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Aug 16

Changing change

I was asked this morning – as I often am – to recommend reading materials on change management. I though for a moment then decided to go for a swim and reply later.

Out in the warm sea, relaxed and at ease, I realised my answer was to not recommend reading. How many of those books are written by people who don’t implement or even embrace change?

Over the last few years of working with many organizations – from tiny NGOs to giant multinationals, government departments to community groups, I see that there are some commonalities when it comes to change.

I would sum these up in just two words of advice. Considerate wisdom.

Nobody likes to feel that their point of view has not been taken into consideration. I hear a lot of resistance to change based on this. The senior management may be seen to not know, far less understand, the shop floor. The ‘powers that be’ are often felt to be remote and lacking in compassion or interest in the rest of the organisation. Any kind of listening activity helps melt away this resistance – so long as it is done respectfully, offering a safe space where everybody can be open. And so long as there is follow up – nobody likes shouting into the wind. As we all know from personal experience, sometimes just expressing how we feel is enough to clear the feelings.

The challenge with listening though, is where to go next. Of course it is rarely possible to give everyone exactly what they want. Which is where you will need your wisdom. An elusive quality that cannot be forced or trained. An accumulation of your life’s experiences. Not only in the workplace but constantly – every family row, every personal crisis, every broken heart, every moment of friendship or helpfulness or awkwardness. It’s all part of your well of wisdom that you can draw on.

So that’s pretty easy then. Just two things.

Except as you know, it’s not. Since most organisations are not set up for either of these two things to flourish you will have to be canny about how you make it possible. Pushing for a change in the way of approaching change. Creating time in the schedule for listening – convincing others that far from being a waste of time, this is actually an essential investment. The majority of change programs fail and this is a primary cause. Your organisation can’t afford not to do this. But you will often have to fight for it.

And wisdom. Ah sweet wisdom. You will need space for that. Space to think and space to connect with your intuition. Notice what happens in your body as you consider different approaches and proposed solutions. Does your breathing change or your stomach tense? Do you clench your jaw? These are clues within us just there for the taking.

Wisdom won’t happen as you speed read the business press. Or struggle to focus on page 257 of that highly recommended latest book on the subject. It probably won’t happen in a meeting with ten other people clamouring for airspace and pushing their agendas. It might happen swimming in the sea, or just finding a quiet spot under a tree where nobody will bother you. This sort of activity might be seen as skiving or unprofessional but it can often be the way for you to make your best contribution.

Example 1: overcoming fear
I was responsible for a major product change across South America. There was resistance from the manufacturing plant and the sales force. My marketing team were uncertain, alternating between enthusiasm and doubt. We had done the research – all good. We had done the maths – likewise. I had argued and cajoled and enlightened. All to no avail.
Eventually I thought to ask them. “What’s really the issue here?”. It was fear. Fear that it wouldn’t work. And that they would all be blamed when it did. They expressed their feelings and I listened. “So how would it be…” I enquired, “If I took responsibility? I will take all of the blame if it doesn’t work.” A huge sigh of relief went up in the room. People smiled for the first time. We launched. It was a great success. And I learnt an important lesson in line management.

Example 2: power struggles
I was leading a project team made up of people from different organisations who had never worked together and didn’t have that much respect for each other. We were going to develop and launch a product for young people’s education across all of the universities, colleges, training programmes, employers and local government bodies represented by the 15 people around the table. They had been meeting for a year and not reached agreement.
Taking a deep breath I decided to try another way. We started the meeting with silence. I asked everybody to think about why they went into the job they were in. Who they wanted to help. What gave them satisfaction in their work. It was feeling like the longest minute of my life when suddenly, about 30 seconds in, something changed. The room felt quite different. When we started the meeting it only took us ten minutes to agree the major points. Nobody could quite believe what had happened but somewhere in that silence a shared intention was formed and then the answers were obvious.

Example 3: you
At least it might be worth a try. Considered wisdom. Let me know how it goes.

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