globalisation, change has become an endemic feature of most organisations now. Every year in organisations large and small there are multiple changes that need to be landed successfully and often these are big changes!

If this is the case then change management becomes virtually the same as good everyday management. Certainly it challenges the boundary between business as usual and change.

Good leadership demands an approach that presumes that changes will need to be implemented. Indeed leadership is often measured by its ability to realise these changes at speed, with depth and breadth, successfully.  New Executives come in with not just a mandate for change but a demand for change from those who appoint them. Timeframes are short. The focus is very much on results (and not normally on sophisticated measures of them either).

So, is change management still just about success? Clearly it must be effective to stay on the management agenda; so this doesn’t go away.

However I think it is being increasingly asked to work more specifically on some of the determining factors that create sustainable success.

So where should it concentrate attention and develop its focus?

The creation of agility

As the pace of change has accelerated and change has become the norm, many voices have challenged the value of models of human behaviour that suggest three ‘states’ in change (before, transition and after) based on the reshaping of people’s expectations and their acceptance of the new situation.

Is it helpful to think in terms of steady states and their transition? How much does it help to think about change management in terms of projects within a static framework? Shouldn’t it really start to pay more attention to the framework itself? If change is constant then shouldn’t we focus on the context.

Hence, why creating organisational agility is an appropriate aim.

How does change management help leaders rethink the structures and processes of an organisation so that it is more nimble and able to handle a rapidly changing context?

Many of the traditional perspectives and tools are not as helpful in doing this as they might be (as a new book by Paul Gibbons, The Science of Successful Organizational Change, identifies). What is needed is something that focuses on the context itself and how this can be designed to help people identify and adopt changes faster. Here the ideas of the learning organisation, the application of behavioural economics and insights into cultural change could become valuable avenues for more effectively incorporating into change management.

Greater specificity in frameworks

I have worked with and observed tens of change management initiatives in my working life. The typical structure is something welded onto a business or systems initiative that has specific aims. As a result the change management elements often get focused down and have very limited goals – to get the real change in smoothly, quickly, effectively…etc. They quickly lose any nuance and default to simple core methods. Wider aims that might have value are dropped for reasons of resource, time or because the business benefit is not well articulated.

The narrowed focus contrasts with ever widening risk management practices that have become more resource intensive over the last decade, not just in response to the growth of the regulatory  environment but as much in response to the perceptions of increasing complexity and risk, and a desire to enable more pre-emptive management.

If change management is about success, it is about risk and yet it has not managed to embed itself as effectively as it might in this area when the default is a risk register and a project mentality. Yet thinking through the human risks and issues is a powerful way of identifying, calibrating and addressing risk and could help ensure ‘success’ at a corporate level.

To realise this though there will need to be more development and use of detailed frameworks (such as the one developed by Burke-Litwin),or categorisations and taxonomies of change capability to help build a comprehensive view comparable to the enterprise risk management frameworks that have appeared.

A more detailed, and perhaps more generally used, taxonomy for change capability would help increase its ability to address both specific topics and organisational agility.

Building real commitment

The final area of challenge is ironically where much of change management concentrated its original attention – with the people who are the target audience for change.

Change management often concentrates on people’s behaviour: how to ensure that salespeople use their new systems in the way intended, how to ensure that staff really adopt new roles, or how to ensure leaders start to generate and action the details of a new strategy.  All this leads to an enormous focus on communications, skill development, knowledge transfer, sequencing of change, incentives etc etc.

These are important and all relevant. Anyone who has come across ‘nudge’ would underwrite the importance of getting the context for change right and making it easy for people to make the best decisions as a change comes in.

Yet there remains a deeper challenge in our individual-choice driven society: the challenge of winning hearts and minds. Gaining real commitment for something new requires people to choose it for themselves. Focusing only near term behaviour misses the need for sustainability. Forming a team needs more than simply a gathering of individuals; it needs a unit with synergy.

