Tag Archives: change

The one without the battenberg tattoo

When you read about change it mostly seems to be at either the organisational level (steering the tanker etc) or a group level (we need to get “them” to change) but let’s face it change fails because of people and people are individuals. All of them…even when there’s lots of them. There’s a great quote from ‘The West Wing’ which goes something like “a person is smart, people are stupid” and maybe when it comes to change we need to start thinking about a person and stop thinking about people.

Which brings me on to the Battenberg tattoo…last weekend I watched stand up delivered by the ever compelling (and mostly angry) Rhod Gilbert. The show is entitled “The Man with the Battenberg Tattoo” and tells the story of the end of a relationship, his experiences with anger management and the title relates to his constant pettiness and a tattoo that would demonstrate how pointless tattoos are.

In the course of telling a 2 hour story he, with some passion, rails against a gift he was given by his then girlfriend – an electric toothbrush. Like Mr Gilbert I have never really seen the point of an electric toothbrush – like cars, I am happy with manual. These days with the marketeers let loose on features and (supposed) benefits it’s getting out of control. I’ll let him explain…

My sad confession is that I as sat there laughing away at the comedy the dark side of my brain was thinking about how what seems the obvious and amazing to one person can seem completely pointless and a waste of time to others. So whilst a person may believe that a toothbrush with a timer or a detector that beeps if you are brushing too hard may appear worth an investment to others they may think this is innovation for innovation sake. Am I stretching the analogy too far? Probably.

That said sometimes giving people what they don’t know they yet need (think Henry Ford quote about faster horses) is worth the time, effort, disruption, risk  and leadership required to steer the tanker and maybe just maybe the resistance is nothing to do with the expected outcome and more about the fear of change that a person inevitably feels.

Does your organisation need an electric toothbrush? Thankfully for all of us – that’s your call!

I am speaking at the CIPD conference later today and fortunately for those attending I am only the warm up for our CEO who is there to talk about leading an organisation through change. Relax – there is no talk of Battenberg or tattoos but an interesting perspective from someone with the significant change to manage but I will leave you with one image which also doesn’t appear in the slide deck but one I think embodies the risk of allowing people to talk you out of change – it may not be broken but surely this isn’t fit for purpose?

Horse in Car
Photo credit: Nigel Clarke @learnedlion who actually took the picture in Hungary last year.

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The one with the bouncing bomb

When I was a kid and still living at home the question of what film to watch together was the topic of much debate. My Dad’s automatic reaction was always, without fail “Zulu” and whatever suggestion followed would be met with the question “is there any shooting in it?” I remember the look of desperation on his face when my Mum got him to sit through “Somewhere in Time”. At time I conceded (usually in the name of pocket-money) to sitting through one of his favourites and I now proudly confess I knew most of the words to “A Bridge too Far” at an early age.  One of his recurring favourites was (and still is) “The Dambusters” and he would tell me every time we watched it that Barnes Wallis also designed the Wellington bomber. I’m sure you all know the story – it’s the quest to bounce bombs into the dams of the Ruhr valley to significantly reduce the Nazi’s ability to manufacture.

So fast forward some years to a rainy Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, herself (being a world-class potterer) was doing various things around the house and I was yet again testing the effectiveness of the sofa as a host for my relaxation when I noticed “The Dambusters” was ‘live’ on TV. So I watched it.

Yes it’s a cracking film and yes being made nearly 60 years ago hasn’t aged that well but I sat happily engrossed in the story. It was only afterwards in reflecting on the film with a man called Keith that I started to think about some of the plot and how relevant it was to modern organisations and particularly to those trying to generate traction or change.

Barnes Wallis failed on numerous occasions before he got the bomb to successfully bounce. He persisted (in a Wile E. Coyote like fashion) to believe in his vision and to solve the problems that would stop him failing. He didn’t blame anyone for the failure and didn’t start to doubt his vision or belief – he just got on with it (to the point of wading into the water to collect bomb fragments).

