Gauging the speed of change

We’ve all been there, the conversation where the speed of change is, “just not quick enough”. I’ve probably uttered the words myself. One of the biggest tricks for any leader in this circumstance is being able to differentiate between the input activity and the desired output. Or, the things we need to do in order to get the results we want to see.

It’s a wonderfully alluring concept to equate the speed of delivering the first with the achievement of the second, but sadly there is no direct line between the two. Regardless of their experience, leaders will be told to reduce the time to implement, to condense the programme of activities to realise results much more quickly.  And many will happily comply to demonstrate the activities have been done, ahead of schedule. Which is good, right?

Except the desired change doesn’t happen as we wanted.

But that’s ok, because it must be the fault of someone else, somewhere else. We absolutely nailed our contribution – they just didn’t do what we needed.

The inescapable issue is that there is an optimum rate of change in any organisation and in any situation and it won’t always be the same, dependent on context. The key to successful change is twofold –

  • Understanding the contextual climate for change
  • Measuring success on outputs and inputs

To give a simple example, let’s imagine a bottle of organisational goodness (aka water) which we trying to unlock and set free into a new organisational design (aka a bowl). On one end of the spectrum, we could hold the bottle upside down and shake it frantically, the water will probably come out pretty quickly, the chance of splashing, missing the bowl and causing a mess though are high. At the other end the spectrum, we could tip it slightly below horizontal, place the neck against the lip of the bowl and transfer all the water. It will be super slow, but highly effective.

The reality is that somewhere between the two is the most effective spot, based on the deign of the bottle and the bowl.

Ultimately, the answer to success lies in the name itself – “change”. If all we were interested in was the activity, we’d probably call it “stuff”. One of the key skills of any leader is to be able to articulate the importance of the embedding and sustaining of change and not get caught into the organisational pressure to do some stuff quickly. It won’t always be the answer people want to hear, it won’t always make you the most popular, but if you’re genuinely keen on delivering success, you need to be sure everyone knows and agree what it actually looks like.

Note: Having researched the optimum way to extract water from a bottle at speed, I’m led to believe that in principle it is to swirl the bottle in a circular motion, creating a vortex through the centre that allows water to extract via the sides whilst air rises through the vortex. Sounds complicated.

Are you running a marathon, or becoming a marathon runner?

 

One of the fundamental reasons organisations struggle with change is that they frame it in the wrong way. I’m not a huge fan of sporting analogies, but forgive me this once.

One day I wake up and say that I want to run the London marathon. There are clear success criteria, clear steps to take and a very clear deadline. I can get my friends and family energised, maybe get them to sponsor me or come and cheer me through to the finish line. Of course, there are things that might get in the way – I might not get a place, I might pull a muscle, but other than that it’s a pretty straightforward (if daunting) task.

This is the “change” that most organisations like to face and are well equipped to achieve.

Now what if I was to wake up that day and say that I wanted to be a marathon runner? How would that change the approach and the context? When would it be achieved, when I’ve done one, two, ten? When I can run a marathon at will? My friends will probably not be too interested, they might even find me a bore and wonder why I’m slogging my guts out after work rather than going for a pint.

This is the change that most organisations are trying to achieve and are struggling with.

The joy of the first scenario is that once it’s done we can forget about it. Go to the pub and have a pie and a pint and spend every weekend on the sofa watching other people run around. We can revert back to our previous behaviours, with the task complete.

The issue with the second scenario is that we are talking about sustainability underpinned by behavioural change. We are transitioning into a new form of being, with no real sense of measurement, but a pretty clear sense of whether it has been achieved or not.

The difference between acting with agility and being an agile organisation.

The problem comes when organisations approach sustainable change with the mindset of task completion. We want to know when it will be done, why it hasn’t happened yet and why no one is coming along on the journey with us. We want the razamataz of the finish line and the medal and all we get is a pile of sweaty training clothes.