As organisations find coercion less effective, where volunteers and stakeholders are critical participants in successful change, and where individuals are experienced self-choosers, change management has to think about how do you really go about winning hearts and minds for change.

This is an area that needs more attention.


Success remains the bedrock for the sustainability and relevance of change management but it needs to develop its focus beyond the project orientation and look to the context of the organisation, the granularity of its thinking and the hearts of its participants. These are increasingly important for effective leadership in our organisations.



CPAS Lead On reviews ‘Better change in church’

better_change_in_churchThis month’s edition of the CPAS  bulletin for leaders, Lead On,  featured a very positive review for our new book on handling change in church, which was great to read:

“Mark Twain said that the only person that likes change is a wet baby. Yet, as this book argues, change is both practically and theologically at the heart of effective Christian community and the gospel. While there are many books on ‘change’, the focus of this book, as its title infers, is very much on change in the context of the Church and this is a real strength. The authors bring to bear their own extensive experience of change leadership to provide a wealth of practical ideas and wisdom, which ensures the material is highly relevant and the issues explored are very recognisable to any church leader.

The book is both well researched and very comprehensive. Change and its role in the development and enabling of vision, communicating well, addressing conflict constructively and creating and sustaining momentum are just some of the issues explored. I found the chapters on the human dynamics of change, together with the specific role of the leader in preparing for, initiating and guiding change, particularly incisive and helpful. Tougher issues are also addressed such as barriers to growth and change and the reasons many change initiatives fail.

Although the authors rightly shun a formulaic approach to change, at the close of the book is a framework which bring the key points and principles of the book together to facilitate their practical application. Each chapter also concludes with a helpful summary.

This is an outstanding book and will be of immense help to anyone involved in Church leadership, whether embarking on change or currently on a journey of transition. I highly commend it.

Better Change in Church can be purchased from Amazon”


Energy to change? Six hurdles to jump

shutterstock_80196145The UK energy market has been coming in for a lot of criticism in the last few weeks because although wholesale gas prices have fallen a third since their peak at the end of 2013, the best big six price reduction has been 5% (British Gas and npower).

The press and MP’s have criticised the market, suppliers and the regulator. The Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee published a withering report on the regulator and their attitude to value for money, and there was no evident sympathy for Centrica with its 35% profit fall when they published their results last month.

Yet it is not true to say that people do not have a choice.

Whilst there has been this barrage of criticism across all news media, Martin Lewis, of Money Saving Expert fame, has been just as vocal in challenging energy consumers to take ‘just 10 minutes to save £250’ by using comparison sites and the internet to find the better deals that are on offer from smaller suppliers. Similarly, the Competition and Markets Authority has calculated that 95% of duel-fuel customers could have saved £150-250 simply by switching tariff from the big six.

So the question that intrigues me is this: Why is it that half of the homes in Britain don’t care enough about switching and are not interested in earning £200 for 10 minutes work to secure their share of £2.7bn?

These are not ‘rich’ households and given that real household incomes have fallen, why wouldn’t people make such a small effort for such a large benefit? It is not exceptional … your probability of divorcing is greater than that of changing your bank account (if you are married of course!).

There has been no proper study on this, but identifying the possible reasons could help to answer the question of whether politicians should be that bothered and how to make progress.

Equally it might provide insights into other change situations.

I think there are several, overlapping reasons that keep so many people with their current provider and which help explain why people often even resist a positive change. Here are 6 reasons why and what the government could do about it. All are good lessons for other changes:

1.   Instant pain versus an invisible prize

We know that people remember an experience based on its peak and last levels of pain (or so we are told about mothers and childbirth). Changing energy suppliers takes only 10-15 minutes but it is a task that demands detail and concentration. It has no immediate emotional reward. It is cognitively painful for most of us.

