Tuesday, 15 March 2016

What Exactly Are Change Agents and Change Management?

I've spent a large proportion of the last thirty years involved in or running organisational, business and software process improvement initiatives. It was probably two or three years before I realised that I was actually managing change. Back in the late 1980's, business change was far from the talking point it is these days - at least not in my circles (and most definitely not in my manager's circles). When the penny dropped, my professional life changed completely.

One of the catalysts for me was a book called "Agents of Change: The Manager's Guide to Planning and Leading Change" by Hilary Maher and Pauline Hall. Although it's a long while since I last looked through it, a casual glance at it's condition shows how much use it received in the past.

Recently I've read a number of articles about "Change Agents" but none of them seem to resonate with my own perception of what a Change Agent is. And yesterday I read an article that even had me questioning what exactly Change Management is. Once again I find myself being frustrated by our use of terminology and how relatively common business terms are perceived so differently by so many people - and that perhaps our adoption of certain terminology actually feeds some of the problems that some of us are trying so hard to eliminate.

Change Management

As I inferred in my opening paragraph, Change Management (or Management of Change) is relatively new in the business world. I doubt that there is anyone who has ever worked someone else who has not been subjected to changes in their working environment without any input to or control over the change. Top down edicts from all levels of management have traditionally been the norm as the command and control culture has predominated across the world of work (and increasingly in government also - but that's a different story).

Because of that command and control system, managers felt it unnecessary to involve staff in the mechanism of change, which was largely achieved through sticks and occasional carrots. Staff reactions to change were considered irrelevant; The prevailing sentiments were "if they don't like it they can leave", or "we know what's best for the company (or shareholders)", and Fear Uncertainly and Doubt were often the chosen tools for affecting change.

As people started pushing back and resisting the big brother approach to change, a few enlightened people began to look at the psychology of change and the effects it was having on staff, especially in terms of productivity and staff retention. People began to understand that a chaotic, dictatorial approach to change was not the best way to implement change, and Change Management became one of the key buzzwords of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In my view Change Management involves taking a holistic view to making sustainable change in a organisation, and looking at the change from a people perspective (whilst still understanding the technical and business requirements of the change) rather than simply as a push process whereby complying with the corporate diktat is the only criteria for success.

Many companies have proprietary 'methods' in place to help manage change - and they usually involve elements such as leadership, communication, collaboration, planning, monitoring and education. My own 5 Facets of  Change is a work in progress.

Even with the concept of Change Management firmly established in the business world, there are still a large number of managers and businesses that force change through the organisation by paying lip service to genuine change management - plans are written, teams established and change agents appointed to carry out the will of management and disregard the will of the people.

So why am I now coming to the conclusion that the term Change Management is not only wrong but may be harmful? It's down to that word 'management', which still has the connotation of someone managing someone else and an overarching implication that leaders define the change and the staff change.

What we're really talking about is the Facilitation or Realisation of Change - helping people at all levels of the organisation to shape change, buy in to change, and work collaboratively across the business to make change successful and sustainable. That last word is key - even force feeding change into the organisation can succeed to a certain extent, but it won't take long before people revert back to the previous status quo.

The Change Agent

I have written about change agents before in this blog (posts about Change Agents). But once again, the use of the phrase causes consternation from some readers. The implication is that as 'agents' they are management spies or puppets, only there to execute the will of the diktat. I recently used the word 'champions' in the context of change and was firmly rebuked by one reader, suggesting that if we needed people to champion change then"good luck with getting it to stick in the long term".

I think of the change agent as a layer of protection from misguided management and wayward change initiatives which are not undertaken without due diligence and planning - those ad hoc changes which do far more harm than good. I see these people as "champions" of doing change appropriately, and making sure that staff get to share their issues, ideas and solutions and get heard!

I see change agents operating at all levels of the organisation, and not all performing the same role. Some will be change process experts, others will be great at building relationships with stakeholders, others acting as devil's advocates, and still others acting as management foils, but collectively they have a single collective goal of making a change work and making the change sustainable.

The problem with terminology is that it doesn't take long for it to become adopted universally and popularised, by which time it's usually too late to realise that we words don't really reflect what we originally intended. What were perfectly good words at the time, become vilified - not because they are bad words, but because people have misunderstood what concepts were being represented and have manipulated things to serve their own purposes. You only have to think about how the term 'agile' has been misused, misinterpreted and misunderstood to appreciate how quickly we make a mockery of ideas that were full of good intentions but get hijacked to serve completely different agendas.

