Archives for posts with tag: culture change

In recent blogs I have touched on internal communication and its importance in getting employee engagement. Today I’m about to start work on a big change programme looking after both those things, so I felt it appropriate to have a think about communication and change.
The most fun I’ve had in a job has been when I’ve been tasked with engaging people with change. I’m not a keep things the way they are kind of guy. My motto is: “If it ain’t broke, break it. The worst that could happen is that it makes a nice tinkly noise as it shatters into a thousand tiny pieces.”
Change is all around us, friends, life is, in fact, a process of ceaseless change peculiar to organic matter (as I once said in a philosophy essay, much to the bemusement of my tutor). Change is what makes us people and without change we would still be a set of single-cell organisms lolling in a pool of brackish water.
(Apologies, at this point, to any creationists or intelligent design fans reading who are upset at this evocation of evolution, but you aren’t really my core demographic).
Anyway, change is necessary, and, although it is not always good, it isn’t going anywhere unless I’m completely misreading the second law of thermodynamics. In business, as in life and closed systems, change is always necessary; markets change, products change, customer needs and wants and expectations all change, and anyone looking to meet those needs, wants and expectations better change to be able to meet them, or the business side of things isn’t going to last too long.
So businesses must change, and that means people working in those organisations are going to have to change as well. At the very least, they will have to do things differently, or do different things.
That said, change is undertaken in order to deliver benefits to the business, and those benefits are likely to be achieved in a more sustainable way if people not only change what they do, but how they do it, that is change their behaviours. This takes a bit of doing.
There’s a bit more to it than issuing a new flow chart on how to do a new process or just installing some new software in everyone’s PC. To change behaviours you need really effective communication, and that means sharing information with people and then having a conversation with them to ensure that they have understood the information you have shared, and that they are willing and able to play their part in the change you are asking them to undertake.
Communication is always a change activity. After communication happens things are different. At the very minimum, levels of knowledge have increased, but it can and should be a lot more profound than that. So what should you share? The usual – what, when, where, how and, most importantly, why. What is changing? When is it happening? Where about in the organisation? How will things change? Why are they changing?
This last one is the key to get buy-in from people in change, as you need to make the why a reason for them, as an individual, to change. I remember one big change programme I worked on and they key kick-off comms was a video of the CEO telling everyone in the business what the programme was all about – a big modernisation programme, affecting everyone in the business, over the next couple of years.
Why? Because the business wouldn’t last the next couple of years unless something was done to turn it around. The classic burning platform “why”. Amusingly, the first time we showed the video to the wider senior leadership team (top 100 or so people in the business) the sound went off half way through.
The CEO went on speaking, silently for what seemed like hours while I ran around frantically back stage trying to get the sound back on. I did, eventually, just as the CEO was intoning the words “job losses”. You couldn’t have timed it better.
I digress, but the heart of the message was “it’s this or oblivion”; however, “we’re doomed” isn’t the most engaging message and very quickly we reframed the message around building a new business, constructive, forward-looking and forward-thinking and far more engaging for people.
They why became “because I want to be part of this new business”, a message that ran through every single piece of communication ever issued by anyone in the programme. Building a new business was through it all like letters in Blackpool rock.
You see, once you have your why you need to ensure that all communication of it is consistent and authentic; if you say you are building a new business then you better damn well build one. And build one we did, a leaner, fitter, more engaged organisation, better set to meet the needs, wants and expectations of modern customers, with a more effective culture and new behavioural norms across the piece. Then we merged it with another bit of the business and had to start all over again.
Change, see. It doesn’t stop, not ever. So the key thing from this is having that core message – why we are doing this, framing it in a positive and forward-looking way and then delivering that message consistently and authentically in every piece of communication you undertake. Simple.
So have a think. Change is almost inevitably happening somewhere in your business. Are you communicating about it? What are you communicating about it? And do your people. Really and truly understand why these changes are happening? Have a think.


