Normalising Change and Surprise Outcomes

We might need to get a bit more specific.

When change is the norm then it goes largely unnoticed (and mostly unrewarded). Often with unintended consequences.

Anyone who has a school-age child will have asked, “What did you do at school today?”. The typical answer is, “Nothing”. As adults are we all that different or are some things just part of the human condition? Following up on planning or change-oriented workshops it is not unusual to hear the lament, ” it was a waste of time, nothing has changed!”. And they could be right … however, it’s worth taking a closer look and providing some feedback.

Case 1 – Surprise Outcomes: Ron, a hard-nosed Mine Superintendent participated in a strategic planning workshop and some follow-up exercises organized by the Managing Director and Operations Manager. The meetings were all documented and circulated. Some 5 years later I received a call from Ron. While cleaning out his office he had come across the planning document and stopped to take a look. He felt compelled enough to call me and say, (I’ll paraphrase as I don’t recall the exact words) “I thought that whole planning session was a feel-good load of b***s***. … I’m a bit stunned because we’ve done nearly everything in the plan. Not necessarily the way we imagined things, but close enough.” I was equally stunned that he had taken the time out to make the call.

The point is Ron didn’t need the document to continue on and he didn’t make the connection between the work he was doing and the planning and discussions.  If asked what he got out of the planning sessions prior to finding the long-lost document, he would very probably have answered, “Nothing!”

Case 2  – Absorbed and Normalised: At some point, I began doing three month followups to planning sessions. In particular, I would speak to some people to find out what was happening before arriving and develop questions related to the planning session outcomes. An example was with a civil engineering design group. The group was highly technical and generally resented any business development activities as a waste of time. They had real work to do. So on getting together, we opened with the objective of the session and then asked the great big opened ended question, ” Well, how are you going with the plan, what’s been achieved?” The immediate response was near silence followed by, “Not a lot!”. We then got more specific asking about elements of the plan. “You stated that you would introduce new design software and I understand you’ve shortlisted and started the evaluation of some packages?” Then the responses began to change … “Oh yeah, we’ve done that and …”. After a few iterations, the message was dropping. They had changed direction. Not in everything they were doing however there were real and tangible results that could be tied directly back to the planning discussions.

The changes were being absorbed and normalized into daily life very rapidly.  This wasn’t a paradigm shift or transformative change or disruptive change however it was significant change for the better.

Not connecting the outcomes with the planning and workshops allowed for and reinforced a pre-existing negative attitude towards planning and business development work. Importantly, the context also reinforced a certain ‘paranoia’ that can develop in professional organizations regarding other professional groupings( a good topic for another day – refer to ‘Organisational Forces and Forms, Mintzberg & Kets de Vries).

Tips and Hints: 

  1. Don’t assume all change is obvious to people, particularly as some regular and frequent change is the norm in the modern organisation.
  2. Take time to connect discussions and planning activities to real outcomes to reinforce the value of the work. You will probably need to get specific.
  3. Take the opportunity to reinforce the value of change related work.
  4. Changes initiated and rationalized by professional groups other than the one we identify with (Finance v Engineering v Marketing v Sales etcetera) can raise suspicion, language issues, sub-culture competition and possible sources of resistance. Taking time to build relationships and shared language can help.

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Filed under Change Management, Corporate Culture & Strategy, Uncategorized

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