Saturday, 30 November 2013

Going Round the Bend

Much of my career over the past decade has revolved around effecting change - turning ideas into reality and helping people and businesses achieve and exceed their stated objectives.  Just recently, I was asked to design some training for a team who have a significant number of projects on the go and who needed to think a bit more about the human side of change.  After all, it is people that make change successful or who refuse to adopt the proposed new approaches and ways of working and hence, potentially impactful, projects and initiatives fail to deliver their anticipated benefits.  This post is a brief summary of what I told them...

In Chinese mythology the goldfish leaps the gate of learning to become a scholarly and masterful dragon.

As a consequence, I have used goldfish as a recurring theme, both to entertain and also to remind you that it is through applying what we learn that we can progress.
Fertilised goldfish eggs
Goldfish fry
Success at the end of the change process
Before considering the most effective ways of managing change, it makes sense to consider what drives change in the work environment.  The main reasons are:
  • Crises
  • Performance gaps
  • New technology
  • Market opportunities
  • Mergers, acquisitions and divestments
  • New leadership 
  • Planned abandonment (such as closing down a site or department)

Change is unlikely to occur unless the following formula is proved:

D = Dissatisfaction
V = Vision
P = Process

Rc = Resistance to Change
Cc = Cost of Change

Ease of Change =  (D x V x P) > (Rc + Cc)

When considering changing something it is worth asking a few simple questions, namely:
  • Why is this change necessary?
  • Is there enough dissatisfaction and who is discontented/why are they dissatisfied?
  • Is the vision clear?
  • Do we have a process/plan to achieve the change?
  • Who will be resistant and why?
  • For whom is there a personal or political cost?
  • What are the financial/economic/environmental factors that need to be considered?
Goldfish sculpture by Riusuke Fukahori
Having looked at the big picture, you need to become more personal and consider the actual people who will have to experience and embrace the change.  Individuals respond to change in different ways, partially because of the manner that they think about and process the world.  This depends on an individual’s locus of control.  Those who have an internal locus believe that they are the masters of their own destiny and hence usually respond well to change - they don’t think that the proposed future is being imposed upon them.   Individuals with an external locus of control perceive things as being done to them, and often dislike having others controlling their life.  Not surprisingly, the latter group find change tough, as they don’t feel in control of their own destinies.

Goldfish sculpture by Riusuke Fukahori
A good manager is sensitive to the people in his/her team.  According to research (initially undertaken by Elizabeth KΓΌbler-Ross, in response to individuals’ reactions to bereavement and known as the “five stages of grief”), most people respond to change in a similar manner (although the speed at which they do so varies).  Each person, on first hearing of imminent change, starts reacting by becoming shocked or anxious.  There follows a roller coaster ride of emotions, prior to a person embracing the change and moving on to operate successfully in a new way/environment.  It is crucial for a good leader to be aware of this process, known as The Change Curve, so that they can understand how people are thinking/feeling and help them to progress along it as swiftly as possible.  
It is easy as a manager to think that it is kinder to give people time to adjust, but by doing so you are perhaps just delaying the inevitable and making the change harder.  There are many good examples of leaders deliberately trying to get their people to the bottom of The Curve as swiftly as possible, so that their colleagues can start feeling more optimistic about the future.  The best recent story I have heard of this, that illustrates the need to get people “ to go round the bend”, was when an old factory needed to be pulled down to make space for a new state-of-the-art operation.  Generations of families had worked at the old site and it was a symbolic building within the community,commanding considerable emotional attachment.  It was only when management, in desperation, announced a prize raffle for two employees to be the ones to press the demolition button, to would blow up the old building, that the shocked employees really started ti appreciate that their former, familiar world was coming to an end.  It really helps to make people feel that they are involved in the process but it is also important to them that they believe that their voice is being heard.  Regular, honest communication is vital, including individual attention to help those who find the change particularly challenging.

By stopping people from worrying and gossiping you can:
  • prevent unnecessary anxiety,
  • reduce costs, 
  • bolster morale, 
  • encourage employee engagement with vision and the the process to get there and 
  • reduce the likelihood of errors.

Many people have tried to understand why change is unsuccessful.  One of the easiest academic models is John P. Kotter’s 8 reasons, which the primary causes for failure as:
  1. Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency
  2. Not creating a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  3. Lacking a powerful vision
  4. Under-communicating the vision
  5. Not removing obstacles to the new vision
  6. Not systematically planning for and creating short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture
The first four are due to a hardened status quo, the next three affect the introduction of new practices and the last prevents change from sticking.  If you think about past experiences, where a project or initiative has not gone smoothly, it is probable (barring an act of God) that the reason for things not going to plan are summarised by one or more of the above.  NB I count poor judgement of third parties’ ability to deliver what they have promised as included under “removing obstacles” and “not systemically planning”.
The opposite of Kotter’s reasons for failure provide a good framework for planning the stages of change.

Effective change requires leaders to believe in their own ability to make it happen and to inspire others into sharing the vision and wanting to achieve it with them.  Once there is a united desire to attain a specified goal and a clear route to do so has been defined and articulated, each person involved must take personal responsibility for their part of the process or initiative.  Nobody says that change is easy, but, with the right preparation and attitude, it is an attainable prize.

So I urge you not to let change intimidate you.  Go and be a dragon with your learning... (and celebrate with a slap up meal, once you have been successful).


  1. Wow there's a lot to take in here. One area I believe change fails is because the leaders themselves who wish to implement change or maybe they are being forced to, have themselves no experience (or training) of how to manage that change. For years I witnessed this in the UK textile industry which went through massive change with factory closures and manufacturing moving off-shore. There was no planning in the human impact of change only the process of removing people and machinery. I now hear stories of how the same is happening in local government, who are having to remove thousands of people, but have no idea how to manage that change. UK corporate still has a lot to learn.

  2. What a great mixture of words and pictures. I kept a goldfish or two as a kid and who doesn't like dragons? So I'm biased - but a splendid choice of animals indeed. I particularly like the short list of simple questions - thanks.

    The reminder about Kotter is helpful, and I think the opposite list to his 8 failures is a useful thing to refer to in general, not just when thinking about change.

    One thing I'm less sure about though, there is a person on the change curve saying 'Im off - this isn't for me!', and that stage is referred to as disillusionment. Maybe it's not disillusionment at all, but enlightenment that they are experiencing?

    Thanks for sharing all this - I've added it to my permanent reading list.