In this blog I have written, not for the first time, about the vital importance of authenticity. This was also a key facet of the 20th Century school of philosophy known as existentialism, about which I have blogged before.
Albert Camus, born 100 years ago last week, was very close to Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, but wasn’t himself an existentialist. He was an absurdist, a world view he expounded magnificently in his novels, notably The Outsider, The Plague and The Fall. He also wrote a couple of philosophical essays, The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.
This latter work I would commend eagerly and heartily to anyone engaged in trying to make change happen in a large organisation. I have returned to it frequently when things were getting tough in the many change programmes I’ve worked on over the years, and find the closing thoughts a great comfort.
In Greek legend, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill all day, only for it to fall back down again every night. I can’t imagine many project and programme managers who cannot empathise. But think, then, on the final words of Camus: “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Happy birthday, Albert.


In recent blogs I have been banging on about change management, as I recently took a project management course in order to polish up my skills and knowledge and that.


I was struck, as I was when I did my first PM course (many years ago) that there is a lot on tools, techniques and skills around planning, organisation, managing issues and risks and all that, the people side of things seemed a bit glossed over. Well, there was plenty about managing key stakeholders – even admitting that if two stakeholders have conflicting requirements then things can get tricky.

There was also, to be fair, stuff about estimating resource  and a whole chapter in the handbook about Project Human Resource Management. My interest was piqued at this, and I read on, and there was plenty of stuff about recruiting and managing your project team, none of which was objectionable in any way. I especially enjoyed the lengthy section on the kinds of organisational charts you could use, and the two sentences indicating that Organizational Theory (forgive the Z) could come in handy.

There was a section on team-building and the importance of reward (and another learning unit on not taking bribes) and, again, nothing actually wrong with it. There was a sentence saying that leadership was “an important skill”, and that decision makign should be effective.

The next chapter was on communication, with much on managing stakeholder expectations and reporting progress, issues and risks in a timely fashion. Again, all good stuff and rightly good practice for any project management professional.

What was missing, however, was a sense that when the changes are implemented into the organisation then people are going to be impacted by that change, and for any change to be effective, the people impacted need to be ready, willing and able to make that change actually happen in the real world.

I have worked with change managers for many, many years and they are, like most groups, a pleasingly diverse lot, with a range of personalities and approaches to their given field. Most of them were very good with their Gantt charts, flow diagrams and structure charts, their issue logs and risk management matrices. Very few of them were good with the concept of change happening through people.

Why this is has occupied my thoughts often, and I found myself musing on it again as I printed off my Certificate of Mastery and before logging onto my Six Sigma course (expect a very similar blog about process improvement in the coming weeks, people).

My thoughts are this: charts, diagrams, logs and matrices are easy. They sit there, they are logical and ordered, they do what they are meant to do, they have clear terms of reference and clear roles within the project, they are fit for purpose. Process, too, is easy. You know what’s what, it happens in order and processes can be managed.

People, on the other hand, are rarely any of these things. They are difficult, they are illogical, they have emotions and they are fickle and unpredictable. A project plan moves neatly as a task is completed and a green on target square on the plan changes to a nice, neat black completed one. People can, and usually do, resist change. They have their own agendas, they want things to happen to make their life easier and if your project plan isn’t going to deliver that, then it’s not likely to deliver what you want it to, either.

What Project Management courses don’t teach you, in my experience, is this wider, all-encompassing sense of the term “stakeholder management”. Stakeholders are usually seen as the important people you need to get onside in order for things to happen, or at least know how to outflank the other important people who don’t want it to happen.

Stakeholders should include the less important people; the people on the shop floor who have to make whatever change you are managing into an experience in their daily lives – and even an experience for their customers.

I think I have mentioned before a piece of systems change I heard about which won awards for the success of its implementation at a posh black-tie IT bunfight, but resulted in poorer customer service and lower employee engagement. When that’s award winning performance, you have to question the criteria for which those awards were awarded, do you not?

Thinking about the impact on people of change is a simple thing to do, it just requires an understanding of where the people are at currently, what the likely impact of the changes are going to be be, and how they will react. Local leadership should be able to fill in those blanks pretty easily, shouldn’t they? (If the answer to that is “no”, then you have bigger issues than the colour-coding on your issue logs to worry about, believe me).