The planes needed to fly incredibly low (60 feet as helpfully pointed out by Lydia) and the instruments of the day couldn’t measure that low – so they used two carefully positioned torches which when lined up would indicate the height. They needed to bomb from a specific position which they couldn’t judge effectively using the available systems so they used a small wooden device that lined up the structures of the dams to indicate the required position. They didn’t admit defeat they just calmly faced the problems and solved them.

It started me thinking about how both individually and through the vast machine that must have been the government and armed forces of that time were they able to continue to persist and to get the support and resources to take something from the drawing board to success in a relatively short space of time. I got past personal dedication, commitment, stubbornness and it was in their personal objectives (!!) fairly quickly and landed on imperative. Britain needed to reduce the manufacturing capacity of the enemy otherwise the war would be lost. I think it’s what a management consultant would refer to as a burning platform. Failure wasn’t an option.

We sit in organisations every day with visions and missions, purpose statements, objectives, milestones, intents, strategic goals and all nature of terminology surrounding what the organisation is trying to achieve. If in reading them they don’t create a sense of failure not being an option then stop, think and do them again. They MUST create a sense of imperative.


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The one with the chicken and the egg

So this week I am at the HR Directors Business forum being held in Birmingham. Having attended the CIPD conference in Manchester as a blogger I was able to gain attendance for the same reason.

The opening keynote was given by an American called Edward Lawler who to be honest I haven’t previously come across but have the nagging feeling I should have from other people’s reactions. He is an academic who has, in his own words, “Spent 40 years observing the HR profession”

A lot of what he shared was based on data collected as part of his research. His first major point concerned the fact that episodic change is largely a thing of the past and that anyone who longs for periods of consolidation in the new norm of constant change is likely to have an unrequited longing.

He shared data that demonstrated at in the US at least there is a perception that HR have increased their value to the organisation since the recession started and this is in both their own eyes and in the eyes of managers. As if we needed data to show that….

He then described what he thought of a HR’s three product lines namely:

1. Admin & transaction

2. Business Partner services

3. Strategy

and provided data that showed in most of the developed world with the notable exception of China most HR people believe they have some role in strategy but that in reality participation in strategy hasn’t really changed in the 7 years since he started collecting data on this topic.

He then produced a diagram that I can not replicate here but it basically showed the progression from Human Capital & Business data >> Business Strategy >> HR practice, Organisational Design &  Change Management and here’s where I finally reach my point.

Should current human capital data play a role in defining strategy? Or to put it another way – should the people fit around the strategy or should you design strategy that fits your current organisation? Which should come first?

I must confess if you’d asked me that question 10 years ago I would have without hesitation  answered that people should fit around strategy. Now 10 years older and with a little more scar tissue I must confess I sit somewhere between the two. With so many change initiatives failing (depending on the source between 55% and 90%) are the smart businesses those that get the best result they can from what they have rather than risk a failed change to get to an organisation ‘at the end of the rainbow’?

Part of me still feels a little bit bad typing that last paragraph. It feels like defeat to even consider not changing just because other people fail in their efforts but given the current context (UK GDP down 0.2% in Q4) is the brave thing to do caution and not trying ‘hail Mary’ activities that may appear heroic are actually desperation?


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The one with the taxman

Back at the end of September I attended a conference hosted by Hodes called “Connectivity: the competitive edge”. I had fully intended to a write a few posts about the content and then time passes, you know…

One of the people presenting was Mike Falvey, Chief People Officer for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. So in answer to the question who’s the person who’d most like to hate? The only answer that beats “the taxman” is “the taxman’s HRD”. Mr Falvey however, was not what I expected. He was energetic, charismatic and, dare I say it, fun. And here is a man who is facing a challenge that would make most people want to curl up in a ball and cry for mummy. The other interesting thing about him as an individual is that he is not a ‘lifer’ in the civil service and has worked both in the corporate sector and run his own business.