Against this we have a prize that, although worth a lot of money, is something that people will never really experience. Yes they will pay a little less for their energy for the next twelve months but there will be no large cash sum in their hands. No clear prize that they can experience. Only slightly lower bills each month.

The experience is not clear enough. Maybe if the cheaper supplier paid you (upfront?) a large cheque our senses would see it differently…and if it really is that clear then suppliers could.

2.   Scary ‘reference points’

We all know about someone’s aunt or friend who tried to change and the process screwed up.

These disaster experiences get related by people whenever the subject of a change is mentioned and succeed in scaring off a few more people. The ‘reference point’ will explain how everything became more expensive rather than cheaper and created a load of hassle.

There is a rational risk aversion that this feeds and in these cases it needs addressing. Some quantification of the real numbers who experience issues and a more transparent and effective regime for rectifying issues would help unlock confidence to change.

3.   Fear of the unknown

For people who have never made a change in their supplier (and there must be quite a few given the stability of the British Gas market share) then there must be a real fear of the unknown.
These people are being asked to take a completely new and unfamiliar step.

This is compounded by the fact that the switch is primarily conducted on what is a very recent and poorly understood medium for many, especially older buyers – the internet. Some will not want to give out card details (fraud risks) or email addresses (phishing and junk mail) and many will not be confident that they can fill in the forms easily and without human support.

Such fear could be overcome with either telephone help, co-browsing support or even local workshops… which could even be charged for. (At £25 a change that could still earn ~£100 an hour). Transition support is vital for some people.

4.   The stress of decision making

Experts in psychology and decision making have established that making choices, especially where there are many options, uses a lot of energy and creates stress. This leads not only to fatigue but also to people seeking to avoid making decisions. The best example is that if a store stocks too many jams it will sell fewer jars than if it limits the range on offer (and therefore the choice that it asks people to make).

The nature of an unfamiliar decision where there are uncertain outcomes, a legal commitment, many variants (providers and tariffs), and the potential to get details wrong and create problems puts people off the change and they avoid it – because it is their choice and they can.

The government has tried to cut in on this issue by working on the tariff complexity (but this is compromising cost for some groups of consumers) and by improving information by insisting on documents that at least stand a chance of explaining how much gas and electricity a household uses. These are good starts. It is not an easy obstacle to address but not enough has yet been done here and the judgement over what constitutes simple to understand information seems not yet to be simple enough.

Maybe it is time to insist that companies use a third party reporting mechanism – and build in comparisons for good measure automatically, where the top 3 or 5 competing offers are listed.

5.   Belief in the value of a relationship

Some consumers I am sure stay where they are in the belief that there is some value in the stability and longevity of the relationship that they have with a supplier.

They probably believe that this will prevent problems occurring in continuity of supply or in the resolution of administrative issues – a belief that longevity confers loyalty, whereas a new supplier would not have any sense of commitment. I empathise with this as a bit of me thinks like this – even when it is not true!

Only counter experiences (their own or trusted friends) will really change this belief and even then I suspect that it might erode but not eliminate this (maybe because I sense that if there is an issue it would be one of the first arguments we would all use … and as such it would also count for a bit on the other end of the call!)

Good regulation on service standards that are faster to press the likes of Scottish Power and npower to address poor service would help – especially if the regulator made their own performance more metrically driven, easy to access and transparent.

6.   Inconvenience

Lets be honest – having to keep a checking on your energy is a real pain and there are many other things that it is much more enjoyable to do not just after a long day of work but even after a relaxing sit in the sun.

Words like tedious, boring, fussy and fiddly are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind. It really is inconvenient to ensure that you always have best value. This is a real opportunity for automation to increase convenience – a factor that really helps to make change motor more quickly.

It’s why third party sites like can be so useful. Membership of their energy club does the monitoring for you for free and emails you prompts, unless you have already fallen out of love with the Big Six in which case like me it doesn’t work because my local cheap supplier is not covered.

Six hurdles that, if jumped, could energise the consumer.

