The problems of managing change

Many change programmes in effect fail right from the outset, because they do not create an adequate sense of direction.  Far too little effort is put into “painting the picture” as to why change is necessary, the impact of market forces and what will happen if changes are not made.  Organisations often fail to involve employees enough in the story of how the competitive landscape is changing, and what the medium-long term outlook options might be. [1]

In my view this quote from Neville Browne sums up very neatly not only the need for proper stakeholder engagement across the whole organisation regarding change, along with ongoing and effective communication, but also a particular way of looking at change management.  Browne is essentially espousing what can best be described as the Organisational Development (OD) approach to change and change management.   There are many characteristics to this approach, including the idea that change is ‘episodic’, i.e. is not a continuous process (though I’m sure some OD specialists would beg to differ), and, more importantly, can be managed in a rational, ‘scientific’ way.  Furthermore, it’s normally the CEO or other senior managers who are the initiators (and often the main drivers) of change, and it’s for them to convince everyone else in the organisation that such changes are good thing.  Unfortunately, according to Browne, and many other commentators on change management,  this does not happen in many cases.

In the context of adult social care, these remarks are especially relevant when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of a negative CQC inspection.  They are also significant in situations where the provider feels it is necessary to make important changes to the service simply in order to keep ahead of competitors or to go from a ‘Good’ to an ‘Outstanding’ rating.  The common factor in all these scenarios is the implementation of change – often in the face of great scepticism and/or resistance.

But is it just a matter of better stakeholder engagement and more effective communication?  I’ve been involved, both as a consultant and as a senior manager, in  many stakeholder engagement exercises over the last fifteen years or so, and also in addressing issues of communication across a range of organisations.   True, none of this is rocket science, but on the whole I would say there has been nothing particularly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in the way these issues have been addressed (though there have been one or two notable exceptions!).   However, when I say this, I mean in the sense that technically these issues were addressed properly.  The focus groups were set up and administered efficiently and effectively; the questionnaires were sent out, returned, analysed, reported on; staff consultation events were set up, managed, the results fed back; and so on.

In other words, on the face of it people right across the organisation were kept informed, were consulted, were given the opportunity to put forward their views and concerns regarding proposed changes.  But at the end of the day, who was initiating the proposed changes, who was driving it, and who ‘owned’ it?  Whose ‘story’ was being told to the rest of the organisation?   In virtually all the cases I’m thinking of it was either one person’s story (usually the CEO’s or another very senior person’s) or a group of senior people’s.  And here lies the problem.  Whatever the merits of the story (or to use what I think is a more appropriate term, ‘narrative’) it is not one that is widely shared across the organisation.

Of course, one conclusion to be drawn from this is that whoever is espousing the narrative of change needs to do a better job at ‘selling’ it to the rest of the organisation.  The problem here is that this narrative does not sit in isolation.  Usually it is part of the wider narrative of the whole organisation.  But this is the narrative of the whole organisation as constructed and told by a particular group of people, usually the Board and senior management.  What often seems to be overlooked is that everyone else in organisation does not see things this way.  In fact, they have their own narratives, which may be completely at odds with the ‘official’ one.

Browne refers to the failure to put forward a compelling case (or narrative) for change as a ‘barrier’ to change.  However, looking at things from another perspective, perhaps the real ‘barrier’ is the narrative itself.  And this may well be because it just reminds everyone who is listening to it how far removed it is from their own narrative(s) of the organisation, and their own experiences.  In other words, when staff (and in many cases service users and relatives) are ‘consulted’ about proposed changes to the service, the language and terminology that is used by (senior) management simply reinforces the perception that management have no idea of how things really are for the people who work there or who receive the service, and the real impact such changes will have on the life of the service.

  1. Neville Browne, 2006, Leading Change – Guidelines for Managers, Robert Gordon University, p.14 []