Strategic change – are you soft or hard?

The challenge

I have been working with many different organisations in the last few years including not-for-profits and church organisations. Working with not-for-profits, churches, social enterprises and other community focused organisations it is clear that they march to a different drum from commercial bodies, even if they share many of the same challenges and processes that exist in any organisation.

A part of this is that they conceive, articulate and launch strategic changes differently from commercial organisations.

It is as though the different drumbeat becomes even more significant when change is needed. Whether change is to address strategic misalignment, operational misfiring, financial issues, rapid capacity change, poor HR practice or a non-specific ‘cultural’ malaise, the need to instigate change heightens everyone’s senses. In this flashpoint for organisational conflict it seems to provoke leaders to rely on ‘heritage’ levers to effect the change, especially if it is strategic.

Having observed this across all different sorts of organisations I have noticed that the result is that leaders tend to lean towards one of two slightly different toolsets to lead the change – either to soft or hard tools – and this shapes how they visualise and articulate the need, goals and approach:

Sometimes the focus is the tangible – metrics, resources, structures, planning, new or changed services, different task roles. Easy to express and visualise, much more manageable for the programme team to track and leaders to defend spend on. Its all hard factors and goals.

At other times it is the intangible – values, education, attitudes, skill development, concepts and ideas looking for engagement and discussions, shifts in thinking, commitment and new ways of conceiving what is being done. They emphasise the soft.

Yes, this sometimes reflects the nature of the change that leaders think is needed but just as often it seems to be a reflection of their conception of the nature of the organisation or their personal preferences and a response to the natural risk of change.

Rarely do I see changes which consciously span both aspects and weave them together. Yet this weaving is so important in the definition and realisation of the best outcomes and sustained, substantive changes.

Even a brief look at sports or military action reveals the immense power of combining the power of both hard and soft factors to help make changes work well.

The incredible success of British cycling over the last 20 years has been down to a rich combination of soft and hard working together (see Guardian) with funding, technical edge, training, motivation of the masses and sports psychology all playing their part to such effectiveness that after Rio other countries were left scratching their heads – even after large investments (BBC News). At a more localised level those who watch tennis can readily see the impact of both technique and mental strength as factors in individual match performance.

Similarly in battles the combination of skills, armaments and logistics alongside morale, ideas and leadership provide a similar endorsement of soft~hard combinations. Many famous battles have been won by commanders using the same combination of morale and personal commitment plus tools and strategy.

Yet too often we seek to address change in organisations reaching largely for only one part of the potential toolbox rather than both.

I think that this might be for many reasons in addition to our risk averse tendencies:

  • The mental model that we create of the nature of the change is framed on a partial view, perhaps an analogy that leans to the technocratic or the interpersonal, the activities needed or the being desired
  • The personal character and style and functional experience shapes the most comfortable tools to use (a hammer has always worked for me…)
  • Our approach to strategic change is shaped by supporting third parties who justify their existence by a focus on one or other toolset
  • We see the issue in terms of only a limited set of dimensions or causes and therefore seek an angle on the issue rather than a probing to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the solution
  • We simply don’t devote the time needed to make the change work and stick. We do something and once the first elements are showing promise we move on only therefore engaging with a part of the requirement


Sadly this often means that the big shifts needed in an organisation rarely get tackled soon enough or effectively enough and often reoccur until an existential crisis destroys that area or aspect of the organisation.


Here are four ways to challenge yourself and your team to enrich your vision of the change and the routes to achieving it.

Understand your own biases

Start by asking yourself about your default approach to a change and see how it might bias your understanding and approach and where it will leave your approach weakest.

When you think of major change what disciplines do you reach into? (change as change, learning, development, strategy, design or innovation?)

What mental models come to mind – strategic or military analogies? GANNT charts? Design approaches?

Do you tend to put most emphasis on particular facets – governance, targets, values, people, activities etc?

Looking back on your successful changes what are the common strategies and tools (that you may naturally seek to lead with)?

This may help you to recognise areas that additional reflection, analysis or definition is needed in identifying the goals and vision or the strategies to pursue.

Encourage diversity of viewpoints

Gathering diverse yet committed viewpoints into the team helps in the definition and articulation of the change and in bringing a more rounded perspective. It will help challenge singular, ill-formed or limited views of the strategic needs and strategies..

Much as you might use De Bono’s six hats you can allocate different perspectives around a group to assess the situation and refine the change agenda. Perspectives might include those of different constituents (internal and external) or themes (e.g. values, behaviours, habits, the intangible, activities, products/offerings, structures, resources)

This will continue to be of value in the governance of the programme – as long as time is built into the group’s agenda to reflect and review progress and outcomes and to be curious about what is happening.