So, have a think: how does change happen in your organisation? Is it by the book? And does that deliver what you need? Could engaging with the people you are expecting to make this change happen more meaningfully at the outset help things go more smoothly? (Hint, yes it almost certainly could). Do your project people think about the process or what the outcome needs to be? And do they realise that for any outcomes to be delivered requires the people implementing it, not the most immaculate project plan ever drafted? Have a think.

In my last blog I discussed patterns of behaviour – underlying these are what are known as behavioural norms. These are the behaviours people within an organisation see as being rewarded and expected.

Now this is could well be a very different thing from what the organisation expects and wants to reward. Most organisations these days have competency frameworks, which they create to help manage performance.

Some also have a behavioural framework, which builds on this and looks at how people deliver the competencies, and measure performance on that basis as well.

In a previous employer, I watched the evolution of this process – when I started, performance was evaluated at an annual appraisal meeting with your line manager. Boxes were ticked, and you got a pay rise. How well you actually had performed didn’t seem to come into it.

The company went through a merger and a modernisation programme, and then the new company went through a major transformation programme, which included a people element.

That’s when the whole idea of using performance, rather than length of service, to decide how much employees earned came into the mix. It caused a bit of grumbling, especially among those more used to just turning up every year, but it got in.

The trouble was, it just measured what you did. Everyone had objectives, which could be things like call centre targets, or something a bit more tenuous, but it would link back to a role profile, and, hopefully, a team or departmental plan.

Then I was at an event, and I heard a couple of stories, told by a chap who ran a call centre for a financial services company – he and it shall remain nameless, for what will become obvious reasons.

The first one was about a customer who had, sadly, died. His family contacted us to sort out surrendering a policy. I won’t go into details, but this call eventually resulted in the son of the late customer emailing every member of the board with a litany of complaints of pointless letters, mistakes, incorrect information being given out and delays.

The leader in question got a call from the CEO, and he investigated. He went through every step of the process, in detail, and spoke to every single member of staff who had been involved.

And what did he uncover? Laziness? Stupidity? Incompetence? No, not at all. Everyone had done their job as they were supposed to do. They had done their bit of the process, and then handed it on. The issue was that the customer’s widow hadn’t asked for the right thing in the first place, but something slightly different, and that had been put into the process.

Why did it happen? Not the processes – it was because that is how they did things in that company – that was the behavioural norm. Do your job, pass it on, then don’t worry about it.

If anyone in the chain had thought a bit wider, taken some personal responsibility to ensure that the bereaved customer was being treated as they might like to be treated, they might have gone back and checked, or made sure that the customer really did want what they had asked for

But that wasn’t what was done. People were rewarded for ticking the boxes and following the process, not for going above and beyond, or having empathy for the customer.

I was speaking to the leader afterwards and said I felt that there was something missing from their reward systems if that is what happened – and he agreed, and told me he had heard of a company where the exec team had only behavioural targets in their personal KPIs. Amazing.

He also told me the second story – shorter and sweeter. “Do you know what I did with the most successful team manager in my call centre?” he asked. “I sacked him, because he was a bully.”

He was a bit of a lone voice in those days, but I told his stories to people in my organisation, and gradually thinking shifted, and evolved, as these things do. By the time I left, half a dozen years later, everyone had 50% of their KPIs based on behaviours, and 50% on performance – the how was as important as the what.

These behaviours were in a framework, clearly defined, and linked directly to the organisational values – and values is what I’ll discuss in the next blog as we dive deeper into the culture model.

Are the behavioural norms in your organisation helping you do the right thing for your customers? Do you know what the behavioural norms are? Do people  go the extra mile, do they put themselves in the shoes of the customer? Are stories like the one about the deceased customer likely to be told about your business?

As ever, get in touch if you want a chat about this.

Hands up if you’ve heard of the Monkeysphere?

OK, hands down, you look silly staring at the screen of your computer/phone/tablet/other as-yet-to-be-invented device with your hand in the air, like a primary school child needing a wee.

