This a slightly shortened version of a blog that first appeared on Pete's personal page in the Medium social network.
My recent Google Scholar search for ‘leading change’ yielded 5.6 billion results, with John Kotter’s classic, Why Transformation Efforts Fail, at the top of the list. But, putting the theory to one side, how do you do this in practice?
Over the past three years a group of us have led a change programme in the Department for International Development (DFID), reforming the way we design and deliver programmes to tackle global poverty and its causes. Without any previous organisational change experience, learning by doing, we’ve had some real successes, a few failures and learnt masses about change.
Here are some tips, reflections and potential lessons for the future.
1. Have a strong narrative and theory of change that binds everything you do
From the start we agreed a narrative that shaped how we would work, framing engagement around our core poverty-reduction mission. We agreed that our work could not be a technocratic exercise focusing on structures, organisational charts or processes - the natural (and easiest) target for many change programmes. We were clear that the only way to achieve lasting change was to focus on the way we think and work. This is far harder and a lot less tangible, but we agreed that, otherwise, we would end up with a different but similar set of problems. This became a touchstone, guiding everything we have done, strengthening our resilience through the ups and downs of change.
2. Build coalitions of change by appealing to people’s self-interest
Change programmes in organisations like ours often – and perhaps inevitably – come from the top. Despite the best intentions to consult widely and engage frontline staff, it is easy to slip into a top-down narrative that focuses on making people more effective or efficient. This quickly becomes demoralising for hardworking staff who only hear that they need to do better. From the outset, we have tried hard to appeal to the frontline, focusing on their wants and needs, not on what we thought.
3. Engage everyone to co-produce change
From the start, we made sure that people throughout the organisation had the chance to help diagnose the problem, identify the need for and then shape the change process. This went beyond conventional ‘user testing’ to ‘user-creating’ and meant sharing our approach widely, and integrating ideas from across the department, using social media and informal networks to cut through the hierarchy. Quickly we found that leadership was coming from everywhere.
4. Open the space for challenge and critique
Throughout, we have tried to be open with the department, creating the space for people to challenge and interrogate plans and being honest about the barriers and tensions. The space to vent grievances has been critical to gaining and sustaining trust and credibility. Our experience has been that having a structured process to air and investigate concerns from internal and external stakeholders is key to building credibility and learning what’s most important.
5. Be honest with the insights
We gathered loads of data. We’ve replayed the feedback, uncensored, to the top of the organisation. We’ve found that this has been hugely valued (despite a few uncomfortable moments) and realised that this kind of data doesn’t automatically reach the top, often filtered out through the hierarchy and personal vested interests.
6. Deliver value early and often
Learning from ‘agile’ approaches to digital project delivery, we’ve made a concerted effort to deliver change early and often. There have been a few ‘big bang’ moments, but in large part the change has been incremental, brokering solutions to sticky issues on an ongoing basis to deliver early wins, building credibility as we go. When people have raised issues, however small, we’ve dedicated time to help resolve them, feeding back what we have done and how it helped.
7. Be prepared to ‘pivot’ to adapt to changing contexts
Early in our work, an external report was highly critical of the organisation and threatened to undermine the project’s momentum. Being prepared to respond to this new context, and turning it into an opportunity, was key. Rather than derailing the project, we succeeded in turning it around and used the critique to add momentum and sustain organisational interest.
8. Lead change in partnership
Having two people leading a change process in a partnership of equals was hugely empowering. We agreed a single set of objectives and agreed we would succeed or fail together. We worked as a tag team, especially in tricky meetings where, while one of us spoke, the other observed and considered, and we swapped roles as we went. This made us far more influential and resilient than either of us could have been alone. It produced different perspectives, networks and significant resilience. And it was great fun.
9. Find different ways to sustain attention
People are busy and will quickly move on to other things. We found the best thing we could do was find ways to sustain the conversation by phasing the change programme, constantly finding different ways to communicate. And whatever communications you do , it is never enough.
10. If you have to do things ‘top-down’, and limited time to engage, be honest in explaining why
Generally, people are happy to engage if they understand why. And we found that people can see through ‘good news spin’ and will discredit attempts to gloss over problems. Spend time explaining your actions, and take responsibility when things aren’t managed or communicated well. People will trust you more.
We’ve learnt how hard organisational change is and how fragile and reversible changes can be. Hopefully, these experiences remind us that, for long-term impact, organisational change must be an iterative process that focuses on people not processes, behaviours not organisational structures, and honest and open debate not corporate spin.