News and Comment

How to avoid being killed by the fall: managing change

Friday 26 November 2010


Many organisations are developing detailed transformation programmes to achieve efficiency savings, but relatively few are spending enough time attending to the impact these are having on internal and external relationships. The danger is that we come out of these programmes with shell-shocked staff, uncertain partners and unhappy service users and communities, where relationships are so badly damaged that the new structures and processes that have been put in place don’t work and we spend the next three years repairing the damage.

The risks of rushed cost-cutting transformation

The need to radically transform organisations quickly to find efficiencies and effective ways of serving the public puts a premium on our ability to innovate and to collaborate across professional and organisational boundaries. Yet these same pressures could easily create conflict and drive people back into their own areas.

One of the reasons that many transformation programmes are moving more slowly than senior managers, elected members and others in governance roles would like is the fear of conflict and a lack of confidence in dealing with it. People recognise that the changes that are needed are contested and that moving from planning to implementing change could cause serious damage to relationships and to their organisation’s ability to deliver.

In practice the scale and pace of change are making it hard to deliver transformation programmes. Yet if these aren’t brought to a successful conclusion in the next few months there’s a danger that the focus will be simply on taking out staff and costs to make savings. We’ll then be faced with having to make half-changed organisations work but with less resource to help with implementing change and delivering core services.

So we have this dilemma – pushing ahead with radical transformation is urgent if we’re to avoid damaging cuts but pushing ahead when we lack the skills to handle conflict well and create environments that foster innovation could create even greater problems.

What it means to take a truly OD-focused approach to transformation

Organisational development (OD) practitioners have long understood that it isn’t planning change or even working in new circumstances that causes problems, it’s the transitions from where you are to where you want to be. Or to paraphrase Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid as they’re about to leap into a ravine: ‘why are you’re worrying about not being able to swim – the fall will probably kill you!’ I’m sure that if we do survive the transition we’ll be fine, but can we make it less scary than a 200-foot leap without a parachute?

While most public sector organisations have OD managers and staff, in many places OD has lost touch with its roots and taken on more limited roles such as defining roles and structures and providing training and development programmes. I’m not arguing that such work is wrong, rather that it provides an unnecessarily limited view of what OD can offer. Senior managers and HR professionals, who often have OD reporting into them, need to help their organisations draw on what OD at its best can offer.

OD is a values-based approach to change rooted in the social and behavioural sciences. Today OD is about many things, including working with the cultural, systemic, political and personal dimensions of change to ensure changes are owned, relevant and sustained, and working in a way that builds long-term, sustainable improvements rather than offering quick-fix solutions. OD skills and approaches can add enormous value and help us manage this dilemma by ensuring that we pay attention to and work with both: the technical and cultural side of change, tasks and people, values and resources, the rational and emotional.

An OD approach encourages us to be open to what is actually happening before and during change. It can help us to work constructively with difference, anxiety and conflict. It helps us to learn from the unexpected and any problems that we encounter, so that we can adapt our approach and refine our goals. This is not about ducking the tough decisions about cutting costs, but making sure that the time, effort and money invested in any programme of change results in a better organisation rather than a damaged one.

Of related interest:

Public service briefing – Leadership in tough times

Learning programme – The effective organisation development practitioner