Coronavirus and change: sensitivity required

The “elastic band” reaction to change is becoming apparent

It seemed like a good idea at the time: take the first three months of 2020 “out” on a project whose full-time, full-on nature didn’t allow much time for writing or video work, come back and resume my regular posting of ideas on change and related topics.

This all went swimmingly… until coronavirus happened. First impression was that all would be OK. I simply stopped travelling to the client’s site and completed the last two weeks of the project remotely, with technology – and the client’s own nimble action in organising remote participation – helping immensely.

When I resurfaced at the beginning of April, I plunged back into my other activities: working with a small number of non-profit organisations, setting up future opportunities and setting myself some lockdown learning objectives. (As one of my colleagues put it – quoting Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel – “you can’t let a serious crisis go to waste.”)

But amidst all this activity – not to mention my new daily exercise hour to make up for the lack of commuting and the closure of my local gym – I began to find that things were slowing down, and my productivity was taking a hit.

What was going on? 

Elastic

I was experiencing something that I have noticed affecting people on a personal and organisational level. I call it elastic band syndrome and it’s common to many situations where significant change happens in a short space of time.

There’s a commonplace complaint in almost all organisations that I have worked with that “people resist change”. They do, but when circumstances are right people will be very good at adapting to change. It’s been happening everywhere since mid- to end-March and I’ve personally seen this in some different areas:

  • My most recent client turned their front and back office operations over to remote working in a very short period of time.
  • The NCT moved its ante-natal classes onto Zoom in the space of around a week, turning its ante-natal teachers into online videoconferencing experts. (My wife runs classes and is now the resident expert on facilitating online meetings.)
  • Socially, all kinds of groups have moved online and the phenomena of remote drinks, dinner parties and coffee mornings are now commonplace.

And, since visiting them is not currently possible, my in-laws (aged 87 and 94) are becoming adept at video calls with us… it’s all good but…

Stretch goals

…whilst changing working practices, making difficult decisions about furloughing staff or adapting to being furloughed can be – and has been – done in a very short space in time, it’s literally a stretch to do so and the effect is like stretching an elastic band – the resistance of the band to being stretched will force a return to its original state. Maintaining the stretch over a long period of time will eventually become exhausting.

Kindness

Symptoms of this can be visible on a personal level: I’ve had periods over the past few weeks where I find myself suddenly feeling quite low (not my normal state) or becoming very irritable. Whilst some of this can be attributed to late mid-life crisis or general grumpiness, I think it’s much more noticeable whilst there is a background of stress and uncertainty.

My first reaction to a period of locked-down home-based working: to fill my time with learning objectives, sales and marketing goals and so forth was perhaps understandable but of course added to my own stress level rather than providing motivation to power through the crisis.

I know I am not the first to say this but the lesson to take from this is simple: BE KIND – to yourself, colleagues and family.

Noise

So, simple lesson learned but there’s a bigger point for those involved in change management: we’re usually pretty good at assessing people’s readiness for change via surveys, focus groups and so for the but how often do we take into account the “background noise”, the context for the change.

In the case of coronavirus, the background noise is comparable to a neighbour playing loud music all day long (something mercifully absent in my immediate neighbourhood so I’m enjoying the traffic-free stillness while it lasts) when you’re trying to work. In that kind of environment your productivity will drop, and your focus will be on dealing with the noise, not the task in hand. Asking people to change their behaviour in a time of great stress is possible but likely to be a short-term response, not a permanent shift.

The lesson for change managers as we plan for the “next normal” (as McKinsey refer to it in some of their recent articles) is two-fold:

  1. Considerable imagination, innovation and experimentation will be required to ensure organisations survive into the post-pandemic era and this will require people to adopt and adapt to new working practices, but…
  2. The residue of stress from the pandemic will affect their ability – and energy – to change.

Plotting a course through the next few months and years will require sensitivity and insight to make sure the changes people are required to make have a lasting beneficial effect – on themselves and the organisations and customers they serve.

The power of No

In a sea of endless possibility, discover the power of not doing something

A while ago a business associate and I were discussing a joint venture we had planned to do. Reviewing our various activities over the coming months we decided there was no way we were going to be able to do what we’d talked about until next year, so we said a decisive “no” to doing it now.