Focus on the a well defined set of outcomes or benefits

The rich thinking that is needed to generate a well-balanced vision or strategies for change is often very effectively catalysed by a determined focus on the outcomes that any change needs to create in order for it to be worthwhile. In NFP’s this might be captured by the fashionable area of ‘theories of change’, in commercial organisations it is normally framed in terms of benefits to be realised.

Thinking needs to push into outputs from the change and then beyond into the outcomes that need to be realised fo this to be a powerful approach, capturing the mental models that links these and the context under which they are operating. I have found this to be a very helpful way of pushing thinking beyond the hard to the soft and vice versa when it becomes clear often programmes define their goals at an intermediate point that puts outcomes at risk or leaves them undefined.

Choose a richer framework

We all make use of frameworks or models to probe the nature of the outcomes needed. A way of challenging your team and yourself is to deliberately use wider more comprehensive ones and press on the nature of the interdependencies that are present.

The choice depends on context but it might mean using a competency or component model, or the Burke-Litwin framework; Porter’s competitive analysis; PESTLE or other checklists and scaffolding for considering an issues more fully.


Thinking round the challenges and covering both softer and harder routes to the vision can help unlock  easier and more effective ways of effecting strategic change.

This helps to strengthen the change and overcome the cultural or practical barriers that undermine sustained, significant impact.


When should you change horses?

Contemplating a big change in direction but still implementing your current strategy?

The expression ‘you should not change horses midstream’ apparently comes from a speech made by Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election as he urged voters not to switch leader in the middle of the civil war. It emphasises the risk in making a change with the idea of the danger of being washed downstream as you try to change the horse that is carrying you across a fast flowing river…

The uncertainty of change

It has stuck because it captures the risk of being sunk during a transition so well. Whether it be a change of policy, personnel, machine, strategy or even job we all sense the reality of this risk. To highlight but a few…

  • A significant change almost always involves a monetary and time investment to bring it on-stream that is not easily made at the same time as running the operations in an organisation. It can derail cashflow or management attention.
  • The future performance of a new strategy or job is almost always less certain than the performance of the current approach even if it is prospectively better in the longer term. There is no track record and it may take some time to tune it effectively. It may have hidden issues or teething problems.
  • A drop in day-to-day performance exposes the organisation to risks (e.g. the loss of a key customer, missed profit target, staff discontent) that can be tough to recover from and of course, politically it also exposes the leader who instigates the change.
  • It awakens political opportunism in others as a change disturbs power relationships in the organisation. It can then lead to at the least hassle and at worst a serious threat to your position.

All these seem good reasons for postponing a change where possible, especially if we are ‘midstream’. Sometimes it simply pays to stay in a not so good position to avoid an even worse one!

As we are all so much more sensitive to losses than gains, we can all behave like this. It can even be smart. We know transition is a big risk. Some smart leaders seem to prove this in the timing  of their decision to move or retire from a long held position (e.g. in business or sports). All too often within the space of 12-18 months their successor can be fighting previously invisible issues, struggling with the transition and need to institute  changes.

A common problem

What’s more this resistance to making changes happens in all walks of life…

In economics: It has a name – over-commitment. The relatively slow growth of the UK economy in the late Victorian period and beyond is often badged as a problem of over-commitment to traditional slow growth (and low skill) industries. There was an unwillingness to change horses to newer higher growth industries even when the returns from doing so were much better.

In business: I was working with Nokia in 2007 at the time that Apple launched its new smartphone and despite the obvious challenge of this change, few people in Nokia saw the need to change their strategy urgently. As a result they took too long to make any serious response to what became an organisation destroying innovation. Clayton Christensen’s landmark book ‘The Innovators Dilemma” captures the scale and significance of this phenomenon in organisations facing newdisruptive technologies.

In war: The rapid destruction of the allied defences in Western Europe in 1940 in the face of the innovative ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics of armoured units was the result of a commitment to tactics that fitted the previous war when armour and communications were in their infancy.

In ourselves: We recognise it sometimes ourselves when we realise we have stayed in a role, place or organisation for too long.

If a change is not made soon enough then often it can become too late to make it at all.

However, our challenge is that this often means we should switch horses when we feel we are in the middle of things.

Four markers for switching horses now

So when should you decide to make this risky midstream change? What are the best signs that now is the time to move? When does ‘things are not going well’ translate into ‘now is the time’ to change?

Here are four markers that indicate now is the time to change for an organisation, group or even individual.

Any one on its own provides a good reason to change now but the presence of more than one is a strong imperative to do so and regular reflection on them might help to avoid the inevitable drowning that will take place if the horse you are using cannot make it across the stream.


  1. A significant gap in user experience

This is the first and in my mind most important sign.

A shortfall in the customers’ experience of you, your service or your organisation can often provide an important indicator of a need to change. It is a certainly a good time to question if  things are still okay. The shortfall might be in comparison with alternatives (Nokia vs Apple smartphone) or against expectations (Sinclair C5, chocolate teapot) but where there is an evident and persistent gap of the sort that the average person notices then it is time to make a major change to address the challenge.