The Monkeysphere is based on neurological research. The theory says that there is only room in a primate brain for around 150 other primates. Beyond that, and primates (chimps, lemurs, people) can’t really keep track.

If your organisation is bigger than 150 people, then those people may, therefore, struggle to engage with it. They stop seeing it as a group of fellow primates and more as an amorphous, intangible mass.

Some companies have a maximum operating unit size of around 150. If they get too big, then they are split up. Gore and Semco are two examples, and there are more.

Most other companies can’t (or won’t) do that – but it is impossible to operate in large groups, and most organisations operate in smaller units, breaking down to a team.

I’ve worked in teams of 2, and teams of 20+. My personal view that anything bigger than 10-12 is too big, anything less than 5-6 is too small. Whatever their size, however, the important thing is to make sure that they operate as a team.

After ensuring personal effectiveness of all your people, team effectiveness is most important in delivering organisational effectiveness. Again, a personal opinion, but one based on many years of experience, study and research – an informed opinion (rather than a humble one).

Anyway, the tools and techniques used to measure personal and organisational effectiveness and culture can also be applied to teams. You can check how effective they are, show them, and then work with them to help them get better.

One tool I have used with great success is based on a survival simulation. Your team is put in an imaginary situation where they are presented with options – they are then given a timescale to decide about the various options and say how they would act. They record their answers individually and then as a team.

You then run a questionnaire to check the experience of the various members of the team – and it’s also important to observe how they went about things.

After this you give them the real answers – prepared by an appropriate expert. From the differences between their personal and team decisions and the “right” answers you can see how effective thy would be – as a team or as individuals.

I like the survival simulations because they are usually fun, and are relatively safe. You can run business simulations (or even use a real example, although it is tricky to get a “right” answer and check the effectiveness), but these tend to be a bit too close to home and people are less likely to make any decisions, in my experience. Survival situations are less prone to people worrying about getting the wrong answer and looking daft.

The feedback you get back is rich. Even without using the full tool, good observation can give really useful insight. In one session I ran, every member of the team but one huddled together at one end of the table. The individual at the other end then criticised the decision making, saying “you did this, you did that” – “you”, not “we”. They were meant to be a team, in it together to survive. Just pointing out that behaviour caused a number of pennies (and the odd jaw) to drop, and helped that team make a breakthrough.

Like all development, teams need to work, re-visit their development and make sure that changes have been made and are still effective. It’s a process that should continue through the life of the team, and especially as new members come in and out. My take on teams is as follows.

1) In teams, diversity is strength. Everyone should bring their own strength to the group, and everyone should be willing, able and ready to use the strengths of others to make up for their own weaknesses. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ™ are great for understanding how people like to work and how you can galvanise diversity.

2) Dialogue always beats debate. Dialogue is about bringing ideas together to make something new and better with those ideas. Debate is about one side proving its view of things is right, and the other side is wrong. Imagine how our country would be if we had parliamentary dialogues, rather than debates.

3) As a team, you can do things by consensus, or by consent. Consensus means everyone has to be happy with everything, which can lead to a more contented team, but also to watered-down and less effective solutions. Consent means giving permission for people to lead the team in a certain direction, even if not everyone is convinced that is the way to go. What you lose in comfort you can gain in innovation and effectiveness.

Looking at team effectiveness in these areas is a great way to start to build a team development plan, and then check the progress of the plan once it’s in place. If you fancy a go, give me a shout.

Change happens. All the time. Even in the most hidebound, traditional, staid organisation, change happens.

These days, in times of uncertainty and insecurity, change happens fast. Most organisations, especially bigger ones, they are in that big, strange and scary thing called Transformation.

You will have plans, you will have GANTT charts, project plans, meetings, systems in place, you will have risk registers, issues logs and lots of rolls of brown paper with sticky notes on them, you will have consultants with their Prince 2 or Successful Project Management qualifications, ensuring these are all in place.

That’s all good. You need to do that. But I can also promise you, hand on heart, that if you forget one thing, then all this planning and systems and consultants will not deliver the change you are trying to achieve. Because, in the end, people change. Not processes, not systems, not project plans, not even the longest piece of brown paper and the most widely variegated shades of sticky notes. People are where change happens.

