Toddler Steps in Change Management

The increase in the rate of change in the business environment and our organisations means that we must be able to solve problems, challenges, issues at least as fast as they arise. Things don’t then get worse!

Stafford Beer1 suggested in 1974 that:

‘The relaxation time of the system is not geared to the current rate of perturbation’.

Simply, we and our organisations are hit by challenges (internal as well as external) faster than we can respond to them and faster than we can enable the organisation to settle back to stability or ‘normality’. In consequence we are often off balance, trying to catch up. To combat this we must rethink our approach to management so that rather than assuming stability and, predominantly, reacting to challenges we should assume instability and learn to anticipate, avoid or obviate challenges. Perhaps then we can make progress rather than continuously refighting yesterday’s battles and re-solving yesterday’s problems.

To do this we need to be Intelligent Managers in our Intelligent Organisations2. We need to redesign our organisations and rethink our managerial roles (behaviours, skills, accountabilities) so that when we are being whacked with challenges we apply brains rather than brawn.

The specifics of the particular organisation often don’t matter very much, if we are focusing at the right level of problem solving, because running an (any) organisation is commonly not about particular technical activities but about how our leadership, the process and structures we create, the information we provide, the behaviours we adopt and the ideas we stimulate engage and involve others in ‘solving the problem’.

So, where should we start? Here are five suggestions….

1: Sack the ‘Director of Keeping Things the Same’

Any of us as a manager has three tasks – to manage the present, create the future and resolve the tension between the two by nurturing identity – the values, beliefs, culture that binds the organisation (or our bit of it) together.

Tension arises because we divorce ‘change management’ (creating the future) from ‘the day job’ (managing the present) whereas in our fast moving organisations change management IS the day job. What could be odder than to have two groups of managers in opposition to each other, one dedicated to change, the other dedicated to keeping things the same. No wonder it all goes wrong, costs a fortune or fails to deliver the desired outcome (or all three). We who lead ‘business as usual’ must also provide ‘transformational leadership’ and resolve the arising tension through application of clear, consistent values.

2: Own your time

We often report ourselves as busy, stressed and overworked. When we explore why we find that our time is spent largely or entirely in a reactive mode, our working day is driven by the demands of others, mainly the people for whose work we are responsible.

Management activity often lacks the inherent discipline of operational process cycles so we need to create those process regularities for ourselves. We need to ‘own our time’ and generate a rhythm in which the interventions and interruptions of others (of which there will be many and a great proportion are necessary) can be managed and massaged. We must ensure that we both complete those tasks which are ours and can only be completed by us AND create the conditions under which those who work with or for us are similarly able to perform. To do that we must to create a rhythm, a pattern or schedule of activities, daily, weekly, monthly, annually, even hourly if necessary, into which the interruptions can be planned and which contains sufficient capacity to absorb disruptive shocks.

3: Only Manage your own Monkeys

A while back I learned about monkey management, the necessity for us to arrange our world in a way that ensures we don’t end up taking ownership of others monkeys (their problems). Monkey management is required when a colleague, often but not necessarily a subordinate, ‘shares’ a problem with you, entering your space, placing their monkey in the space between you and talking about it. There then ensues a conversational game in which the colleague seeks to exit the conversation leaving the monkey behind……….

We can respond to this with the (reputedly IBM) idea of completed work that is ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’. That means encouraging colleagues to enter our space using the script: ‘I have this problem, these are the choices, this is what I will do unless you guide/advise/instruct me otherwise’

Remember, our role with others, whether peers or subordinates is to enable and facilitate their success not to do their jobs for them. Generally speaking we have more than enough monkeys of our own and the more we can enable others, the more scope we will have for their management.

An advanced form of monkey management can be played between us and our bosses but that will require a blog of its own.

4: Don’t wait

For some reason we seem to think that somewhere between ‘fools rush in’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’ there is a sweet spot, the perfect time for intervention. It seems to me that this is akin to the physicists’ conditions for an experiment, i.e. ‘in a perfect vacuum at absolute zero’. These conditions can no more be met than can the perfect time to intervene.

It is daft to ‘wait until the situation has settled’ before attempting to change because the first thing we are going to do is unsettle it! Our organisations today exist in a persistent state of flux, should we perhaps manage them as if they are persistently ‘unfrozen’ (Lewin). In any significant business at any given time:

Somebody will have left or be leaving: ‘we can’t do X till Z is gone’

Somebody will be new or joining: ‘we can’t do X till Z has settled in’

Recruitment process will be in course: ‘we need somebody in post X before’

Somebody will be sick or on training, or both: ‘we can’t proceed without’

IT will be implementing, upgrading, refreshing or renewing something;

Costs and revenue will be at some variance to budget;

Morale will be low: ‘they can’t take any more’

Morale will be high: ‘let’s not disturb anything now’

Why not take advantage of the inherent dynamics of the situation to simply shift it where we want it to go. We can, martial arts like, divert the energy of the system to create barriers where we don’t want things to go and remove barriers where we do then the system will simply go there.

With a dynamic situation the inertia has already been overcome, create the right conditions and it will simply change itself.

5: Close your eyes, hold your nose, jump!

There are three key dimensions to change – Why, What and How – and it is evident from many conversations with many managers in many organisations that they usually know why a change needs to happen, they have discovered and studied the evidence, they know what the change needs to be, but they can’t quite bring themselves to do it. Such hesitation is often not that we don’t know what to do but maybe that we don’t know how to do it because it is novel for us, maybe for everyone, because it involves risk, perhaps that we have not drummed up the courage.

There are three dimensions to the how: process, information and behaviour. Our tradition is to design a project plan with a linear flow

‘we will start here, do these things and end up there’.

We will then manage time, quality and cost (commonly fixing one and flexing the other two) to achieve the specified output. Such project plans assume a ‘how’ (or displace the ‘how’ to somebody else) so that we can say:

‘I made a plan, appointed the best person for the job and they succeeded/screwed up, aren’t I clever/aren’t they a disappointment’.

The dynamics of our contemporary situation mean we need to change the underpinning assumptions. We need to accept that delivery of a change (whatever it may be) is not achieved through a linear flow in which all of the parameters of success can be known in advance, all risks can be mitigated, all KPIs met. We must appreciate that the situation (the context within which a change is being implemented) is itself changing as we address it, that whilst our ‘why’ should be immutable (as an expression of the rationale for the existence of the organisation), the what (to some extent) and the how (to a greater extent) need to co-evolve with the situation. To cope with this we need to embrace failure, to wrap it in an iterative process in which we measure achievement not simply against the original set of, probably idealised, milestones but against our changing insights, our emerging knowledge, and through that to manage the expectations and desires of higher order leaders.

We need to discover the courage to deal with things as they are and not as we wish them to be – or how they were described in the project plan! We need to be brave, to take the first step into an unknowable future trusting that our capability in learning and adaptation provides the mechanism of our evolution.


1: Designing Freedom, Stafford Beer, 1974, Wiley, Chichester, UK

2: The Intelligent Organisation, John Beckford, 2015, Routledge, London, UK