Sidestep formal structures for effective change management

Many companies like to think they understand all about business processes and change management. They spend fortunes on consultancy, design, structures, processes, training, roll out and management, then wonder why they don’t get the results they expected. So they have another go…

Well, maybe things aren’t quite that bad, but I bet you can think of plenty of examples of ’change initiatives’ that just don’t get the buy-in of the grass-roots people who are supposed to implement them. Part of the problem is that they quite often try to appeal to reason. They use PowerPoints with lots of bullet points to try to hook the intellect and forget the emotional dimension. Maybe they think there’s no room for emotion in their business.

But why do people go to work generally? Especially so-called ’white collar’ workers. It’s for the satisfaction of doing a job well and for recognition and this doesn’t just mean in the pay packet. Not a good motivator at the best of times.

Part of the problem is that we’ve become accustomed to treating business as a mechanistic process. And a predictable one at that. Do this, force it through these process pipes, and consistent results will pop out the other end. In truth, many of the most important business processes are chaotic. Think of sales and marketing, for example. Untidy real life gets in the way. Reality has little to do with the org chart and formal processes and much more to do with endless workarounds and informal communications.

Yes, of course some processes or workflows do what they’re supposed to. Regulations have to be followed and suchlike. But these are a bit like the unconscious processes of the human body. We can walk down the street while we pump blood, breathe and digest our food. But our attention is on the interesting conversation with the person walking with us.

So it is in business, the interesting stuff and the stuff that is likely to do the business most good in the future is probably the stuff that lies outside the fundamental formal systems of the organisation.

Leandro Herrero has written a most interesting book on how organisations can bring about change by acknowledging that all is not what it seems in the body corporate. He alights on the fact that, alongside the ’organigramme’, lives a communication network in which all employees and business partners participate to a greater or lesser degree. Some people are highly connected, others only slightly. These are the strong ties and weak ties beloved of social network analysts. His book is called Viral Change.

It investigates how these social networks can be put to work to bring about transformational change in double quick time – months rather than years – and without any of the complexity of traditional change programmes. Apart from the acknowledgement and exploitation of social networks, the book is heavy on behavioural psychology. In fact, for anyone interested, it contains a 16-page PhD psychology course, which is then summarised in a couple of pages at the end of the chapter.

As someone who’s spent several years deep in the social network world and a further thirty plus years as a behavioural psychology advocate, the book resonated rather well with me. But the point that Herrero makes is that behaviour can be observed. It is unequivocal. Bring about behavioural change and the culture will change as a consequence. And you don’t need more than five defined behaviour changes to bring about massive transformation. The trick is, of course, in finding and defining those which are most appropriate.

Diving off slightly to one side for a second, why did the iPod catch on the way it did? Apart from it being a neat piece of kit, don’t you think the white headphones and leads had something to do with it? People were curious, they enquired, they copied, it became a fashion. But Steve Jobs didn’t directed this take up to the nth degree. Apple seeded opinion formers and influencers and let the network do the rest. So why should influence spread any differently in organisations?

Why not seed the movers and shakers – the people who are well connected and, therefore almost certainly respected too – with what needs to be achieved and let them start infecting their closest connections. Then as they and their behaviour change, others will notice and, if they respect or admire the folks who are adopting new ways, they will copy too. Especially if adoption is periodically recognised or reinforced, to use the vernacular. Before you know it, you have an epidemic on your hands and change has permeated. It becomes the norm.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a 400-page book. But the book does strip away a lot of nonsense associated with traditional expensive and long-winded change management programmes. And, yes, the author is undoubtedly pushing the services of his company, The Chalfont Project. You won’t agree with many of the things he suggests, but then you’re probably not expected to. If he infects you with the fundamental principles, it’s up to you to figure out how to make it work in your world.

The book is a useful catalyst to exploiting the power of social networking and behavioural psychology to accelerate needed change in organisations.

If you’re happy to provide your details you can download a free eight page overview of the approach from Herrero’s website.

Even if this piece has irritated you, I think it’s worth a look. You never know what you might be missing.

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