And it felt liberating.

Modern business culture rightly encourages positivity, but the unintended consequences can make you feel overloaded. Selective use of negativity can have a positive effect. Here’s how…

The power of yes

Early on in my consulting career I worked with a colleague who had a background in sales training. My relationship with our client was not as good as it could be, and she offered me perhaps the simplest and best consulting advice I’ve ever had. I’d come from a technical and analytic background where options tended to be carefully weighed against agreed criteria and recommendations made. As a result, my answers to client questions in the early stage of their transformation project were of the “it depends” variety. My colleague realised this wasn’t helping them get started on a big change, so she sat me down and said

“When a client asks you if we can do something, what’s your answer?”

Before I could come out with “it depends” she produced a sheet of A4 paper with one word on it in large font:

“The answer is always yes” she said “even if you can think of a thousand reasons why it’s not possible. The client wants help. They want to know what’s possible, so entertain the possibility before dismissing it or even trying to evaluate it.”

It’s a classic sales technique, of course: agree that you can provide what the customer wants even if you can’t figure out how to provide it. It works equally well in change and transformation projects, where people need to try out a new idea to see if it could work. As a consultant part of your role is to help envision this new world not dismiss it out of hand.

The Yes/No Interlude*

Saying Yes to everything is a life and work strategy that means you embrace possibilities and adopt a more positive mindset. But it has its downsides: if everything is possible, then what do you do?

I encounter this all the time with clients I work with, particularly smaller non-profit organisations who invariably have resource or budget challenges that mean that the list of things they would like to do starts to seem un-doable. My lesson from many years ago means that I don’t tell people what they can’t do but I do work through a process that helps them focus on what must be done now, what could be done given budget (and a plan to get it) and what doesn’t really need to be done.

I find that once people say no – or not-yet – to a few things on the seemingly impossible to-do list, the forward plan becomes more manageable.

Embrace the nay-sayer

Any change initiative or ambitious plan will usually flush out the “nay-sayers” in the organisation, those people for whom every silver lining has a cloud, and the fashion for positive thinking means that their views can often get discounted. I have had a lot of experience with IT departments over the years and that’s where a lot of perceived negativity comes from, usually in the form of too-long development timescales or too-high budgets. In these cases, there is a disconnect between the ambition stated by the person who had the idea and the nay-sayers view of reality. I think change efforts need to have nay-sayers on the team to temper any over-optimism but also, when they do come on board, either through compromise or coming round to the argument, they become rock-solid advocates for change.

A couple of questions to see if you’re embracing the power of Yes and No:

  • When faced with a colleague who proposes a radical or different way of looking at things, is your instinctive answer “yes we can” or “no we can’t”?
  • Have you tested out your big idea with a friendly nay-sayer?
  • From the overwhelming list of possibilities, what’s really important, and what’s really important now.

There’s no hard and fast answer to these questions, but addressing them means your change plans are much more likely to succeed.

* If you can remember this then, like me, you spent too much of your childhood watching TV or you and I have similar taste in music

Want to change your culture? Go green…

Taking lessons from permaculture may be the best way to create a sustainable culture change

As Kermit the Frog memorably put it, “it’s not easy being green” as anyone will know who’s unwrapped and binned or attempted to recycle the plastic from their weekly grocery shop. With images of plastic-bound sea life in our heads we might be feeling a creeping sense of despair… So why apply green principles to the equally vexed question of how to change your organisation’s culture?

The short answer is that it makes a lot of sense to do so – particularly if you want the change to be beneficial and long-lasting. Here’s how…

Culture change – the perennial problem

I’ve lost count of the number of organisations I’ve sat in where there’s an expressed wish that “if we could only change the culture” then the desired change would happen or be a lot easier to make happen. This is a common misconception: that culture is a “thing” that can be changed, like a process or an IT system. It’s not: it’s a consequence of people and systemic issues such as reward mechanisms, recruitment and so on. Affecting culture requires an understanding of these various factors and their interplay but very often leaders prefer a dramatic intervention such as replacing the top team or laying off staff to achieve what are inevitably short-term benefits.