If users often come away with an underwhelming experience of me in a role, my organisation, or even if significant segments find a gap against competitive offerings, then this a sure sign that a change is needed now.

A good ‘outside-in’ perspective in the best test for change. Even after many years in consulting, it still amazes me how tough it can be in larger organisations for ‘outside-in’ insight to prompt real change. It is why it is vital to have in place ways that always keep leaders across the organisation involved and engaging with the ‘voice of the customer’.

As a person it is a great reason to pay attention and listen carefully to friends, colleagues and contacts. Wisdom so often comes from the outside.

2. A clear and present danger – a negative end game

This is not about the film but rather the principle. In the USA in 1919, the Supreme Court agreed to limits to the First Amendment freedoms based on this principle. In this case I suggest that it is a good test for change. When looking forward with your current strategy, approach, product, service etc  if the game clearly does not end positively for you or the organisation then a change is needed.

In organisations this might be in terms of projections for revenues, margins, market share, staffing costs or the use of time (e.g. to manage downtime or close budgets) or again it might be external trends that are visible despite a current good performance. The growth of the online and mobile channels in retail is a case in point. The growth and impact of these were clear 10-15 years ago but it has taken many retailers until this decade to even begin to think about the impact on their own channels, property, methods, policies and range. The results can now be seen in their own performance – perhaps most strikingly in the way that this week the market value of Asos exceeded that of M&S for the first time.

3. No improvement options

Lets be clear -there are always improvement options. But sometimes when facing a performance challenge it can seem that you have run out of them. Everything that is suggested or tried seems impossible or does not seem to make a real impact or has major downsides and the only apparent decision is to ‘muddle through’ or hope for the best (which almost always means that everyone expects bad news!). This is time to make the jump to something radically different.

I have seen this where businesses are working with an operating or sales model that is no longer appropriate for their industry or competitive position and the pressure goes on staff in all manner of ways to improve performance but the reality is that trying harder is not really improving the position (and yet is burning people out at the same time!).

A default of just carrying on is not a real decision. This stuck-ness is a great indicator that a major change is needed.

4. Persistent negative trend

A consistent trend decline over months or years on key measures (e.g. revenue, market shares, productivity indices, profit, users, user sat, air quality etc) is another sign of the need to change. The challenge is, of course, what is ‘persistent’? How long does something need to be negative for it to qualify?

The answer definitely depends on context but much depends on what sort of a horizon you would normally take for a decision. For the insurance industry it might be a long time (ten years?), for a tech company it might be remarkably short (12 months?) but if the trend is an external one to the organisation and has not been reversed by repeated management action over a reasonable planning horizon then it is a good sign that a more fundamental change is needed now.

This also challenges leaders to identify good ‘leading’ indicators. Picking lagging measures will end up with you being too late to act. Yet surprisingly few organisations have good markers in place to enable this – especially in situations when markets are highly fragmented and data tough to come by.

Even when markers are in place, the dislike of unfavourable performance data is amazingly strong – witness the effort that goes into making figures look good in most corporates every quarter. One previous client of mine brazenly redefined their market to ensure that their share looked okay.  Resistance to good feedback needs to be expected.  This is why independent people and bodies (e.g. Office of Budget Responsibility) are a great help to make this work well and overcome the psychological obstacles.


The four markers for switching horses are useful. They help to build a case for change but I am also conscious that major decisions never solely depend on rational argument. Whether we like it or not there is a strong bias for the status quo and substance needs spin to land successfully.

So remember this and stretch to more creative tactics as well. I often sleep on analysis and then come back to it. This frequently brings a significant new insight or way to present it. Co-opting a black-hatted analyst or contrarian in the organisation or creating face-to-face discussions with negatively affected users also helps to unseat overly stubborn riders.


Understanding Voluntary Organisations – Book Summary and Comment


This is not a new book. It was published first in 1988 and yet it focuses on an important subject – how do you make ‘voluntary’ organizations function more effectively?

There are a vast array of third sector organizations that play a big role in society – charities, faith groups, political, sports and community bodies. The topic of improving the effectiveness of these is therefore still very important and few management thinkers have ever been in quite such a good position to advise on it as Charles Handy.

Fortunately this book stands the test of time. It is brief (pointing readers to the substantial sister volume ‘Understanding Organizations’ for more detail) and highlights fundamentals that shape organizational effectiveness, providing an insightful angle on their special significance for voluntary organizations. It is not a cookbook but more of a framework and tool for those seeking to examine their own organization.

