The Key to Change is a People Focus

"Nothing endures but change."Heraclitus

All apex leaders create the climate and the culture for their team or teams by how they lead and how they relate to people, especially during change processes.

Great leaders also understand that happy, healthy, contented, and empowered staff are much more productive and effective, they facilitate more fulfilling workplaces, and that delivers better outcomes for both themselves and their customers.

The Power of Human Interaction

Unfortunately, my experience tells me that leaders usually prefer to deal with the structural elements of change and not the organisational underpinning that is relationships.

So, they spend time looking at products and services, hierarchies, technologies, job descriptions, roles and responsibilities, rules, and policies, which are the tangible things that are easily grasped and wrestled with to make improvements. However, these are all impacted by human interaction—the glue that holds organisations together.

Prussian Field Marshal Graf Helmut Von Molke the Elder, famously said that no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. My experience of decades of change leadership tells me that, similarly, the same can be said of a workforce interacting for the first time with any change plan.

Yet strategic leaders persist in playing about with the structural stuff, not by addressing the relationships and other underpinnings of human activity.

A Poor Outcome — A Recurring, Ineffective Cycle

As a Head of Service working in the public sector, it was regularly my experience that some weeks or months later, following a top-down change process, that concern was expressed from above about the lack of impact the changes had brought.

So, what happened next? Senior officers would return to the drawing board, chart some tweaks and fine-tuning, and try again! Inevitably, this focused on the structural stuff, not the human elements. On and on this cycle would revolve, with what ultimate effect? In general, very little real change and certainly not any embedded change of the order sought in the first instance!

A Worse Outcome — Dismay, Disillusionment, Despair

For many colleagues around and below me, we largely experienced dismay, disillusionment, and despair because we were not often engaged in the design process. More subtly, however, it appeared that senior managers could not or chose not to see the need to harness the power of relationships. So, what helped me to understand the need for that approach?

Grasping the Concept of the Organisational Iceberg

Some time into my career, I came across a concept that helped me to understand—and then counteract—this lemming-like behaviour.

I found it in one of my favourite management books, entitled Managing Change and Making It Stick. I believe the book, written by Roger Plant, is now out of print, but you may pick up an old copy via the hyperlink.

Roger introduced me to the concept of the organisational iceberg. His view was that change scenarios too often focused on the bit of the iceberg that was visible—the structural stuff I mentioned earlier—as this was relatively easy to manage.

Often ignored were the things that make organisations work—sometimes known as the "soft stuff." Roger included many organisational aspects within his view of the soft stuff: cultural norms, habits, loyalties, personal relationships, motivation and commitments, moral stances, beliefs and values, hopes and fears, friendships, feelings and moods, among many other elements.

He argued, and I strongly support his view, that by failing to grasp this "hidden" mass of the iceberg, any change process was almost inevitably doomed to failure. I have seen that firsthand too many times!

What Do You Need to Remember?

Change impacts on people directly; it affects the human condition and the myriad feelings, attitudes, circumstances, and opinions that this brings!

In my latest project, we are building a People Strategy for a local authority from the ground up, consulting with staff at all levels across the workforce to derive the best fit for it. I anticipate a positive outcome as the voice of the staff is central to our process.

I will write again once that journey is complete.

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