10 May 2010

When Change Fails, Change Again – And Again!

When Change Fails, Change Again – And Again!

By Abhijit Bhattacharjee

All of us are familiar with this phenomenon of never-ending changes in organisations. As a concept, change is fine, and shows signs of an organisation adapting to its changing environment. Except that, the type of changes I am referring to are primarily about changes in structures, or more appropriately, organogram. Some organisations have this unbounded faith in the powers of structural change to bring about magical changes in the organisation that before the dust has settled on the last round of musical chairs, another round of changes to the organogram has already begun.

In my consulting career, I have seen organisations who play around with their structures so much and so frequently that it is not unusual to see them come back to what they had moved away from five years ago. Every ‘big idea’ of change usually comes with a proclamation from leaders about how wonderful the future will look like, and yet they end up looking pretty much the same! The staff have by now seen this ritual year after year, and the ‘survivors’ among them have learned to live with these, and the rest live from one day of uncertainty to another.

There is another type of organisation where structures are not the focus, but they systems and procedures keep changing continuously, at a pace where no one is quite sure what the current regime is. Manuals and procedures are churned out at such regularity that managers who have the responsibility to operationalise these spend most of their working lives trying to figure out what the latest commandments are.

Everybody in the organisation complains about the heavy bureaucracy and ‘red tape’ that results from heaps of manuals and procedures laid on top of each other. Yet with every new situation or challenge the organisation confronts, the default is to go into the print room and bring out another set of guidelines and procedures, hoping against hope that from some of those pages will emerge a solution. And everybody will live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, the ‘ever after’ moment never arrives, and the leaders complain of staff’s inability to adapt, and the staff walk around like zombies lost in the labyrinths of the organisation.

A fundamental element missing in most change processes is a lack of focus on the culture and style – i.e., corporate culture, shared values, work ethic and leadership styles.

Let me share with you an example, which is not uncommon in many organisations:

Some years ago, I was involved in helping a large international humanitarian organisation to put in place a systematic performance management system. We undertook extensive consultation at all levels of the organisation and introduced something which was developed through months of iterative exercises.

This had buy-in from all managers and senior leaders of the organisation. A detailed roll-out strategy involving briefings and training for all managers and staff was implemented over a six-month period. The system was as good as one could get, and the commitment, so we thought, of the organisation was clearly there to use it to bring about fundamental changes in the ways of staff development and performance management.

Some months ago, I was back again in this organisation to assist with a review of their humanitarian work. This gave me an opportunity to see for myself how the staff appraisal system actually worked in practice after three years it was introduced.

The system on paper, the forms, the guidelines and the instructions are all up-to-date, and couldn’t be better. However, in its actual use, things were different: although managers were trained, it is not integrated into the development of managers, and many managers do not believe that it (staff appraisal) is actually important to do and may be actively discouraged by more senior managers from using it as this was not valued by the management.

This, coupled with the fact that the performance appraisal was not linked to any management decision-making processes (training, promotion, sanction), influences the collective belief about its (ir)relevance. Staff and managers now engage in a game of going through the motions of conducting the appraisals which are now reduced to the task of filling in forms once a year.

Work ethic, collective beliefs and values demonstrated by the management didn’t quite nurture the appraisal system in the organisation.

Three important things to remember in any organisational change process:

1. Most often leadership is preoccupied with changing structures or systems (procedures, policies, etc), and ignore a key element in organisational systems – the culture which embody and reflect the values, beliefs and work ethic within the organisation.

2. Leaders need to live the organisational values by bringing to life and demonstrating what it values most in its day-to-day work.

3. Good leaders know that structures and systems can take you only this far, but if issues of culture are not addressed, business practices don’t change.

Abhijit Bhattacharjee is a change management and strategy consultant, who advises international aid agencies and United Nations organisations globally. He also works with non-profit and public sector in over fifty countries.

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