The Perils of Volunteerism

Handy recognises that this type of organization faces some peculiar risks that flow from its very nature – a sense of democratic legitimacy, challenges over how to measure success, and perhaps an even wider range of motivations for those working in it than other organisations. The impact carries three big risks:

  1. Strategic Delinquency
    The danger of the ethos of the organization getting in the way of the goals of the organisation so that it becomes a goal in itself rather then the means to an end. Real clarity of purpose and method is needed to avoid this. Otherwise the organization can easily fall into the pockets of whoever are the ‘paymasters’ and their agenda.
  2. The Servant Syndrome
    This flows from the economics of the gift economy where, because of the cause, a ‘make do’ mentality grows up undermining quality or driving responses to every need. This leads to staff burn out and undermines the sustainability of the organization.
  3. Ideological Fanaticism
    This can arise because success, structure, professionalism or leadership are seen as threats to the purity of the cause – being united together for the goal. Yet these factors are vital to avoid ineffectiveness.

Types of Organization – the Challenge 

Handy starts by setting the scene. He highlights the three broad overlapping roles for this sort of organization – mutual support, service provision and campaigning (research and advocacy). He explains that each role often carries an unspoken assumption about how they should operate. Mutual support needs servicers, service provision needs organization (to deliver) and campaigning ones need believers.

The first don’t like organization, the second want managers and the third leaders. Yet often their missions overlap as they develop and it is then that friction increases as the cultures and structures that match each category collide. As is the case with all organizations, increased complexity creates issues and inefficiencies.

In advocating the value of good organization Handy helpfully recognises the challenge of  ‘management’ language to the ethos of volunteering. He is a great defender of good management and highlights its essential quality – the fulfilment of the organization’s goals, with their clients, providing services and doing this within the financial and other resources available. Communities cannot do this without being organized in some way – so they key is to choose the most appropriate way.  He has no admiration for ‘amateur hour’ although he recognises that it might be better to organize without the language of management or the engineering metaphors – something that I heartily agree with.

In tackling the topic, Handy has two main sections:

  1. Insights into how individuals work in groups and influence each other, and
  2. Organizing the organization itself

The aim is to highlight important topics and inform with research based insights into the good practices and challenges in each area. These  can help reflection on better ways to do things – good for anyone in the organization.

Individuals, groups and influence

Despite the age of the book and therefore the old examples and references in the text, what immediately strikes you in reading this section is just how little has changed in the substance of what we know about people working together and the nature of the issues that arise. Perhaps it serves to remind us that we know a lot more than we action. He highlights four key areas that need careful thought:


Releasing the ‘E’ (energy, effort, enthusiasm) in people in an organization demands that we understand what environment is needed to spark this. This observation in itself is valuable and oft forgotten.

Handy highlights some key considerations to thinking about the topic:

  • The presence of an ‘unwritten contract’ in the commitment we make to an organisation. This comprises elements that motivate and reward us (cause, money, status, responsibility, ability to use a talent..) set against the effort and energy that we are required to put in. These are different for each individual but there is insight to be gained from motivational theory (Maslow etc). We can help or hinder people’s drive by our approach. e.g. more specific goals and measures of success can be motivational; when we see ourselves being stretched we are attracted; when we see a strong risk of failure we retreat and need to consider if the contract remains in balance.
  • Organizations operate with different ‘contracts’ – coercive, calculative or co-operative. The latter are vital for commitment and motivation (in any organization but especially a voluntary one)
  • There are skills to managing people effectively:
    • Discussing goals and methods to build realism and commitment,
    • Praising more than criticising to engender commitment,
    • A wariness over performance rewards beyond praise,
  • Understanding each person has a different contract, but people do like targets rightly used and feeling good about what they achieve.

These are insights that have simply been reinforced not changed with more recent research (see for instance ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink).

People and their roles

Handy explains that research shows that we like roles. Defined well they help with clarity of purpose but definition can also create stresses around role conflicts, ambiguity and work overload/underload. Failure to get the right level of definition and workload leads to people filtering work (e.g. just to the urgent), withdrawing (physically or psychologically) or displacement. All produce averse results for the organization and the individual – and can often be seen today in many organisations.

It is critical that people understand the core of what a role is about, its boundaries, the fluidity within this and how success is to be measured. Roles then provide an identity and character to play. We tend to own and play the role better with good definition.

Group behaviour

Handy starts by outlining the difference between a team and a committee and the need not to confuse the two! He then identifies the priority when considering groups – the need to be clear first what the purpose of the group is (i.e. not the role of the individuals but why the group as a whole exists). Clarity over this both guides agenda and form for the group. These should reflect the purpose of the group –  distributing work, problem solving, making decisions, resolving conflicts etc.

Once clear this helps creates a sharper focus on the size of each group, how it needs to function to fulfill its task, the composition of it, its development (forming, storming, norming and performing) and its approach to concluding decisions (e.g. how participative?). A useful order and checklist.