Six factors to consider when considering any voluntary change.


5 keys to shock and awe

shockadThe initial strategy in the Iraq 2003 invasion was described as ‘shock and awe’ (apparently technically it is called ‘rapid dominance’). The aim is to “overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events such that the enemy would be incapable of resistance”.

It is a strategy to prompt a sharp change in behaviour.

It is a well established idea. The strategy was the justification for the use of the A-bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; was articulated by Sun Tzu; and is seen as one factor in the success of the German battlefield strategy of ‘Blitzkrieg’.

The rationale is that shock overwhelms the natural optimism and resistance to bad news and enables a sharp shift in thinking. It is for this reason that sometimes leaders seek to follow a similar strategy: Find a shocking fact or idea, use it powerfully to generate high visibility and impact and so promote an urgent and vital change in behaviour.

You may, as a leader, feel that it is unlikely to be an approach that you would adopt. But it is more common than we might think and it is a favoured tactic for lobbyists, campaigners and politicians trying to move public opinion.

Most recently it has been used about global wealth inequalities  (see Guardian). Similarly it has been sometimes used by environmental activists (on everything from fish stocks to carbon emissions), politicians (in warnings about extremist parties or Islamic terrorists) and business leaders (in turnaround situations).

The aim is to create fear or revulsion at what might happen and through this a change of heart.

But, in case you are tempted to follow suit when leading change – beware! The research suggests that it often reinforces resistance not undermines it. Indeed whilst it brought Japan to the negotiation table in 1945, it did not do this in Iraq.

Why is this?

The insight comes from advertising, especially from the many charity and public information advertising campaigns that have used shock tactics.  These include the UK Government’s ‘Kill your speed” to reduce speeding; “Think!” to encourage people to wear seatbelts; and Barnado’s campaign to raise money against child poverty. Shock has been one of the core strategies in this area. (For an entertaining selection of the most gruesome, have a look at the Guardian.)

Shock clearly attracts attention and without attention you cannot secure change. The Barnado’s press campaign used images of babies being fed through hypodermic needles or with bottles of meths. It generated more coverage and discussion on child poverty in 2 days than they had raised in the previous 2 years. Shock cuts through.

But attention is not action and the evidence is that a fear-provoking message on its own is unlikely to work. This is why health campaigners seeking to prevent alcohol, drug and tobacco adoption by young people no longer major on using these kind of messages.

Shock too easily raises the natural defences that stop behavioural change. You might aim to generate fear but instead provoke anger, puzzlement or guilt. None of which help change. Even if you provoke fear, this can cause people to freeze or dig deeper not change. But, apparently especially with younger people, it may simply be ignored as neither credible nor applicable to me (such as people not believing that an organisation in trouble will make ‘my’ role redundant, “I will not lose my job”).

So there are many reasons for shock tactics not to work as intended. No message lands on a blank canvas. People’s pre-existing views shape the impact. The result? Without supporting tactics and careful message crafting, it is unlikely to be productive.

So what are the keys to making sure a message works?

There are five things:

  1. Focus on creating emotional interest, identification, and urgency. These are the keys to making the message appear credible, applicable to me and urgent. This isn’t easy. It needs careful thought. It is very easy for us to avoid owning a problem and taking necessary action. Landing a message where there is a big problem that is a long way off, is tough. Sometimes a focus on the nearer issues is more effective – perhaps fish stocks and energy security versus climate change!
  2. Ensure your perceived remedy is effective. People will try to change the message if they do not perceive that they can readily address the underlying issue. The way forward and the credibility of the solution is critical and needs as much work as the shock message.
  3. Build up strong, visible support mechanisms. People need to believe that if they change, that they can succeed. For this, they need clear supporting mechanisms. Mechanisms that tip the balance to new behaviours. These might be increased penalties for not changing or greater help to move forward (e.g. giving away free needles or nicotine patches, increasing random breath tests or tighter smoking regulations).
  4. Encourage dialogue. A big bold message should not mean a big bold delivery with no right of reply. Leaders need to encourage dialogue, to enable people to engage with the challenge. This increases the credibility of the message. It helps people to interpret it more effectively and it only happens when people can contribute and own the challenge.
  5. Build resilience in your teams (i.e. better decision making, assertiveness and coping skills). People are better able to take on a big challenge with these skills. It makes it less likely that they reject a tough message. Working on these basic personal skills before and during a change can help the message be heard.

