Saturday, 24 April 2010

Giving It Away To Win: From Power Push to Viral Pull

One of the core contradictions at the heart of change management is the idea that for a new idea to be successful, leaders must sign up to the proposed change. The problem is, how can you be committed to a form of change that you have never experienced and which will devalue your carefully-acquired Relationship Capital?

It’s important to recognise the viral element of successful change management. Sometimes, as with products, it’s a good idea to be a fast-follower who can exploit the pioneer’s market creation. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to an organisation is when a CEO takes a long flight and gets time to think without distractions, or is invited to speak at a conference and gets infected with a new idea for changing or improving a business’s performance. What happens next probably explains the 70% failure rate of first-wave systemic change methodologies, and is a further demonstration of what happens when a change-agent tries to pretend that they can be effective without building Relationship Capital:

  • Someone has a “vision” for an improved business, and hires a change Practitioner “who’s done it before”. This Practitioner thinks they have a mandate for change, but it’s merely an understanding that will flex when circumstances change.
  • The Practitioner builds a “Machine” to deliver the change, which turns into a new function (aping current organisational behaviour, in order to survive among the competing functions) and becomes an overhead. 
  • The Machine starts constructing metrics to look good and attacks the Low-Hanging-Fruit (LHF) to justify the investment; the Machine’s purpose mutates into feeding itself, looking for good stories of its work among the functions (which alienates the functions by suggesting that it was all down to the Machine); it becomes disconnected from the business.
  • The Business gets pestered by Machine consultants who keep arriving to do stuff and distracting its people. The Business functions begin to question having to pay for feeding a Machine that’s increasingly seen as disconnected from the Business, and leaders start blocking any moves away from LHF into systemic change. 
  • The Machine creates its own efficiency numbers to demonstrate activity and apparent benefits. Business functions gang up on the Machine, or a crisis occurs and the Machine is closed down, or quietly dies a death. Things go very quiet.
  • Then (after an interval of time, with luck) an Internal Business Visionary rooted in the real world of the Business functions starts it up again BUT at a lower level within their own function. This internal visionary has learnt from the failure of the Machine that fed itself to death, that change has to be business-focussed and initiated and should not try to ape the clothing and behaviour of the Business functions.
The change lessons could turn out to be:
  1. Let someone else fail and then follow them, or work with someone who really wants to do it. It’s not about doing it TO the business, but for the Business to do it TO and FOR ITSELF.
  2. If you build a change Machine to compete with the Business functions, they will have to destroy you at some point.
  3. The Practitioner who succeeds in the long term will give away their practice and focus on maintaining a Centre of Excellence and the development of thought-leadership, learning to act as a guide, and not as a Machine builder or driver.