So Change Management and Change Agents have become enshrined into our vox populi. If I try and come up with alternatives it will only serve to further confuse and obfuscate the original intentions - so I'll keep away from talking about Change Stewards and Steering Change, and some of the other phrases that came to mind while I was writing this. Instead I'll focus on trying to make sure that we have a common and shared understanding about the terms we already have in place!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

You Get By With A Little Help From Your Friends

There's no shortage of internet articles and books about toxic workplaces, toxic co-workers and how to avid them. But I rarely see articles about the best people to work with, so I've put together my own set of stereotypes of the best sorts of people to have around you in the office. If you can't choose your work colleagues, and you know the types of people to avoid, this guide will help you gravitate towards the folk who might make your working day that little bit more bearable.

The Realistic Optimist

The Realistic Optimist is an ideal change agent. Unlike the perpetual pessimist who argues against change and only sees the negatives (usually before even knowing what is changing), the Realistic Optimist understands the arguments from both sides, and generally accepts that things are going to change regardless, so the best thing to do is make the most of the opportunity. At the same time, the Realistic Optimist is quite happy to argue their corner with management - they aren't going to roll over backwards and let management walk over them. The grass most certainly isn't always greener in their eyes, but it is still green and grass and not a car park.

You need to look after the Realistic Optimist. It's hard work trying to see the best in everything, and when they fail they will come back down to earth with an almighty bump.

The Go-To-Guy 

There are always some people who seem to know everything (whilst actually knowing very little that is correct and even less that adds value). To counter these toxic individuals who just like the sound of their own voice, seek out the Go-To-Guy. The Go-To-Guy is the person who just knows stuff without making a big deal out of it. They've probably been around for a while and have been in a number of different roles - maybe some very senior roles - and have large networks and understand how things get done.

The Go-To-Guy might not have all the answers, but knows the right person to talk to. The are typically affable, entertaining and self-effacing people who genuinely like to help, and see others thrive in the workplace. They don't need bragging rights and they left their egos behind them a long time ago.

On the downside, the Go-To-Guy may be a little bit of a 'company guy', and may be just a little hung up over compliance for the sake of it, or even just a little too attached to the status quo. Which after all is what he knows best!

The Beamer

The Beamer is just that person who is always smiling. The person who laughs at all the right jokes (at the right time and in the right places). They are probably quite quiet, diligent and just get on with their work, but their bonhomie is infectious with being tiring. Every office or team needs a beamer!

The Influential Unleader

The Influential Unleader is the person who always steps up when needed. Voids are usually uncomfortable, and the Influential Unleader sees to it that voids get filled. When management asks for a volunteer it's the Influential Unleader who takes the job on, or is volunteered by their colleagues. They don't need to prove themselves - they've already earned the respect of their peers. They take things on from a sense of duty, and probably to stop an alternative solution being thrust on them and their colleagues.

They are unleaders because they don't have formal leadership roles, and they don't act as despots or dictators in their leadership style. People look up to them, and know that they are in good hands.

Influential Unleaders will never make it to the top levels of the organisation, and even though this is often through choice, they will eventually become disillusioned and move on as they see under-performers and less able people take over the key positions.

The Spokesperson

The Spokesperson is similar to the Influential Unleader (they may be the same person in a small group). They will fill a void of silence, but probably don't have the confidence to take the next step and actually perform the leadership role. But they are incredibly articulate, passionate and have the best interests of the team at heart.

When the Spokesperson starts a challenge with "I think I speak for the rest of the team when I say...", they usually do. They will be acutely aware of how the members of the team feel, and will not be scared of taking the flack for saying it out loud. But beware of the False Spokesperson who is only speaking for themselves, but hiding behind the team.

The Man For All Seasons

Clearly not an exclusively male role, but a Person For All Seasons or even (Wo)Man For All Seasons doesn't really work. The Man For All Seasons exhibits all the above traits. If you have one of these in your team it should let you off the hook as there will always be someone in your team that has your back.

But you still need to build your personal skills and aspire to become the Man of All Seasons yourself. When you find yourself in a new team without one, who are you going to call?

Friday, 15 January 2016

Key Attributes of an Effective Process

When I used to cut code for a living there were a number of attributes we used to look for in a 'good' program (application!). Maintainability, Efficiency, Readability, Flexibility, Reliability, Reusability, Portability and Testability are some of these non-functional or quality requirements that spring to mind. A programmer today may have a slightly different list as development environments have changed and technology has advanced. Security probably trumps portability for example.

A couple of days ago I started writing a post whinging about processes that, at least from a user's perspective, appear to be constantly changing. These are often pretty, bureaucratic changes but are exceedingly frustrating for those on the receiving end of the changes.At the same time I was documenting an existing process as part of the day job, and I started thinking about the quality attributes for a process. What makes an effective process?

