By Adrian Stalham & Jacqueline Shakespeare
In Part 1, we discussed faux transformation and the problem with creating a transformation wrapper around everything.
In Part 2, we talk about how to take your organisation on the journey to continuous improvement.
A culture of continuous improvement – nature shows us how
Take a look at the world around you. All aspects of nature, humans included, are excellent at continual improvement.
The English peppered moth was cream with darker spots prior to the industrial revolution. They evolved to a sooty colour that blended in with their urban environment and camouflaged them from predators. Succulent plants have adapted to dry climates by storing water in the thick stems and leaves.
There are many more examples of how nature constantly experiments with small genetic mutations. These mutations (experiments) are tested against the external environment for competitive advantage. Some of them fail, some of them succeed. Where the experiments do succeed, organisms and species become stronger.
This is exactly what we should be doing in organisations. We need to conduct small experiments, understand which are helping us improve and therefore which we should continue with. Those that don’t, we dampen down quickly. In today’s fast-paced world, this is about survival of the fittest.
Evolution can sometimes become too specialised of course, causing a previously positive change to end up as a disadvantage. The Buff-tailed Sicklebill has evolved with a bill ideally suited to the plant it exclusively feeds from. However, if that plant population crashes for some reason, so does the bird, as it can’t adapt quickly enough. Organisations also need to ensure improvements are not driving them to over-specialisation and dependency on fragile external factors.
Learning is everyone’s everyday activity
Many years ago, when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young, they went to school, learned their trade and began their career. That was often the limit of their learning.
These days, people change jobs (and sometimes careers) regularly. Markets and technology demand that organisations move at a pace never seen before.
To keep up as individuals we need to:
Become lifelong learners. We need to hold onto that learning mindset we had as students throughout our careers.
Leverage the power of the ‘hive’. Individuals come together as a team, working to improve their environment.
Focus like athletes. Athletes have ambitious goals that they work towards relentlessly. They never accept their current performance level as good enough, even after winning a gold medal.
Human beings have a natural appetite for learning. Organisations don’t. We need a new culture of thinking, operating and learning in our organisations to help them to survive. We need to give permission and create time for people to learn. Role profiles need to be amended to encourage talented individuals into our organisations. How often do you see a role profile which talks about continually improving ways of working?
Operational budgets allow for continual investment in change
A transformation business case should never be about proving a ROI on improving, modernising and upgrading the organisation (a.k.a. catching up). The business case should really include a retrospective view, citing the last 5 years where profits were taken out instead of investing in improvement. Short termism is not healthy. The stark alternative to investing in improvement is that your corporate sclerosis gets so bad that you go out of business.
Ideally improvement needs to be funded as a percentage of the operational budget, year on year, not capitalised and centrally funded as a one-off event. Improvement should be routine. Bring in coaches and experts to show you the latest technology, ways of working and approaches and challenge your inside-out thinking. Deliver value to a cadence, every 90 days. Any longer and you are creating big batches of change, and we know that big batch size means slow delivery.
Leaders inspire and improve horizontally rather than managing vertically
Value is created via horizontal value streams across your organisation. Yet your organisation is structured vertically in departments and specialisms. So we are stuck in the realm of everyone being responsible for their own activity. And no-one being accountable for the cross functional outcome, which is what the customer actually cares about. Incentives, improvements, interactions all need to be thought of holistically, rather than in their separate parts.
Train your managers and leaders in systems thinking and improving systems, not managing hierarchies. The days of reductionism are over. Organisations are complex adaptive systems. The role of the manager is to work on, and improve, the system.
Command and control becomes servant leadership
Command and Control is a style of leadership that uses standards, procedures, and output statistics to regulate the organisation. It is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, which fits well in bureaucratic organisations where those at the top of the pyramid accumulate and exercise privilege and power. It emphasises a distinction between executives on the one hand and workers on the other. Stemming from the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 1900s, it was great for the Industrial Revolution. In today’s world, it simply stifles creativity and limits flexibility.
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Don’t be fooled by the term servant and imagine that it’s in any way weak. Some of the best, and toughest, leaders are servant-leaders.
Teach servant-leadership, practise it in every conversation you have and don’t tolerate anything else.
We say no to structured change management
Large, complex change isn’t predictable and doesn’t flourish within a structured framework.
When we encounter complex change, our human inclination is to try to control it. We are asked to predict the unpredictable and so we create artificial constructs around the change. We develop detailed project plans, funding mechanisms, approval gates. We feel reassured when we tick off a task on our project plan, showing the transformation is now 56% complete – even though we haven’t delivered any value yet and nobody believes in the change.
All these structure and controls stifle our creativity, flexibility and problem solving. The very things we need to deliver the change successfully.
Instead, we need to use the principles of agility, view change as iterative and collaborative. Create outcome-oriented teams and incentivise them at team level. Test and learn through pilots before we scale. Engage your people. They need to believe in the vision and the journey, they need to feel that they have a valuable contribution to make. Look way beyond your standard governance framework to see the best way to support fast and effective change.
When we are trying to initiate change we are fundamentally trying to change people’s behaviours. We have to tackle this type of change with an emergent approach due to its complexity and unpredictability. Despite the big consultancies peddling their glossy cookie-cutter methodologies, no amount of structure and planning will make behavioural change more likely to happen.
Faux transformation hinders an organisation’s ability to thrive.
Unless you are Amazon moving from books to AWS and genuinely transforming your business, stop creating transformation programmes and instead nurture a culture of continuous improvement.
There is no end goal, organisations of the future need to be constantly in beta mode. They need to learn and adapt quickly to market and customer needs rather than rely on sporadic and frenzied programme led change. This can be tough, but it’s critical for survival.
We have all heard of the proverb ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Let’s adapt this for future businesses –
Transform an organisation and you improve it for a while; teach an organisation to change and you give it a future.
Adrian Stalham and Jacqueline Shakespeare are Partners at Sullivan and Stanley, The Change Society.
Sullivan & Stanley is a change network that solves business problems and helps organisations continually improve.