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Stop changing the way people work!

It has occurred to me more and more recently that trying to get people to change the way they work is a pointless exercise and pretty hard work really especially if what you are suggesting challenges what they stand for and the very role they have become experts in over a number of years.

In my experience people don’t want to be told that what they do is “wasteful” or “inefficient” because it affects people on an emotional level and that can often make them even more resistant to change. I believe that fundamentally people want to deliver efficient services or do things in an efficient and effective way. I mean why would you do something if you thought you could do it better. We do this all the time in our personal lives. This is the reason I now do digital banking. More efficient use of my time.

Now before anyone shouts at me I am very aware that some people are keen to change and promote change but are often knocked back and then get frustrated in their roles.

However these people actually suffer from the problem I do. Trying to get people to change the way they work.

You might often hear “change is great as long as I don’t have to”. Well the best way to get around this is to adopt an ever so slightly different approach and it is really quite simple. In fact I suspect all of us already know what to do, but like myself get caught up in the culture and structures that support these views.

So what we really want to be doing is:

Change and challenge the way people THINK about their work.

We can not change the problems we have with the same thinking that created them. If we can can encourage people to step out of there daily roles and look at the outputs and outcomes they are directly or indirectly contributing to, you can start to have a better discussion around how best to deliver the service. After all people are often very passionate about the customer and delivering quality for them. This is essentially about looking outside in – a Systems Thinking view really- but it actually gives you the angle that encourages people to question how best to deliver for the customer, instead of focusing on their specific role.

There are of course challenges in facilitating that process and ensuring you look at the big picture around people, process, information and technology but the key for me is actually getting to the point where meaningful conversations about fundamentally transforming the service can be had.

It is often in these conversations that people come up with ways to change their bit of the process, that in itself is one part of the change management task completed as people are more likely to accept change if they can understand and own the change. This can remove some of the uncertainty and lack of understanding around the need to change in the first place plus and don’t underestimate this – it was afterall their idea and not yours.

So if we are really serious about Transformation and Radical Reform across the public sector then we must start giving people opportunities to think differently about their roles and services.

Without getting into a huge list here – how you can do that will depend on local circumstances and the type of service area you are hoping to engage or participate with, but could include:

– Action Learning sessions/programmes – bringing practitioners from different organisations together to review, challenge and “think” differently about service design. This could also be online through the Communities of Practice platform or other social and professional networks
– Art of the possible sessions – practical demonstrations of how services have been delivered elsewhere using technology as an opportunity for change.
– Connecting people for learning and knowledge sharing
– Discussions and conversations with service users themselves.
– A cross organisational group of people to provide peer review and constructive feedback and challenge
– Traditional consultants who are “experts” in service transformation.

There are many other ways you can achieve the above and it doesn’t really matter how you do it, but we must start focusing on the THINKING.

I’d be interested to hear any other ideas you have which have worked and helped contribute to transformational change.

So my challenge is to see how we can do this in Devon. The Enterprise Architecture function I sit within has a unique opportunity to facilitate this process as it is exactly what we are here to do. We just need to get our approach right to be effective. We may need to change our thinking about how we do our job as well.

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Ed Albetski

Yes, my agency is conducting a series of “focus group” meetings discussing various processes used in our work. As you say the key is getting the folks who have to change (the stakeholders) involved in the process of determining the change. If they buy into the idea, and feel that the result is in some degree coming from them, they will be far more willing to carry it through. Bringing in contractors from outside to assess the operation and suggest changes is the worst path to take. Heels will be dug in there and productive folks may even leave over the fuss. This is more psychology than business theory really.

Carl Haggerty

Thanks for your comment.

I totally agree and anyone involved in Change must understand the psychology of it to be better placed to support it.

Joe Flood

True. People must have a stake in the change and believe that it’s going to make their jobs better. For example, you may believe that you have the perfect technological solution to a problem in your organization. But employees will resist because you’re causing disruption to their lives. To succeed, you have to sell them on the change and get their buy-in. You have to show what’s in it for them, as if you’re selling them a new car. Otherwise, people tend to resist even well-meaning directives and orders.

Marie Crandell

Hi there Carl, writing from Plymouth, Devon :), one of the most difficult things about being in change management, as you are, is to not get set in YOUR ways of working beacuse your mind is so full of assisting other people to change their ways of working! Constant appraisal and taking the PRINCE2 approach of learning from self and others, present and past, helps. However, a couple things I think are fundamental to the success of change within an organisation, especially a large one, are
– don;t ever ever see change as a project, or a process. It doesn’t get switched on or off. It’s like the stars – always there, even if you can’t see them.
– in your communications and actions invite others to tell you how they can do their jobs better, encourage them to facilitate the change. Hopefully they will think that you did nothing and they came up with all the ideas, made all the suggestions etc. one of which will probably be to get rid of your team as you don’t do anything 🙂 However, this means kudos to you as they did not notice how you lead and steered them through the change from inefficient to efficient, costly to VFM, one star to best practice.
– place large whiteboards anywhere common, e.g. by the coffee machine, and invite people to write any comment/idea there, e.g. why do we keep running out of toner? Why doesn’t the swimming pool make more money, it seems very busy? Others can add, comment, etc., and before you know it you have a free flowing conversation, a pocketful of perceptions, that are probably also in the minds of our customers too (except the toner!) Encourage your partners to do the same, and collate them – how many overlap or influence each other? Now write yours on their boards, and vice versa. Kinda like SocMed without someone telling you it’s a security hazard 🙂

I like to think that change within organisations will become easier as a result of technology and social media. Not just because of the speed and ease of communication they bring (if we are allowed to use them in Gov of course!), but also from the openness, the connections, the free-form discussions, the barcamps and the collaborative mashups that fascinate us enough to drop our egos, our inhibitions, and the habits we heavily wrap ourselves up in to get in there and mix it up and create something – ideas without borders – that you don’t have to get someone’s permission for or to put your hand up in order to give your idea and to contribute to a project. One of the weird things I have noticed about getting a group of people together around a table is how many of them feel that have to say something clever, and never, ‘I don’t know’. Less structured, more informal meeting spaces and communication methods I feel enable a more natural conversational flow which gives rise to more creative ideas and solutions. I hope my comments have helped you. I am doing some process change work next month, and your thoughts will certainly help me. (Hey Cyd! was that my cheese?)

Pat Rupert

Marie really hit it on the head with “…invite others…”. Change is possible by force, but as you noted, very difficult and tiring.
As a facilitator, the best you can do is bringing the infrastructure and the verbal & facilitation skills to allow those, with a desire to change, to see where change is best accomplished.
The enabling is not something you can bring. That must occur inside the group seeking change.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed seeing over the last few years is; if you can instill the idea that being inside a process continuously undergoing change, real change, by the people who really know what is going on, becomes the norm and can (& does) occur at any time. Put the pieces in place that allow rapid change (beware codification), then change becomes easier and easier as a group matures.

Barry Camson


Your idea about thinking as a precursor to change is an important one. The consulting methodology known as Appreciate Inquiry which in turn is based on Social Constructionism takes this approach. In essence, the message is that we can construct our own realities by how we think about things. The methodology takes an organization on the path from collective thinking to action. I have found my time learning about and using these approaches quite fascinating. Barry