I know that many folk would argue that there is no such thing as a good process. but for the rest of us here's my list - written from the perspective of a process user (not purely as a process author)...
  • Stable - whilst the whole point of continuous improvement is to ensure that processes are kept up to date, there must be a period of bedding down a process before you start changing it. Constantly fiddling with a process, even in the minutiae, irritates and confuses users, and will inevitably lead to some kind of failure before too long as people simply don't know what's right and wrong anymore. Unless a process is shown to be fundamentally wrong (in which case it there should be big questions about how or why it was published in the first place), let a reasonable amount of time pass before updating it. And where processes are cyclical, e.g. monthly, don't make changes every month, especially at the point of execution!
  • Complete - there are plenty of great examples of how to document a process, but all too often these are ignored, and valuable or even critical information is missing from the process definition. For example, entry and exit criteria are often missed out, sometimes inputs and outputs are only partially listed. Attention to details gives users confidence in the process
  • Understandable - if you document all your processes as essays, don't be surprised if people struggle to follow them. It's also important to get the level of detail right - don't mix up process definitions with work instructions. Few users actually need to read a process end to end if they are already familiar with it. They are more likely to want to find elements within the process like process inputs or specific roles and responsibilities. If using web based descriptions, draw on good user interface guidelines to hide or show levels of information that people can focus on. If your using more traditional document based descriptions, a tabular approach is often a good way to present information.
  • Current - people expect to be able to access processes that are up date and relevant for the work they are currently doing. Old, irrelevant processes should be withdrawn and archived if necessary. And publishing process changes is simply not enough - there needs to be communication that processes have changed, and how they have changed
  • Usable - in the age of corporate intranets, wikis and even SharePoint, there is no excuse in not making processes easy to find, navigate and access. Libraries of documents are no longer relevant nor desirable as vehicles for users to access information. The best process libraries are those that users can interact with, even to the extent of having processes describes from different user perspectives according to their role or function. More importantly, thing about how the process flows from a user's perspective - something obvious to an author may not be so obvious to a user, especially in the heat of the moment when they are battling against a deadline
  • Simple - many working environments are already unnecessarily complex so your processes need to be documented to help remove the complexity as much as possible, They need to be clear and precise, and focused on the people who do the work - they should not attempt to showcase the author's writing talents!
I'm sure there are other attributes that you may want to add to my list - drop me a note or leave a comment and I'll include them in a future post

Friday, 8 January 2016

Why The Shareholder Should Not Be At The Top of the Food Chain

Earlier this week I read yet another article about the imminent demise of Yahoo's leadership team due to a letter from an activist shareholder group - who in this case owns less than 1% of Yahoo. OK, 1% of a multi billion dollar company may well be more than I'll ever earn in several lifetimes, but it's still a very small stake-holding compared to all the other investors.

What struck me was how such a tiny stakeholder thought it had the right to make such demands on a business and why, if it was so unhappy with the business why it simply didn't divest itself of its stake?

(Picture borrowed from Kristen Maxwell Texas Enterprise)

When I first started working, there was a very clear mantra that was drummed into my head with remorseless frequency. The shareholder is the king of the jungle - the only reason you are in business is to make money and return the investments of the shareholders. Nothing else matters - not even the customer, and especially not the employees.

That always seemed to me to be a bit of a perverse way of looking at the world, but everybody was saying the same thing, so it had to be right - and I was a newbie and at the very bottom of the food chain, so what did I know? But the concept has nagged at me right through my working life like a dull tooth ache that won't quite go away completely, and occasionally rears up and hurts like heck.

In my world I always had the naive perspective that if you treated your staff with dignity and respect they would work their socks off to please the customer (and their managers). The customers would increase their support for the company with increased spending and referrals, and the benefits would be realised by the executives, and ultimately the shareholders. A positive reinforcement loop if every I saw one!

Finally, it appears that I'm not alone in that ridiculous notion. A reasonably successful businessman called Richard Branson talked about the concept in a recent interview. Peter Leeson speaks from the same perspective in his book Orchestrated Knowledge

"Unfortunately, in recent years, many management teams have started believing that they work for the shareholders rather than the clients"

and then suggests that shareholders are often only ever interested in short term speculation (usually with each other) and rarely bring any real value to the company.

The downside of raising the importance of the shareholder above everyone else is that, ultimately, people start equating the value of stock with the quality and viability of the business (look no further than Apple and the performance of its stock which is completely divorced from the profitability of the business and totally at the mercy of Wall Street analysts who live in a completely alternative reality distortion field). Once you start people thinking there are potential risks to the future of the business, you set a negative feedback loop in progress and the vicious downward spiral begins.

Meanwhile, global IT giants like HPE and IBM continue to treat their people like mediaeval serfs, constantly under threat of redundancy, and being squeezed of every ounce of loyalty left in them by one-dimensional strategies which are focused purely on cutting costs, rather than improving the business (and their customer service).

The relentless march towards corporate capitalism will be our downfall and the balance needs to be  redressed towards putting real people first, namely employees and customers. After all, what's the point of empowering people by creating agile environments and then making them redundant simply to generate more money for people who can't actually do anything to make the business better?!