The quality of group life depends on great clarity over the task and the quality of the process it follows – especially avoiding group-think (by preventing self-perpetuating membership, ensuring key decisions come to a senior group without any specific recommendation and that outsiders periodically attend.

Power and influence

It is naive to think that voluntary organizations do not have people who engage in power plays or seek influence (arguably their commitment may make it even more common). it is helpful to recognise the styles and sources of influence at play in any specific situation.

Research highlights seven styles of influence: reason, friendliness, coalition, bargaining, assertiveness, reference to higher authority and the use of sanctions. These can be exercised from different power sources: positional, expert, personal or resource power.

People with greater power typically use more influence styles and the greater the relative power more authoritative the style often used. None of this is very surprising but very helpful for reflection when many feel that voluntary organizations should almost be democratic.

Other helpful observations from the research are that the greater the bureaucracy the more likely positional power is used. The evidence is that power often gets abused, especially blocking and gatekeeping. It therefore needs accountability.

He also usefully reminds us that internal competition is not a pariah nor necessarily ‘conflict’ . It can be beneficial – growing the cake and raising standards if it is open, fair and forgiving.

Organizing the organization

In this section Handy highlights important aspects of organization that typically grow up with little reflection in the voluntary sector and yet by their nature may tend to persist for longer than is helpful and normal in commercial organizations.


All organizations are communities and not machines and therefore as with all groups they have own character, which we call their culture. Handy identifies four classes of culture. This is a great basis to start a discussion from or fuel consideration of healthy or unhelpful aspects of organizational behaviour. Any organization is likely to have a mixture of these but it may well be dominated by one because of its heritage and role.

Club (power) culture: This is where the organization is simply a spiders web that extends the influence of the key players. It will often reflect intimacy with these personalities rather than function. It makes for a very personal organization which thrives where good performance demands speed and personality.

Role culture: This is very different and builds structure around the individual roles in the organization chart rather than the individuals. It is ruled by the need for harmony, rules, rationality and order. Everything is more managed than led – with formalised communications and people playing to their role. They thrive in stable times when well aligned to the environment but struggle when the environment changes especially if it does so constantly.

Task culture: This thrives where problem solving is important and where the specific tasks are more varied and need speed – more bespoke projects, events or actions. The resulting excitement and achievement focus needs co-ordination and teams. These organizations offer little in the longer term beyond this and therefore thrive on youth and talent.

Person culture: Here the organizational purpose is the personal purpose of the individual not  commitment to a great cause – a star doctor, barrister, architect or campaigner etc. The result is that professionals outrank managers and organizational disciplines are weak.

Reality is an organization which is a mix of all these shaped by their history, environment, size and the flow of work. The value to be unlocked is to understand what the culture looks like and then assess the extent to which it matches the needs of its role and environment.


Handy sees structure as a sensitive area in voluntary organisations. He advocates the analogy of structure being a skeleton that supports what the organisation needs to do (rather than a prison than constrains). His reflections on what to consider are fascinating if you read them when looking at a structure that you know well – I found that they challenged key areas very effectively:

  • Subsidiarity: How far is responsibility pushed towards the coalface? Or does the organisation create too many low-skill, narrowly focused roles, almost as if because they are not paying someone for the work then the role should be of such small value that no-one would expect payment.
  • Differentiation vs Integration: Organisations have to manage the diversity of tasks that need to be done and yet integrate these into the composite that the organisation must deliver. The design needs to be diverse enough to handle services, geographies, channels and functions but Handy believes that voluntary organisations often fall into the trap of a single service focus with wide regional diversity even when this is inappropriate.
  • Integration mechanisms: Integration between the different areas can be achieved through hierarchy, procedures and co-ordinating groups. Most organisations use all three but typically develop from the first through to the last and can therefore end up with too much hierarchy (and often by default a heavily role based culture). Flexibility and responsiveness comes from a flatter structure and other integration approaches.
  • Different structural shapes: He highlights two particular ways of organising that he feels are underused and yet repay attention in voluntary organisations:
    • Federalism: This is where all that remains at the ‘centre’ is the residual elements that cannot be executed in operating units or groups. The energy and initiative comes from the units. This ‘tight-loose’ structure means that the centre often focuses on holding only onto a few things like new money and people, with the ‘hows’ being left to the units to define. Responsibility is delegated and the focus then becomes results more than methods.
    • Shamrock: Three petals that reflect the way staff are handled – a professional core, contractual fringe and flexible workers. Each has a slightly different ‘contract’ with the organisation and therefore should be handled differently. Voluntary organisations may be slightly different – with a professional core and flexible volunteer fringe (although sometimes it also needs a flexible contractual fringe too). The needs, motivations, expectations and treatment of each of these groups should be different and need to be handled appropriately.