Something more sophisticated is required and rather than come up with my own patented fool-proof culture change method (lubricated with several litres of snake-oil) I’d like to propose the application of some existing principles that will make you think more deeply about the impact of the change you are effecting.

These principles come from a sustainability approach called permaculture. In summary, permaculture – the name derives from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture” – is an approach to living that has less of a detrimental approach to the planet. In a discussion with some friends about the topic recently I was struck by how relevant these were to organisational change.

Principals for permanence

Permaculture is based on 12 design principles. There are plenty of good summaries around which are worth looking at. Here’s my take on how they might apply in a commercial organisation

1. Observe and interact

It’s so tempting – particularly if you’re a consultant or a leader operating on a tight timescale – to come up with solutions quickly and implement them as rapidly as possible. Taking time to engage and understand an organisation is critical if you want to identify the points of resistance and, more importantly, the areas of support that will be important in making the proposed change stick.

2. Catch and store energy

In pure agricultural terms this is another way of saying “make hay while the sun shines” – an old saw but often overlooked when implementing change. What are the best times to introduce a change (clue: probably not when you’re doing annual appraisals)? Where are the areas of organisation with more energy and support for the change you want to introduce (hint: start with these first).

3. Obtain a yield 

The reason we do agriculture is that we need our efforts to yield something. Sustainable culture change in an organisation is the same: we need to understand the benefits of what we are doing, whether hard financial measures or softer attitude surveys. Having a good benefits management discipline really helps here.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

In the permaculture context, self-regulation means putting in the appropriate feedback loops so that a system can continue to function well. In an organisational context, this fits well with continuous improvement approaches such as Kaizen, or the application of systems theory. Understanding what feedback mechanisms – formal and informal – regulate an organisation’s behaviour and then altering them gradually is key to sustainable change.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services 

The Shock of the New was an acclaimed TV series on modern art but I think the title could often be applied to approach used to create a shift in an organisation’s culture, whether it’s “new” concepts (like customer-centricity – mea culpa) or new customers, people, technology or processes. Introducing something new consumes resource (it’s more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones) whereas it’s better to reduce unnecessary consumption where possible: what existing value is locked up in current customers and people and how can you unlock it?

6. Produce no waste 

Permaculture emphasises valuing and making use of all available resources. Leaving aside my concerns about how much packaging goes to waste, businesses are incredibly wasteful of the talent that’s locked up in their people and the goodwill of their customers. Take a “zero waste” mindset to your business see how it changes your perception of how to create value.

7. Design from patterns to details

This is one of the more obscure permaculture principles but it’s intended to force thinking about the big picture in environmental terms. Effective change management definitely takes this approach – at least in theory – by stepping back and observing how processes work (or not) end-to-end and asking the question “who do they serve?” (clue: if the answer is “the customer” that’s a good thing).

8. Integrate rather than segregate

My gardening knowledge is limited but I do know that if you plant marigolds amongst your tomatoes the chance of them being attacked by harmful root-rotting nematodes is reduced. Permaculture emphasises putting things in places where supportive relationships develop. How often do we do the opposite in organisations and intentionally create barriers and internal competition?

9. Use small and slow solutions 

As someone who cut their consulting teeth in the heyday of business reengineering – the father of which, Michael Hammer, was fond of saying “if it ain’t broke, break it” and where “big change, fast” was the guiding mantra – the idea of being small and slow is anathema to me. However, it’s worth considering how much attrition was caused in those swashbuckling reengineering projects and whether the changes were sustained in the long term.

10. Use and value diversity 

In agriculture, diversity increases resilience to disease and with the commendable advent of diversity programmes across many organisations, we might think we’re ticking this box. I don’t think we’re there yet: bringing different points of view and thinking styles together constructively to solve business problems is valuing diversity not just ticking a compliance box.

11. Use edges and value the marginal

Once again, my knowledge of sustainable agriculture leads me to take at face value the permaculture claim that the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place but in businesses that’s definitely true, with the interface with customers the most productive area for change and innovation. The problem is that this marginal area is often not valued by organisations, leading to cultures that don’t place the customer at the centre of what they do.