An organisation I know, during a period of 7 or 8 years, went through two mergers, a business modernisation programme which achieved £100m a year savings, a re-brand and another transformation programme. Of the hundreds of projects that made up these programmes, some delivered the benefits they were supposed to, some didn’t.

Every single one that succeeded included in its project plan, in its preparation, consideration of how the change would impact on the people on the receiving end of the change. Every. Single One.

And the ones which failed the worst, the ones that missed deadlines, negatively impacted customer service levels, went over budget or failed to deliver savings failed to consider the impact on the people.

An example of the former – we were closing a national network of over 100 local sales offices, supporting a field sales force. The consultants running the project knew we had to let people know, and suggested bussing people to one or two central meetings so they could be informed by the Big Boss.

The Big Boss in charge of that bit of the business had an observation, specifically about one of the more geographically remote offices. “So,” he said. “You want to bus people 200 miles to tell them that they’re numptied”.

Good point, well made.

The announcements were made at local meetings, by managers the people there knew, with full on-site HR and comms support. The project worked.

An example of the latter that I heard of – a major systems change in a call centre. The project delivered the systems changes on time, to budget. It won awards, was held up as a paragon of systems change, it was, as far as the IT world was concerned, market leading.

Except, no-one had thought through the consequences for the people in the call centre. They had to navigate through new screens. They hadn’t had time to have been trained properly. Customers couldn’t do what they were used to doing because the systems had changed. They called the call centre. Queue times went up. People had to be taken off the training in the new systems to cope with the extra calls.

Not so good.

It’s pretty easy to make sure you do take account of the people impacted by change – you can stop and think “how will people feel when this happens?”. The Big Boss did this. The team on the other project didn’t.

If people have a positive experience of change they will be more accepting of change, and guess what? Change will be delivered.

I know a more formal process which can be built into the change process, complete with built-in measurement and diagnostic systems, to check if the people experience turns out as you want it to be.

But it boils down to thinking through – which bits of change are going to impact people, who are they, what will that impact be, and how can we make their experience of that impact the best it can be?

Next time you’re planning, give it a try. Or give me a shout, I can help you out with this. Especially if people are being numptied.

Is there anything more wishy-washy and fluffy to your average business leader than “Culture”?

Most managers, in my experience, get Employee Engagement. They know if people are happy, loyal, want to do more than they get paid for then that will tend to be good for business.

But culture is so much more, well, academic. There are theories, using psychological terminology, quoting academic references and complex and arcane models.

That’s all true, it is very complex. But it can be summed up very simply – “it’s how we do things around here”.

Simple as that – how people within an organisation do stuff, in order to get things done.

And, as with most things that are as simple as that, there’s a far more complex question behind it, namely “why do they do things like that?” It’s an important question, because you need to know why this is the way we do things around here if you want to change it.

But hang on, you say, why would we want to change it?

Because your organisational culture might be working against you.

I’m sure you’d agree that any effective businesses need clear and coherent communications. People need to know what’s happening, have the information they need to do their jobs.

What happens if your organisational culture promotes secrecy, keeping people out of the loop, hoarding information as power – how effective will your organisation be then?

How would your employees feel about being kept in the dark by their managers? Well, if you’re the big boss, you’ll probably never know because this kind of culture tends to stop information going up, as well as down. And if they aren’t telling you how people are feeling, then what else aren’t they telling you?

So – do you actually know what the culture is in your organisation? If you are in the boardroom, you’ll be really busy, you won’t have time to get out and about and really understand how things are out there in the offices or on the shop floor.

You can listen to the managers, but if the culture in your organisation is one where the chief exec’s open door policy only runs to good news and happy tidings, then you’ll never know if things aren’t quite right, until it’s too late.

Because having the wrong culture can mean the end of a business. The financial problems of the last few years were caused to a great extent by bad cultures within the organisations that were at the centre of the crash. The way they did things at Enron, Leahmann Bros, RBS etc were not the way they should have been.