These are the nervous system that turns a skeleton into a body. They determine the capability to discern and respond to the environment effectively. He identifies 3 important ones:

Communications: He first calls out what we all too readily forget – the immense challenge and ineffectiveness of communications generally. Over half of all information communicated is almost immediately lost by those receiving it and this is made instantly worse by distance, a lack of trust, distortions by sender and receiver and the ambiguity of language. Leaders therefore need to use at least two media and forms, shorten communication chains and make them as interactive as possible to overcome this. Good advice.

Numbers: He identifies that ‘hard’ goals (those with numbers) will always end up being treated more seriously than ‘soft’ ones and that therefore numbers need careful thought if they are to help rather than hinder progress.

Rarely are mere financials the most important metrics. It is important to identify the various levels of success for the organisation (treating it as the means to the end rather than an end in itself) and appropriate measures for these. These should scope the tasks that help to advance the purpose of the organisation and measure the success of these tasks in a period of time.

This is often done poorly in many organisations. Designing them needs careful thought – before or after the event measures? individual or group effort? is the metric relevant to the size of the base (e.g. %)? is there a clear route to calculating it that reflects its use?  He also identifies the unavoidable challenges inherent in budgets. This is a really valuable insight for leaders and should provide a powerful push to find or create much more appropriate numbers than most voluntary organisations use. Too often organisations use what’s there and easy – rather than what is helpful and the result is a significant skew that increases cynicism and miscommunication in staff.

Participation: Especially in a voluntary organisation there is then a third key system that helps to ensure the accountability of the organisation to its stakeholders. This comprises the forums and processes that hold organisational leaders to account.

He highlights important considerations e.g. the difference between participation in executive decision making and policy making or the difference between  consultation, consent or consensus. In and of itself it is a great challenge – how do stakeholders participate and hold to account the oragnisation?

The chances of change

The epilogue discusses the challenge of change in organisations, reflecting on the general resistance to it and yet the desirability of organisational development. He suggests ways to mitigate three big blocks to change and comments on levers for change. The chapter is has one or two useful insights into a big topic.


Blinkers/filters: We like to adjust reality to our preferences and so miss obvious threats or undesirable changes. Handy’s remedy to this is bake-in exposure to outliers, opposites and opportunities into the operating model by carving out senior time in a structured fashion to reflect on these. Certainly valuable – and rarely or often poorly done.

The predictability imperative: Organisations love predictability even more than individuals   hence assiduous planing, cartels, rules, categories and intolerance of non-conformists. Handy suggests better environmental scanning, counter examples and the use of ranges and uncertainty in plans to help unlock thinking. Again good ideas that are rarely used.

Coalitions: These form naturally and once organisations stop growing they can easily solidify and impede adaptability. He identifies mitigations in robust policies to prevent self-serving governance, fixed-term appointments, federalism and better participation.


When he turns to change levers he helpfully identifies Harold Leavitt’s diamond model as a useful framework for actions with its four dimensions of task, structure, systems(technology) and people. This emphasises the need to consider all four when changing any one – not merely relying on the one or two that a particular culture might naturally reach for ineffectively.

He also explains the power of particularly task definition and the numbers system as levers that can change organisations powerfully over time – much more reliably than swapping people or roles (despite the norm in change being the reverse!). However, he concludes by pointing out that if we want exciting, developing organisations then they come fundamentally from encouraging the people in them to be like this and take initiative, set themselves higher standards and press for new and better outcomes.


Overall this is a helpful book with some great material for leaders in the voluntary sector to chew on when considering issues in their community or the effectiveness and development of their organisations. Time does not blunt the value of the key messages … even for commercial entities.



Great by Choice – book summary and comment

great_by_choiceGreat by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen

Who doesn’t want to be great – or rather be part of something great? I guess we are all interested… hence Jim Collins continued journey.

He is back on this enduring quest in the fourth study in his series (following Good to Great, Built to Last and How the Mighty Fall). This time the exam question is a different lens into greatness – ‘How to build a great organisation in an unpredictable and tumultuous times?’ which you would have thought covered most industries.

Although this was published 5 years ago, I think I missed its publication (or perhaps I had tired of the theme and style – both of which are resonant of the previously successful publications?)

The authors claim that this look at 10X leaders (those that outperformed their industry by this much over a 15+ year period) builds on what they have identified before. Their ‘winners’ exemplify previously endorsed principles but the focus this time is on why they thrived in uncertainty and chaos, when others didn’t.

They therefore studied players in the most volatile industries – ones experiencing changes in regulation, technology, price wars, serious restructuring or recessions. The focus predictably lands in technology, biotech and computing but also includes airlines and medical supplies.

The conclusions are as ever interesting twists on common sense, well supported from a large data set, manipulated and examined by a large cast of analysts who support the endeavour. However, I am not sure that the lessons will stick with me in the same way as some of the earlier ones have, even though they ring true.

Maybe they are just a bit too close to common sense to make quite so much difference.