These five tactics help to make a real problem something to be tackled not something to be avoided in any way possible.


Leaders – different from followers?

mae westMae West had a great repertoire of one-liners. One of my favourites is one that I am frequently reminded of when I hear some political and business leaders speak:

“That’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”

There is real danger inherent in the leadership position that sadly we all often fall into. Perhaps the most powerful drive of people (the social animal that we are) is to be recognised as special and appreciated. The more recognition – the better. This adulation drug comes umbilically attached to the leaders chair and is administered sometimes unknowingly but with dangerous risks of addiction.

One of the dangers for the leader is that we swallow the PR and somehow begin to see ourselves are fundamentally different from the people that we lead – maybe just that little bit better or unique?

After all we are in one of the top chairs and everyone recognises how marvellous you have to be to get there don’t they?

In truth you are unique and special. That is not the problem.

The problem comes if we fail to see the special-ness of those around us: their gifts, strengths, talent and uniqueness. When we see others as not quite as capable, as committed or special as ourselves.

When seeking to lead this can be poison. When seeking to lead wholehearted change it can be a lethal dose.

Despite what many leaders think, people have an almost infallible sixth sense that tells them if the leader sees them as one of the great unwashed.… even if the leader has a well practiced style that conceals this. People are not fooled.

“So what?” you say or maybe even, “There is an element of truth in being different – or I would not be in the position that I am in!”

The ‘so what?’ is this – as you communicate this difference, you give permission for those you lead to pass the buck in your direction. This is fine if it is your responsibility but there is a widespread tendency for people to pass you much more, including a lot that is their responsibility! The result is that they stop engaging their hearts, minds and initiative in quite the same way.

You know how it works….

You need to get an event organised and setup by 7pm (or a presentation client ready, a set of figures collated and correct, a tough repair complete, or …whatever it is that is needed).

You have the team and nearly enough time, information or awareness of the issues to achieve the right result. All you need is everyone’s wholehearted commitment to work on it together. Without this it is easy for there to be loose ends, obstacles that prove too tough, unforeseen issues that blow off course. With commitment, these inevitable events get managed. Without it they get in the way.
It’s not that people don’t want it to work. It’s that they respond to your attitude by expecting you to achieve the result rather than them. The result can be a vicious circle because of course your expectations of them not being quite as smart are now being proven by their behaviour and so it justifies your position (and indeed theirs!).

Leaders seeking commitment in change need to break the circle and this has to start with a real recognition of the good points that everyone has and the uniqueness of their gifts.

There are many different ways to administer an antidote – genuinely useful and observant friends, 360 reviews, effective appraisals, a keen mind that always seeks better answers to less than perfect results and multiple views not just agreement.

But all methods rely on us having a high degree of self-awareness and being open to healthy self-critique. This is tough to achieve unless we can recognise the special qualities in the others that we are leading. We need to continually challenge ourselves on this: to see the uniqueness in those we lead and recognise their contribution to any team success.

Sounds soft? It is not about being soft.

It is about begin clear:

Clear about my responsibility, what I uniquely bring and my commitment to delivery, and then

Clear about others responsibilities, unique contributions and commitment. We need to expect them to live up to their responsibility and identify, acknowledge and appreciate the specialness that they bring to the task.

The outcome needs to be seen as a joint enterprise where we succeed or fail together by bringing our best.

Such realism moves beyond great one-liners to genuine commitment.

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