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25 July 2017

Guy Gumbrell, Co-Director of Executive Education

A hot summer is upon us and it’s at times like this we may wish we had upgraded our home shower or domestic boiler to give a more reliable supply of water at the right temperature, at the right time.  The problem with upgrading your home plumbing is that it often requires a shut-down of the (at least adequate) system you already have.  Water supplies must be turned off and systems drained.  For a while, at least, we have to tolerate a worse aquatic environment than the one we had and hang on to that vision of a pulse jet shower or jacuzzi bath to get us through the misery of home improvement.

Away from the plumbing metaphor, we heard a similar point of view when Dr Elena Dalpiaz gave a presentation called Leadership in Times of Change to a group of law firm IT Directors.  In critical areas, such as IT, how do you improve and upgrade, never mind explore and experiment with completely new systems or business models, whilst continuing to deliver the seamless service that everyone expects?

The execution of change in mature businesses with technology-critical operations will always be challenging but, paradoxically perhaps, it is technology in business that is driving change.  Technology specialists are having to be advocates and explainers of change as well as guardians of stable and reliable service delivery.  A 2015 study by Deloitte concluded that technology is likely to have displaced over 800,000 jobs, but created nearly 3.5 million new ones in between 2001 and 2015[1] .

The evidence is not showing that human employment is being destroyed but rather that it is dramatically changing, and on a big scale.  In such a scenario, leaders in technology-related disciplines who may have an earlier sight of the impact of technological change, have to be skillful communicators and advocates for change.

In organisations, change is often resisted by default, for a multiple of reasons, one of which is the fear of losing something important as a result of the change – be that status, recognition, security or achievement.  These can all be drivers to maintain the status quo.  At first glance, you might be surprised to think of people with an achievement drive as being resistant to change.  After all, shouldn’t we go to “can do” people to make new things happen?  Perhaps, but they first have to be persuaded that the change is possible because it also carries the considerable risk that the current high level of performance will be disrupted and damaged, and the satisfaction of getting tangible reward for effort will become less likely.

The effective presentation of change by the leader is therefore a critical skill.

Presenting change as overly novel may increase interest but decrease desirability – resistance will increase because it’s seen as too difficult (and therefore a de-motivator for those who are especially driven by evidence of regular success for their efforts)

On the other hand, presenting change as overly familiar can fail to produce the excitement and energy that is needed to start a change initiative.  If the change is seen as ‘business as usual’ there isn’t much motivation to expend the effort to change and the potential payback is too low.

There are at least three ways you can consider to craft an effective ‘story’ about change:

  • Tap into shared values – emphasise continuity between the planned change and existing values in the organisation (or group). There is a delicious example of this in the book Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath which describes how the Texas state authorities engaged the support of truck drivers (themselves a big part of the problem) as advocates in an anti-litter campaign.  As part of a campaign to persuade drivers to take their rubbish home instead of throwing it out of the car (or truck) window, many truck drivers in Texas proudly displayed the banner “Don’t Mess With Texas” in their rear windows.
  • Re-frame the benefits of change; anchoring failures as successes at another level ( for example, team failure may be a corporate success). Some organisations are now ‘institutionalising’ this by adopting ‘ROF’ (return on failure) targets.  Failure is actively encouraged as long as it is followed by reflection, blame-free discussion and learning.
  • ‘Memorialising’. When complete, the change itself can be ‘memorialised’ – the shared journey and interpretation of the change can be written down as a shared narrative.  This embeds change as a positive and successful process which, of course, will help people to feel more positive about future changes.   The UK disability charity Scope, founded more than 60 years ago to promote the rights of disabled people (in particular those with cerebral palsy), has memorialised the change in its name to Scope from its original title – The Spastics Society – in 1994.  The story of this change is published on Kindle Books and is frequently referenced by other charities that are considering a similar journey.

Of course, planned change is only part of the challenge.  The need to continue with the current service while a new system, service, product or process is introduced is a perennial headache.  Perhaps again, insights into human behaviour can guide the ‘technology-leader’. One of the reasons people resist change is because they don’t feel in control of it – they didn’t think of it in the first place and they have little control over if and how it is implemented.  However, the pace of external change is throwing up news ways of experimenting that could actually make the implementation of change more likely to succeed.

Large companies, stretched just to maintain existing services, are using the principles of distributed innovation and creating communities alongside the organisation to brainstorm new ideas, and test new products, services and platforms.  This makes good sense if you subscribe to the principle that the best ideas on any topic will lie outside the boundaries of your own organisation.  It makes sense in another way for by involving a community of customers, however small, in the development of a change, you create advocates who have a more credible voice with your existing clients.  When it comes time to migrate customers from one platform to a new one then this could be very useful.  Change in the fast lane is possible – even if you need to create two parallel lanes.

From Brawn to Brains: The Impact of Technology on Jobs in the UK, Deloitte (2015)


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