Whatever sector and level you identify yourself with (public, social, voluntary, community, social enterprise, voluntary, NGO or business sectors), it is a given that leaders, managers, employees, service users and customers are facing the fastest pace of change in their lifetimes, with only two certainties ahead - still more uncertainty, and more change.
I do worry, however, that in far too many organisations, change is being seen as an end in itself when it ought to (indeed, must) be a means of achieving objectives, securing outcomes and ensuring sustainability. And I observe that in others, change is being pursued when it may be unnecessary and even counter-productive - one should recall the saying "if it's not broken don't repair it" (although, in my experience, there are few organisations, systems, processes and behaviours that would not benefit from some change and evolution). In most cases, what matters is making the right changes, not the wrong ones. This means changes that are both required by a fast-evolving operating environment, which result in clear benefits, and which align with an organisation's revised strategic goals, values and capacity.
When major strategic change is required, I suggest that it will only be successful when certain conditions pertain. These include:
- clarity of purpose and objectives, with a clear view of what change is needed and why
- leaders who are authentic, values driven and who want the organisation to succeed
- focused and bold leadership -and if necessary bringing on board alternative leaders (both executive including change agents and non-executive) who can and will both deliver and support the change
- empowered employees who are involved and 'bought into' both the need for change and the end goals; and trade unions engaged in the change process
- 'real' and constant user and customer involvement
- effective communication, honest full disclosure based on genuine openness
- an entrepreneurial culture with an appetite to experiment and innovate, and provide the licence and space for staff and others to experiment and innovate
- a robust understanding of risk and its management; and a willingness to take risks
- a culture of learning rather than blame
- strong, ambitious and supportive governance that is constantly refreshed and never allowed to become stale and comfortable
- a culture of looking outward to all and any sectors or countries for evolving best practice and new ideas
- exemplar HR policies and practices, particularly investing in succession planning, staff skills and talent development; and in personal support
- a commitment to diversity when it comes to seeking to best talent
- an abhorrence of complacency
- brilliant data analysis and evidence base
- facilitative and innovative IT/ICT and digital capacity
- piloting and not always a rush to an universal application of change
- a recognition that current obligations to users, customers and society have to be fulfilled, even though major change is going on all around them - this is particularly the case with public services like education social care and health, which do not have the luxury of being able to "close pending change"
In my experience, when organisations are successful at delivering major change they will often have:
- earmarked the financial and people resources to invest in the necessary capacity and capability, including change 'agents' - though major change does not require additional money
- an ability to review and monitor change and its actual and potential impact, and consequently make adjustments on a continual basis
- leadership supported and often led by politicians and non-executives with the courage and determination to 'stay the course' through what can be an extremely challenging and painful period of adjustment and re-invention
- sophisticated systems to assess change proposals and their impact after implementation, including any unintended consequences and adverse implications for other organisations or the organisation's strategies and goals
- fast and effective decision making, which involves staff, trade unions, users/customers and, especially in the public sector, other stakeholders
Finally, my advice to those organisations considering 'fundamental' change programmes often includes:
- selecting and appointing change champions across the organisation
- encouraging the establishment of small 'insurgency cells' of staff and others located within the organisation, with a specific brief of challenge, disruption and visionary thinking - of course these have to be carefully handled and have defined briefs and scope for their activity
- introducing external challenge at board level and at other identified places within the organisation; change is incredibly hard to achieve without such
- most definitely looking outside the organisation, sector and country for ideas and inspiration
- setting a fast pace and timetable for the change - with points of acceleration to enliven the organisation, minimise disruption and anxiety, and creating an atmosphere that carries people along the change path
- establishing support systems for those who cannot maintain the pace and/or who feel threatened by and/or wish to 'up' their own contribution to the change including mentoring, counselling, and re-training - and external placement support for those who do not feel able to make the journey.
Change is rarely comfortable or predictable. Leaders have to recognise this, and they have both a moral and a practical duty to support their staff and others through it. However, they have to be careful to avoid the tempting and too frequent mistake of assuming that the best of way of supporting staff and others is to 'pretend' that the change is not going to be as radical as it needs to be, or will be - and to slow the pace, and curtail the ambition.
Change with a purpose can be exhilarating and very fulfilling - and yet, all too often, I meet people for whom change in their organisation feels anything but. Unsurprisingly, on questioning and analysis, I typically discover that these are people working in organisations, which do not match the characteristics and have not adopted the behaviours I have outlined above.
I am clear that the future of our economy and society depends on effective public services, flourishing and healthy businesses, consistent investment in talent, and a strong civil society. To secure this future, we face much more often radical change ahead. It must be considered strategically - and taken seriously. The alternative is that far too many organisations will 'wither on the vine'. Such an attitude does no favours for their employees and dependents, or for society at large.