Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Thinking Big Is Brilliant But...

I read a couple of interesting posts this week. The first was Are We Too Focused On Incremental Improvement by Bill Fox and the second was You Have To Think Anyway, So Why Not Think Big by Karen Rutter.

They are both interesting posts in their own right and well worth a read. Bill's post reminded me of my own Continuous Tinkering Is Not Continuous Improvement from a few years ago. Karen's post was inspired by a quote by Donald Trump and really struck a chord.

Over the years I have managed numerous change initiatives - both big bang and incremental. They have mostly been successful, although inevitably there are a few projects where the results could have been better. In recent years I've not led the initiatives but I've been able to exert some significant influence in trying to steer them back on track when they looked like they were doomed. Without exception, the key to success has been to have a clearly defined vision and set of desired outcomes and a supporting strategy and tactical plan to help achieve those ends.

What is astonishing, at least to me, is that given the amount of material available to leaders and how the subject of management of change now has such a high profile, why some huge business transformations fail to use even a modicum of the subject matter expertise and knowledge base and are often destined to fail almost right from the start. They often have the vision and some ideas of where they want to be, but little else.

In my very humble opinion, and from my personal experience, it would appear that the common denominator in every case is the use of big external consultancies and the expense of home grown talent. Organisations bring in this "expertise", at enormous cost. Swathes of consultants potter around the place, running staff workshops and "interviewing" managers, and present their findings and recommendations. Often, the recommendations are to implement a standard toolbox solution - a Lean offering, or maybe an Agile offering. They leave a set of folders full of instructions, decks full of pretty PowerPoint slides and a point of contact on site, and journey off to the next engagement to make a shed load more money. They also leave the organisation with a sense of achievement but absolutely no idea what to do next or how to interpret the pretty slides into tangible activities, outcomes and results. (I'm reminded for some reason of Arlo Guthrie's song Alice's Restaurant and the "twenty-seven 8 x 10 coloured glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explainin' what each one was").

In the absence of a coherent strategy and tactical change plan, these organisations now do what they understand best - they rebuild the organisation charts, put the same old faces in different boxes and let them get on with it. And twelve months later...they wonder why there is no improvement, or even why some things appear to have got worse and why good things are now broken.

External consultancies want to sell neatly packaged solutions - tailoring these solutions to specific organisational requirements eats into their margins and takes time which stops them moving onto the next client. Even tailored solutions probably don't meet the real organisational requirements, because they rarely take into account the prevailing culture of the target organisation. And in really big organisations, the leadership is so far removed from the people who do the real work, that these "transformations" end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Really successful transformations need to use the internal knowledge, understanding and expertise of the people who do the work. The idea of thinking big is fine - start off with a clean sheet and build a model of where you want to be given no constraints. Work with the people who know best to understand how to transform your as-is, to the to-be, trying not to eliminate the hidden gems within. Think how certain decisions will create dysfunctionality up front and make the necessary adjustments. Model and remodel, understand interdependency and interfaces, clearly define the transition and transformation strategies and tactics and involve the right people at the right time.Lots of transformations talk about harmonisation but end up with discord and incongruent organisational structures, usually where one set of silos is replaced with a different set.

Thinking Big is brilliant, but requires discipline, patience and time. It needs fantastic attention to detail and clear and transparent strategic and tactical planning. Most of all, it demands that leaders trust the workforce and enable them to participate. Above all, forget the idea that you can build a successful transformation on the fly. Despite consultancies claims that they can help you build an aeroplane while it's in the air, would you really want to fly in one?

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