Due to the delightful combination of economic downturn and Messrs Cameron & Osborne, the civil service was in a position where in November 2009 they were obliged to commit to reducing HR spend by 50%… yes 50%. Now i’ve been on the receiving end of some challenging budget calls but 50% is a monster. That said what were they starting with?

Before commencing the “Next Generation HR Programme” (as they dubbed their initiative) there were 8000 HR people in the Civil Service with 6000 of those servicing what he referred to as ‘the big 7’ (DWP, MOD, HMRC, Home Office, MOJ, DfT, Defra). There was very little if no collaboration, very different systems and processes operated across departments and shared service or centralised resources were not high on anyone’s agenda pre-2009. Therefore maybe 50% wasn’t a monster but the culmination of the all the incremental budget cuts the civil service *could* have made when the sun was shining rather than making hay. It must also be said that Mr Falvey didn’t go into detail of the staff numbers of the big 7 at that same point but it seemed there was a lot of opportunity to do things differently and better.

If you ever sit with a friend, colleague, advisor, coach, head-hunter, etc, and talk about having challenging stakeholders imagine being an HRD in the Civil Service. Think about having politicians, senior civil servants, unions, the press and the employees themselves as stakeholders at a time when every other part of the public sector is also trying to make cuts and significant cuts of that. Then think about your stakeholders and breathe out. That’s political with both a small and big P.

All that aside, the main point that really landed with me came almost as an afterthought fairly near the end of his session, when in an almost off the cuff remark, Mr Falvey said something along  the lines of “due to the age of austerity, we were not able to use consultants and it all had to come from within”. Coming back to the time pre-Lehman’s when the world was rosier; I imagine a commitment to save 50% of Civil Service HR would have been accompanied by a hefty commitment to one of McKinsey, Accenture, BCG, LEK or similar but due to the controls on spending they HAD to do it themselves.

The question I keep on coming back to (and unfortunately there’s no way to test it) is would the outcome have been any different/more or less successful with the consultants?

I am not a management consultant hater by any means. I know some great management consultants and they are bright and can add significant value IF USED APPROPRIATELY. However, it does seem they have become the defacto validators of plans and in the case of what the civil service were doing, they weren’t reinventing the wheel.

So the other question I am left with is this: are management consultants brought it by ‘the business’ because they don’t have the answer or are they demanded by ‘the masters’ who won’t back a plan without a consultancy rubber stamp? Is the only reason the senior HR team at the Civil Service ‘got away’ without using consultants was because their stakeholders knew it would be unpalatable to ask for the rubber stamp when the cupboard was bare?

More questions than answers I’m afraid but it was an interesting session and if you get the chance to hear Mr Falvey or one of his contemporaries speak I would advise you doing so. It definitely smashed my expectations of ‘the taxman’s HRD’….


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The one with the grief or the celebration

If I asked you what you knew about Tuckman’s theory of Group Dynamics, you would probably (like me until fairly recently) shrug and look at me with a ‘oh god what’s he read now’ expression. However, if I asked if you’d ever heard the words forming, storming, norming and performing with respect to teams then I imagine I would get a very different reaction.

Bruce Tuckman is to teams what Mr Kipling is to pre-packed cakes – kind of a cornerstone, fundamental kind of ‘brand’. If you are inclined to, there’s a great summary on Wikipedia which you can find here Tuckman. Considering he first published his theory in 1965, I think it says something that it is a) so well known and b) still relevant. It may even have to be considered enduring wisdom…

Some 12 years later, he added a further stage that he termed ‘adjourning’ concerned with completion of the task and the breaking up of the team. The term ‘adjourning’ makes it sound very casual or maybe very processural but it doesn’t sound like something that involves human beings.

It’s fairly obvious (even to someone who works in HR) that we are living in unprecedented times. Over the last 3 ½ years the world has changed and unless you’re a banker (who seem to have bounced back fairly nicely) not likely for the better. I would expect most of you whether directly or through friends have seen the impacts of the economic climate and how it can effect businesses and the inviduals within them.