Creating meaningful, sustainable change is hard. It takes time, practice and repetition, it takes failure and despair. Worst of all, you’re never really sure if you’ve achieved it, or when or if you’ll arrive. Despite all the sweat, blood and tears, despite all the hard yards, you will only see how far you’ve gone, not how far you need to go.

 

 

The negative power of change

I’ve written before about my loathing for the disproportionate use of the term “disrupt”. It is a lazy, attention seeking way of trying to be heard in a world where innovative, creative thinking is at a minimum and noise and kerfuffle cloud the air of rationality. In many ways, disrupt is the bastard offspring of “change” – another overly used terms that was bandied around liberally with the hope of appearing clean and fresh and new.

Most genuine disruption and change which involves humans is potentially painful. That’s why placing it in the hands of people who fail to understand these consequences is both dangerous and naive. It is also why I have fundamental reservations about anyone who professes to “love change”. Maybe some change, but all change?

The are organisations that have become dependent on change as a means of defining their purpose. They move from restructure, to initiative, to strategic review without stopping to take a breath. These are not the agile or adaptable organisation that they would hope to be, but instead lost and rudderless placing bet after bet hoping that one of them will come home without realising the quantum of their losses.

That is not to say that organisations shouldn’t seek to change, progress and develop. It is not to say that they shouldn’t seek to innovate, create and (maybe) have some disruptive force. But the overriding question has to be, “for what purpose?” What is the reason that we are doing this, what are the imperatives that we need to take in to account, what will be the difference that we will see at the end and how will we know whether we’ve achieved it?

The practices that we use to achieve this, the way in which we work to solve the problems, the means by which we measure and assess will all change, but the overriding context should not. The most agile and adaptable of organisations hardly need to talk about change or disruption, they’re making a million small and seemingly indiscernible improvements every year to be better.

Ultimately, when we’re talking about human lives, when we’re talking about human existence and experience, we need to be respectful, mindful and thoughtful about the implications on everyone within an ecosystem of the actions that we take. Loving change is one thing when you’re doing it, another when it is being done to you.

Technology, analytics, data, life – start from the beginning

I’ve just got back from the HRTechFest in Washington. Last time I went to one of these, I wrote this about Technology being HR’s biggest asset. I still think it is – so take a look.

This time, I was struck this time about the commonality of a lot of the themes that people were talking about inside and outside of the sessions. I heard a lot about:

Transparency – the increasing expectation from employees that they can see the workings of an organisation beyond their own personal experience. Whether that is of compensation, decision-making structures, or promotion opportunities – to name but a few.
Customisation – no single person is the same and we therefore need to create employee experiences that recognise the different choices that individual employees will want to take at different stages of their lives and careers.
Experimentation – we need to be more comfortable with being less perfect and in trying things out to see how and if they work. Whether it is data, technology or traditional interventions, we need to love and embrace the pilot.
Analysis – data, data everywhere….and we need to start using it sensibly. Almost every presentation or conversation I had talked about the data underpinning decisions, but used it in a practical and sensible way – not for show, but for real, purposeful thinking.

But the biggest thing that I realised was that the companies talking about this were drawn from right across the board. The likes of Twitter and Hulu and Google and Hootsuite were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barclays, Cimpress, NBC and health and education providers.

The challenges and themes were the same, but the routes to the mountains were different. And I think this is a factor that we sometimes overlook. If you want to develop transparency of compensation, then you’re going to take a different route in a company which has been in existence for less than 10 years and has a couple of hundred of employee to one that has thousands of employees and a lot with a length of tenure two or three times longer than the other company.

Our skill is in understanding our organisational starting place and identifying the path to take. That’s a significant part of what we bring to the table. Sometimes change is fast, sometimes change is slow. Sometimes things aren’t achievable right now because a whole load of other things need to be done first. And that’s ok.

We all need to aspire to be better, we all want our organisations to change and develop, to create better working environments for our employees and better workplaces for society. To do that we need to constantly take a step forward from the place that we started. Recognising the challenge is as important as recognising the goal. That way, we make long-term sustainable change. The sort that really, really makes a difference.