12. Creatively use and respond to change

Finally, the most powerful principle of the twelve. Change managers like me might think that we are driving change (other powerful adjectives are available) but it’s more helpful to think of how we respond to change. The author William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, recognises this: change is a sudden thing and it’s how we manage the transition to the new state that results that’s important. Taking a creative and constructive view of change events helps that transition.

It’s not easy…

Some of the principles may seem like the blindingly obvious, some a little obscure, but they strike me a setting a challenge for all of us engaged in organisational change: how do we carry it out in a way that increases the chances of sustained benefits? Using the principles to ask questions of and challenge our preconceptions about how change is managed will, I believe, result in change that benefits all of us.

As Kermit says, it’s not easy being green…

Acknowledgements: 1) the author would like to thank his friend Linda Murgatroyd for introducing him to the concept of permaculture 2) the author also recognises that Kermit the Frog was singing about his skin colour not the environment.

There’s no place like Home(base)

Pretty soon, there may be no Homebase at all

My track record as a DIY-er is not all that great, but I’m thinking I could have done a lot less of a botched job than Australian company Wesfarmers did when they acquired UK DIY retail chain Homebase back in 2016.

The analysts’ views could not have been more damning with GlobalData’s retail analyst, Patrick O’Brien referring to it as “undoubtedly the most disastrous retail acquisition in the UK ever.  I can’t think of a worse one that has made these kinds of losses so quickly.

According to reports in the Guardian, up to 40 UK stores could close with a possibility that the parent company could exit the UK altogether as Wesfarmers recovers from a £454m write-down due to the acquisition.

My use of the term “botched job” is not a management consultant’s know all “post-disaster” arrogance but the term used by Rob Scott, Wesfarmers’ managing director, who stated the problems with Homebase were largely of their own making – a slightly diplomatic way of saying “we just shot ourselves in the foot with a gun we already knew was loaded. The number one – and probably most critical – mistake was to remove the entire management team plus 160 middle managers as soon as the takeover was concluded.

If you want big change, do it fast but beware of the risks

There’s a school of thought that suggests that if you are going to implement big change then do it quickly and do it early. The catch of course is that these have to be sensible changes and if you haven’t assessed the strategic landscape effectively then hitting fast and quick can make the acquirers look like drunken rhinos in an overpacked china shop.

Moving fast was not the mistake. Streamlining is an obvious first move but arguably they went too far. Including the people who effectively ensure at least short term smooth running – the middle managers – in the first tranche shake-up was too great a risk. All the knowledge about what worked in the stores and what did not – gathered over years of trial and error also walked out of the door at the same time.

Don’t change what’s already working

Homebase had already achieved some success attracting more female shoppers with an emphasis on top-end soft furnishings from Laura Ashley and Habitat which created  a differentiator over other brands. Based on the experience of their Bunnings chain in Australia, however, Wesfarmers decided that a different approach was needed and opted for a purer DIY warehouse, providing customers with a no-frills (or chintz) experience.

Judging from customer feedback and our own research the previous approach seemed to be working. And, subjectively, our experience of the post-acquisition Homebase has not been that great – product facing is poor, and it seems harder to find what you want with too many options and price-points in some categories.

The lesson here is don’t change what’s already working and expect feedback from customer segments in one country to be replicated in another without sufficient research. History has shown time and time again that this approach does not work.

Ignore middle managers at your peril

Middle managers get a bad rap: the term suggests a lack of ambition and a degree of mediocrity, so they’re a target for easy downsizing. But middle managers hold a lot of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t and, whilst you can argue that companies would be more effective if they codified and shared that knowledge better, it seems a rather crude piece of change management to cut it out just like that.

Home or away?

Homebase’s problems are challenging – a £1bn rent obligation prevents Wesfarmers from walking away completely. The UK retail market is depressed, and the outlook remains uncertain for the short to medium term. The new Homebase have clearly not listened enough to their customers (or their voices in the company). They might want to think more about what their customers – male and female – want from their outlets before wielding the axe further.

Mistakes may have been made and recovery will be tough, with a degree of downsizing appearing all but inevitable. But in a crowded market, customers will shop around and loyalties can change. Homebase has every chance of recovery if a customer first philosophy is adopted and aligned to every aspect of the organisation. Time will tell whether the new owners have learned from their mistakes.