This brings me back to the 1977 5th stage. The more appropriate term I’ve heard (and I must credit my colleague Charlotte for this) is ‘mourning’ because the teams breaking up I’ve seen are going through a far more human process that simply adjourning something. Whether it’s a triumphal dissolution of a successful team or the team is losing people (which is probably more likely in current circumstances) actually taking the time to reflect on the team, it’s challenges and achievements and allowing yourself and others to make sense of the situation is a powerful but oft overlooked part of  managing the change the individuals are going through.

I have been fortunate not to attend many funerals in my life. I have reached an age where I’m 0 for 4 on Grandparents but fortunately the rest of my immediate family are alive and kicking; although my Dad does seem to be embalming himself in advance! The most difficult of those have been where people’s grief has centred around the loss of an individual, a life cut short or a person central to their general existence and emotional well being. The best, if you can say that of a funeral, have been where it’s been possible to take a step back from the loss and celebrate the life of the individual, how they’ve enriched those around them and usually in my experience have featured the double whammy of alcohol and anecdotes.

The interesting thing about the latter experience is the catharsis it allows, the emotions that are dealt with (in company) and how the overall experience leaves you saddened at the loss but thankful for the experience of knowing the individual. Thinking about this as I write its most like the Irish tradition of the Wake…

Now I’m not suggesting organisations should start throwing piss ups for teams that are breaking up (although I wouldn’t vote against it personally). However, taking the time and giving the support to a team to have that catharsis before throwing them either a) into the next team or b) out the door, may pay dividends both the individuals directly affected but also for the survivors who may be feeling the guilt of not being shown the door.

Therefore I propose a new structure:


*where no one is allowed to drive and the taxis are on expenses



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The one where it’s time to change

When the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the 3….it’s 3 o’clock, right? Simple stuff and stuff we are taught when we are knee high to a grasshopper. Consider an alternative phrase ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ – who hasn’t said that? What they represent however are two different definitions of time – the first objective – time is a measured definite thing, where there are 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day (despite my consistent lobbying for 30 hour days at the weekend). The second (time flying) is subjective; where time is ‘defined in the mind of the actor’ – it’s not measured it’s defined by the individual who is experiencing it.

The first essay I was asked to write at uni was entitled “Discuss the meaning of time in organizational change” (the question was set, I certainly didn’t choose it!) and as ever with these things I started off thinking what a horrid title it was and ended up being fascinated with the idea of two different definitions of time….

So why write this now?

In the current climate (a phrase that is now highly valued in bullshit bingo) change is truly becoming a constant (you can see why I score so well in BB). A lot of conversation happens both on and offline about how to do it but consider this – if you are an enactor of change time is likely to be defined objectively to you. When enacting change there are structures, milestones and ‘things’ to deliver.

If, however, change is being enacted upon you time is not about compliance with employment legislation or delivery to budget, it is a very personal thing. How many people are having to leave teams or businesses, join new teams or businesses, change huge parts of their lives (where they live, childcare, how they travel etc)? At the moment, lots! Your neatly planned change is changing the reality of their day to day lives.

Personally, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was announce a restructure to a group of highly committed long serving employees. It was the first time I’d ever lead such a thing so was fairly anxious anyway. In the ensuing 1 to 1 meetings the reality of a subjective definition of time was brought home to me with a 54 year man (and he worked in a warehouse he was a blokey bloke) crying, asking the simple question “what am I going to tell my wife?”

There’s a line in the movie “Trains, Planes & Automobiles” where Steve Martin’s character rants to John Candy about his stories and ends along the lines of “they should have a point – it makes it far more interesting for the listener”. So what’s the point?

Next time you are planning a neatly executed change and whether you are using Lewin or Kotter or any other guru’s process just remember that to the person being changed, this is about their life, not about your Gantt chart. Their reality is not about a tick in the box, it’s however THEY define it…



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