Maybe it is because I am (increasingly) led to think that effectiveness is less easily improved by another piece of insight or information than it is by a mindset set to curiosity and challenge.

Nonetheless if you need a bit of a challenge checklist to the way that you operate and you use the book to help facilitate that then I am sure that it can help challenge some core operating principles very helpfully – and that is no bad thing in any organisation!

Their conclusions

The book title gives you an idea of the overall conclusion – it is possible to deliver greatness even in uncertainty if you choose wisely. However, this choice is not the simple red or blue pill of Matrix fame. No – it is rather a set of different behaviours applied across the organisation and through time that help to build resilience and greatness.

Intriguingly these behaviours do not match the nostrums of some analysts which might focus on creativity, vision, ambition or big bold moves as keys to making your enterprise more successful than the next. The study suggests these sorts of things are only hygiene factors – not the differentiators of greatness.

The key behavioural traits are more about the way that the organisation responds to a very uncertain environment. The authors summarise these in three themes – fanatical discipline (unrelenting consistency of action), empirical creativity (an evidential focus – test and learn) and productive paranoia (environmental sensitivity channelled into contingency planning). All three built around Collins’ famous ‘Level 5’ ambition for a great cause on which the enterprise is focused.

Approach business as a 20-mile march

The authors see this as the most important differentiator of the really great from the perfectly average organisations in their study. They describe this as a set of highly specific attributes, largely within the organisation’s control, that provide clear performance standards and constraints (that operate even when they could do ‘better’ short term) applied over an appropriate timeframe for the operation.
These attributes can relate to finance, learning, service or whatever is the priority for the nature of the organisation and its proposition. The key is that it is sustained long term (10+ years) and that it is disciplined – rain or shine. Consistency is its distinguishing feature.

The suggestion is a kind of operational strategy that sets a consistent agenda for action over through time – e.g. a constant style and pattern of product innovation delivered incrementally throughout the period without the switches or changes of priority that organisations often exhibit. Each time delivery is measured against clear standards and with a predefined strategy for what happens next.

Fire bullets then cannonballs

This axiom is an endorsement of companies investing in learning as the base for innovation. The approach is to make low-cost, low-risk bets that enable the organisation to build a body of empirical evidence that will shape and focus major investments. Hence the ‘bullets’ – small tests that can be fired without disrupting the organisation but which will provide important insights into where and what kind of ‘cannonballs’ to fire subsequently.

The key is to ‘cast enough bread on the water’ to find some success that can then be used to shape a calibrated big bet (a cannonball) with significant resources behind it…and not to fire a cannonball without this learning.

This operating principle fights the temptation to make big bets behind inspired guesses or to become so risk averse that the resources never get spent behind bigger plays despite the evidence provided by earlier experiments. The winners in the analysis were not more innovative than the rest – but better targeted and more measured in execution. This targeting was led by the learning gathered through creative experimentation and was done consistently.

Lead above the death line

This is the Collins & Hansen prescription for paranoia. This is the storm preparation – management that is vigilant and scenario smart. It has three key dimensions – Buffers (cash reserves to provide contingency for adverse events), Bounded Risk (being aware of and managing carefully risks, especially those that might kill the organisation, are downside weighted or which cannot be controlled) and Zooming (‘out’ to sense threats that might severely undermine plans and ‘in’ to refocus energy into goals in the light of these).

Quality is not so much speed of response as effective calibration of the environment and the risks attached to the business and then an ability to take these insights into coherent and disciplined execution. Rigour rather than agility is emphasised with an attitude that organisations need buffers to withstand a volatile environment – the 10Xers carried 3-10 times as much cash-to-assets as comparators.

Create a SMaC recipe

This stands for Specific, Methodical and Consistent. It is the operationalisation that turns a strategic concept  into reality with discipline. It is Collins’ view on how to turn his previously described ‘Hedgehog’ concept into specific actions, actions that build and sustain momentum on its proposition.

The recipe includes things that the organisation will and wont do (eg Southwest Airlines will stay focused on short-haul and fly only 737’s – not anything else, it will stay out of food services) and represent the operating principles against which everyday decisions will be made. If well chosen they sustain high standards in even extremely challenging environments and as the authors note even in the face of a strategic shift, such as the one made by Intel into microprocessors in the 1980’s.

Final thoughts

The above summarises the key messages in the book. Much of the rest of the page count is taken up with explaining the study methodology and participant selection or the relevance of ‘luck’ to sustained success (The answer here being that it is not whether you are lucky or not but how you respond to lucky/unlucky events to ensure that you create a great return). Perhaps the most interesting of these is the chapter on FAQ’s!

In short a solid book but not one that I would rush out to buy or reference like I might the earlier ones (I was lent my copy!)


The leadership of Michelle Obama

moDo you ever wonder if your leadership makes a difference?

