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Getting people changes right: How not to do it

Martin Tiplady reflects on a case of people change handled disastrously

This is an unfortunate tale… I am aware of some attempted major organisational changes that could not have been handled in a more insensitive or ill-thought way. It is not that they didn’t try – but they had neither the skills to do it better, nor the wisdom to employ the skills required to do the job properly. And those that did advise them hid behind a plethora of process rather than try to understand the organisation or the effects that change has on people and their lives.

While I wasn't involved, I’ve heard of a catalogue of things handled in such a crass way that it is difficult to comprehend what was going through the heads of those leading the change.

I am reminded of Allan Leighton’s comments about the principles of change. He described a position when organisations spend 80% of their time plotting and planning change and the balance on implementation. A far better position is when 20% of the time is spent specifying and articulating the change and 80% of the time is spent on implementation, involving and engaging with those affected. It is in implementation when most organisations get it wrong.

In this case, there are hopelessly delayed timescales, inadequate and prospectively unlawful consultation processes, no transparency in the selection processes, unnecessary delays in clarifying the details of the changes, a lack of granularity, poor and foggy communication processes (best illustrated by circulation of a several-hundred-page document), leaders who went into hiding on key dates or removed themselves from having any responsibility, and a shambolic implementation process.

Without doubt, the so-called benefit realisation of all this was long forgotten by those leading it. They simply had to achieve their target by a key date regardless of the harm and damage. I struggle to think of a change programme handled in a shabbier way. One benefit - some classic case study material.

Heraclitus once said that ‘change is the only constant’. And yet so many organisations get it wrong. It is hard, but why do those leaders and managers who show so much skill in their chosen discipline and profession appear to adopt such a reckless approach when it comes to handling the sensitive people issues that accompany major organisational change? Do they think themselves above the systems and protections constructed to protect employees? Do they rate their leadership skills so highly that they believe that underlings will simply fall into place? Or are they plain ignorant?

Whatever the reason, the change has fallen on its face and the organisation is in a poorer place. Long-lasting damage has been caused. And the employees? Those that left will never darken the doors again and will bad mouth the organisation. Those that remain are in a dark a place, grateful for a job but thoroughly dispirited, demotivated and dismayed with what the organisation and its leaders has put them through.

It could be so different. People will buy change so long as they understand the reasons for it. They will trust their leaders to do the right thing, stand up and be counted, and plot the right changes and right structure if they feel that their views are properly regarded and taken into account. They will believe in their leaders if they feel that the organisations and their own best interests are properly safeguarded. They will support their leaders when they are visible and act in others’ interests. But they will vote with their feet if their managers run roughshod, act with impunity and disrespect or go through motions and processes to secure a result that was fixed from the start. It is so important to properly plan these things and make staff feel that they are involved in the changes around them and have a voice.

This is a reminder that organisational values and behaviours should inform proposed change and that leaders should never believe that they can act above them.

In the case I illustrate, the leaders acted unjustly, and without compassion. They deserve what they get. Their workforce did not deserve their lot and were let down by their leaders. I do not know how the organisation will recover but I will be watching how they try.

Martin Tiplady is CEO of Chameleon People Solutions and former HRD of the Metropolitan Police