So, if you are running a business then you need to understand what your culture is. Then you can see if you need to change it. And my guess is, that you probably do.

That’s when we come back to the first question – why is the culture the way it is?

An academic model may help here. Sorry. But I process information most easily when I can see it. Most people do, I’m led to believe. This model was developed by Professor Denise Rousseau in 1990, and works as well as any I’ve seen over the past few years. Ready? Here we go.

Imagine, if you will, a series of rings, five of them, much like an archery target.


The outer ring – the black – is what we call artefacts.

The second ring, the white, we call Patterns of Behaviour.

The blue ring represents Behavioural Norms.

The red ring we call Values.

The bulls eye, the gold is Fundamental Beliefs and Assumptions.

This looks complicated with its technical terms and strange images – and I will go into more detail in future blogs, I promise.

The model says that there are two levels of culture –the three central rings being hidden, and the two outer rings being visible.

At the heart of a culture, in the inner rings, are the actual beliefs and values of the organisation – what people really believe is what the organisation really is like, and what is truly valued and rewarded there.

These underlie the way people act, the behaviours that people see as being the “right” way to behave – the behavioural norms, shown here in the third ring.

The two outermost circles represent the things that you can see or observe – the actual behaviours – the “how we do things around here” – and also the artefacts – the things you see every day, the pictures on the walls, the way people dress, how big the offices are – or even if there are offices.

The outer two are easy to see, and measure. The inner three need a bi t more digging to get to – but it all can be done.

Firstly, what is employee engagement?

So much has been written about employee engagement, it is difficult to know where to start.

So I’ll start in January 2009, when I was in London as a guest of the South East England Development Agency and the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

I was at the Church House Conference Centre, just by Westminster Abbey, to speak at the South of England Consultation Event for the McLeod Review of Employee Engagement.

By 2009 I had been working in the field for four or five years, and was about to give David McLeod and Nita Clarke another definition or two for what Employee Engagement is to the 30-odd they had already gathered by that point.

My model then, which has been refined and adapted since, but broadly stays the same, was the same one that most providers of employee surveys in the UK and beyond – say, stay and strive.

That is:

  • People are generally well-disposed to the organization, they are advocates of its products and services and as an employer; they feel proud to work there and are happy in their jobs
  • People want to remain with their employer, have a career
  • They want to work hard, are willing to go above and beyond their day job to help the organization achieve its aims

Simples! Except that it isn’t, but we’ll come to that.

Why is it important?

I think any business would want to have engaged employees. Why wouldn’t you? It just makes sense.

Why pay people who think it’s a horrible place to work, hate their job and tell their friends? People who won’t even buy your products and services, let alone tell anyone else to do so?

Why pay people who want to leave at the earliest opportunity, leaving you the bill of their recruitment, training, development – and another bill to recruit, train and develop someone else to do their job?

Why pay people who just turn up? Why pay for a bum on a seat, rather than a brain looking for ways of doing things better?

If that’s not enough, and surely it should be, then there are any number of studies which show that increased levels of engagement are linked with improved business performance, higher customer satisfaction, lower turnover, lower absence – ie, it makes you more money. And, as a business, that should matter too.

How do you make people engaged?

Here’s the bit where is gets less simple, because the answer is: “it depends”.

It is generally accepted that there are aspects of working life that make people engaged – what we call “Drivers of Engagement”, and these drivers will depend on any number of factors. They can be very personal to an individual employee, they can be specific to particular jobs or roles.

In my experience, people tend to be engaged where:

  • They are generally disposed to be engaged – what psychologists call an autotelic personality – driven by intrinsic reward. People who take pride in doing a good job
  • They know what they are doing – that is they understand their job, and how it fits with the overall aims and strategy of the business
  • They have a degree of control or ownership of their job – they have autonomy and a degree of freedom to operate

That list is by no means exhaustive or applicable to everyone. To really understand what is driving engagement (and, just as importantly, disengagement) in your organisation, you need to do some measurement and diagnostics. And we’ll discuss that in another blog.