It can be difficult, especially in complex organisations or if you are a leader with a wide area of responsibility, to see what difference leaders make to the performance of those on the frontline of the organisation.

You may be able to see where poor leadership or decisions have disrupted and undermined work and commitment. But is good leadership merely the absence of negative impacts – or can it achieve more?

Well over the summer a study published by Economics Professor Simon Burgess at Bristol University shed a little light on the potential for an inspirational intervention by a leader.

As you may remember, Michelle Obama visited a big London girls comprehensive school on her first UK trip in 2009 and held audience with a group of students. I remember the television news covering a part of the encounter. It was exactly what you normally see on these sort of visits – a famous figure holding court with a class of teenagers. “Ho hum,” you may say.

Yet as Simon Burgess reveals in his study, as students graduated through the school, the academic results of this group of girls started to rise markedly: a little in 2010 and then markedly through to 2012.

The difference between their results and what would be expected was fully 1-2 grades across 8 GCSE subjects – a move from a ‘C’ to an ‘A’. This is a massive difference and difficult to explain other than from the intervention of the first lady.

Her impact clearly was significant. Students describe meeting her in glowing terms: one word descriptions ranged from “Inspirational” to “Indescribable”, from “Awesome” to a simple but exuberant “Wow!”. One said, “I can still hear her saying to us: ‘You have to push yourself hard, because if it feels easy, you’re not trying hard enough’. I won’t forget that.”

Here was a leader who made a real impact.

What do we learn?

So what lessons can leaders draw from this? There must be many leaders and occasions where no such positive impact occurs – so why did Michelle Obama have such a strong inspirational effect?

Inspiration is a powerful tool

Firstly, it demonstrates how important motivation can be in achieving outstanding results. Michelle Obama has no role in the running of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School; no position of authority; considerable social and geographic distance from the pupils and no ongoing relationship.

She could really only have an impact in one way – through inspiration and this appears to have been the way that she has affected the pupils. Yet even though she has had only a slender contact and role in the lives of the students she has influenced them very positively through her inspiration. It is clear that this has helped to inspire more commitment to achieving the best academic outcome and provide real hope for the girls that they can shape their own future.

As leaders, especially in the low-hierarchy culture of the UK, we can often underestimate how much impact this ‘soft’ side of leadership can have. Espousing worthwhile values and goals that have resonance with people and articulating how people can live into them can be a great way to inspire hope – a powerful motivator of behaviour.

However, to do this well demands recognition of the opportunities of the role of the leader (and realism of the extent to which we have any ‘celebrity’ status such as that embodied in this example!). It also demands thought over the values to focus on, the role of those being led and the hope that can be offered. My experience is that we are often shy of doing this thinking which is critical.

It is vital to help people identify with you

Secondly, we need to understand the importance of establishing a genuine personal connection.

Michelle Obama has a great personal story of the ‘rags to riches’ variety, with a tough upbringing that she helped transform into a personal success story as she grew up. The honesty and power with which she used this story with the students – woman to woman – was clearly a key to understanding why the students were so impressed by her and how her impact spread virally through the school.

The great gulf that many leaders see between themselves and those they seek to influence is one that we see in the current political turmoil here (and in the USA) and one that needs to be bridged if   leaders are to exercise this level of impact. Understanding the importance of being open enough and engaged enough to allow others to identify with you is critical for effective leadership – as oppose to the often impersonal and distant management that many see in today’s organisations.

Leadership demands follow-through

Thirdly, the story also illustrates the importance of follow through (especially if there is a genuine care for those being led). What I had not appreciated until I read the study was that even though Michelle Obama only visited the school the once, she continued to engage with pupils from the school so communicating her real interest in them. In 2011 she invited pupils up to Oxford to see her when she was there visiting and then in 2012 she invited 12 of them to come to the White House.

If as leaders, we really care about the significance and response to what we believe in then our behaviour gives it away and those we seek to influence can read it. Michelle Obama clearly did that with these students.

Connect with other potential influencers

Finally, the story provides an important lesson in establishing links with others who have common cause and profile. If you led this school then you would have been very pleased to have the opportunity to receive the initial visit but you might have still not have appreciated how much help an otherwise unconnected leader might be able to provide to enhance the performance of your students.

Positive messaging and role modelling doesn’t have to come from your own leadership team – it can be co-opted by bringing those who also share your passion on the same topic –  even local celebrities, political figures, alumni, media commentators and others could play this role. Leaders need to consider who might bring passion to key organisation values and then build connection with these individuals. They can make difference to your organisation.


The statistics behind the study are fascinating. Simon Burgess sought to isolate so far as possible this ‘Obama’ effect from all others to validate the conclusion. He comes to similar conclusions on the learning that can be gleaned from her impact.

However, what I particularly like about the story is that it is a beautiful example of a political leader using their position and success in support of a really good cause and one that is clearly close to their heart. May this always be so.



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