In a previous existence, I spent a good portion of my career as a business analyst. And like many business analysts or change managers, I was always on the hunt for the silver bullet – the single “right” approach to making change within an organisation.
It’s a bit like trying to fix my rather lovely but very temperamental Jaguar S-Type. I’m forever trying to convince myself that the next major repair will magically cure the problematic little bastard once and for all. It never does of course.
Anyway, like many of my colleagues, I always thought that there would be one approach that would sort it all out – a single methodology that once applied, would deliver the kind of improvements that would cause anyone interested in organisational change to dance around the office in delight.
So naturally, along with the organisations I worked for, I had a go with all of the popular change methodologies. Business Process Re-engineering, SPRINT, PRINCE2, Lean, Systems Thinking, Kaizen – the list goes on. And on each occasion, the various approaches delivered good results in particular areas while at the same time leaving other aspects unchanged. So the pattern would be this – try an approach, get some good results, realise that it didn’t work for certain areas and move on to the next approach. Then repeat.
Along the way, the organisation involved would experience a process similar to a failed romantic relationship. It would start with attraction – the organisation would learn of this approach, perhaps from another organisation that had tried it and become curious. That would be followed by romance – the organisation would fall in love with the exciting new approach and focus immense effort on spreading the word to employees. The approach would be tried out and often applied to any situation that would arise. Once issues began to appear, the organisation would move to the doubt stage. Questions would be asked – “is this the right approach?”. Previous users of the approach would come out of the closet and reveal that all was not rosy. Horror stories would begin to appear. Then, this would finally bring the organisation to the divorce stage. The approach would be discredited and thrown out, and the hunt for a new one would begin.
If you’ve ever attempted to make change in an organisation, you will no doubt relate to this. You may have also experienced the frustration and disenchantment that comes from the constant hunt for a single way of making change. You may still be hoping to find that elusive change method, the one, true silver bullet. Well it’s a bit like trying to push a piano up a back staircase – it can’t really be done.
So my advice is simple. Stop looking for that silver bullet.
You will never find one method that will solve all of your organisation’s problems. And the reason is that organisational problems are too complex and too varied.
Many traditional approaches to organisational change are very effective at working on specific elements of your organisation. And yet, your organisation’s culture and therefore its performance is made up of two distinct elements. The condition of these elements affects the way your organisation works.
The two elements can be described as Systems and People.
Systems and People affect your organisation as follows:
✦ Systems – The design of your organisation’s processes is a direct consequence of the way managers view the design and management of work.
✦ People – The day-to-day behaviours and experiences within your organisation are a direct result of the way people think. Their view of the world governs how they react to work situations, how they relate to colleagues, suppliers and partners and how they manage their personal development.
Your organisation’s culture is the product of the relationship between these two elements.
If you want to improve the performance of your organisation, you must address both of these elements. With this in mind, it must be true that a traditional change methodology would work well for specific portions of specific elements, but would fail to address all of them.
So what can you do differently to avoid falling into the trap of swapping approaches every 6 months?
I like to describe it in this way. You may be familiar with the ancient art of alchemy – the belief that any base element could be turned into gold by the application of a particular process. The word “alchemy” has come to be defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.
Think about a typical situation within your organisation – say an area where you want to make improvement. You will find that there are multiple elements in place. These could be things such as:-
• A business process that is riddled with waste and inefficiency
• A lack of knowledge and skill within the team
• Several employees who have low self-esteem and consequently shy away from any involvement in making change
• A manager who validates his identity by imposing strict rules and restrictions on the team
• An outdated IT system that is no longer fit for purpose
Is a single “kill-all” approach such as Lean going to sort all of this out? No. Each of these elements requires specific attention and a unique approach to be changed.
Working through a business process reengineering project might sort out the waste and inefficiency in the work design but will it resolve the people issues such as the employees with low self-esteem or the dictatorial manager? Implementing a programme of training may improve knowledge and skill levels but will that be of any benefit while the work design is sub-optimal?
If you want to change this situation, you have to look at it systemically. You have to apply the most appropriate process to each of the issues – you have to change each of the base elements to really change the way things work.
It’s the same with my moody Jag. The car is an incredibly complex labyrinth of mechanical and electrical systems that all have to talk to each other and work together to deliver that special Jaguar driving experience. Fixing it involves paying attention to what is going on systemically, otherwise you can never resolve most of the problems that occur.
So to conclude this blog, I want to leave you with this thought. Stop searching for a single approach to organisational change. Embrace your curiosity and identify all of the elements in the situation you are working on, then apply the most appropriate process to each of the elements to bring about the change you want. You may be surprised at just how much change you are able to make.
Oh, and no offence to Jaguar Land Rover intended. They make fabulous products and I recommend you check them out.
Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.