Friday, 20 January 2012

Carrots, Sticks and Obama. A Knowledge Managers Perspective on Change Management

Sincere apologies for this unfashionably late update. The topic is change and I’ve been going through some myself that have affected my decision to post any further updates until now. Changes in my work, changes in my thought-process and even changes in my trouser size (too much information perhaps).

Change can appear to be such a powerful verb. By asserting that 'things needs to change' or 'we’re going to change', there seems to be an acceptance that an event/s need to improve. That the old way was wrong and the new way will be better. With this come feelings of excitement, anticipation, fear, but perhaps greatest of all hope. Of course both “Change” and “Hope” were popular slogans for Barrack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, both of which he arguably hasn't delivered on. At the next elections the voters will of course decide. 

Back on topic, this post is about change and specifically the topic of ‘change management’. I still remember as a PhD Student brazenly telling a local Council’s Performance Management Officer that the reason for the slow adoption of a recently introduced information repository was the result of a ‘change management’ issue. His frantic scribbling of notes hinted at the potency of this term. It’s a good job the Council bods didn’t have enough funds to sponsor me in the end. Beyond blurting out that impressive sounding statement, I didn't have much of an approach at that time in my KM journey.

So I’ll start by attempting to explain what my understanding of change management is and why I feel it is so significant to the area of KM and management in general.

I once heard change and knowledge management being described as ‘bedfellows’. This is despite there not appearing to be a united definition for either. Cue Wikipedia: who at the time of writing this blog define change management as “a structured approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and organisations from a current state to a desired future state. It is an organizational process aimed at helping employees to accept and embrace changes in their current business environment

They also describe it using a separate paradigm. From a project management perspective it is considered “a process where changes to a project are formally introduced and approved

A clear dichotomy between the two terms, however it is the first definition that sits closer to my heart and also the one this blog post will talk about.

So how exactly does change management relate to knowledge management? I agree with Tom Young of Knoco’s view. Introducing KM in an organisation should be treated as a change management project. Unless you’re dealing with a start-up where KM can be embedded from the very beginning into daily work routines, you’re likely to encounter some degree of resistance to any new implementation, including something as crucial as KM. Tom goes on to say that two of the most important aspects to achieve this are Communication and Stakeholder Management (more of this later).

So we have a description of change management and its relation to knowledge management, but it still doesn’t address the need for organisations to take it seriously, irrespective of change being an important factor in the success of knowledge management adoption or not.

An article I came across by Lawrence Polsky provided the killer statistic. 50-70% of new initiatives fail as a result of ignoring change dangers. Issues, such as communication, change resistance and a lack of urgency. A lack of urgency especially was something that Lawrence went into more detail on when we spoke. He asked me how I’d react to being asked to get up at 2 a.m., wake my family, go outside immediately and cross the street. The answer would be… well I’ll leave any profanities out, but essentially ‘no’. As Lawrence mentioned, it’s really inconvenient and I’d get nothing out of it – exactly how 99% of employees might feel when encountering organisational change that was being imposed on them. He then asked me what I’d do this if my house was on fire? Like 100% of people, I would say yes.

I continue to talk with Lawrence on a range of change management issues, but his analogy really got me thinking. For KM to succeed, you have to find that 'burning house'. Although Lawrence didn’t suggest this by any means, was fear the answer? It’s one I’ve heard more than one KM practitioner imply as a strong-arm tactic. How an employees future in an organisation should be limited if they didn't share their knowledge and their ‘reward’ for knowledge sharing would be simple, they’d keep their job. Not that I'm saying rewarding knowledge via incentives is a good idea either. David Gurteen explains the pitfalls of rewarding and setting targets for knowledge and Dan Pinks phenomenal talk at TED on motivation had me convinced that this was the wrong path to go down too.

From a basic, empathetic perspective, it doesn’t seem right to relate non-compliance to having a direct effect on someone’s livelihood either. Perhaps this is the reason why people perform tasks (including disseminating their knowledge) without any real passion or pride or more detrimentally end up leaving an organisation completely. An act that isn’t likely to benefit either party. With this said, certain crucial changes that would affect the livelihood of the company do need to be communicated in such a way, however this really needs to be as a last resort.  

So my first practical task around cultural change was to support the roll out of a new initiative. ‘Carrots and Sticks’ was suggested as a basis at the time. An expression referring to a policy that essentially offers a combination of rewards and punishment to provoke certain behaviour.
I decided to go visit a change manager I met serendipitously a few years ago. He’s a qualified Psychologist who’s always happy to offer some first rate guidance on change related challenges. His room in Manchester is more akin to a stereotypical counsellor’s study and I feel like a patient every time I'm there. I guess good change managers like good counsellors have the ability to listen, if only to become fully aware of every pain-point. He gave me an excellent book to read, “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt, suggested I look at the concepts of Force Field Analysis and Tuckmans Theory and left me with some advice. That “Carrots and Sticks” is a horrid Management term used to manipulate people into a win-lose scenario. True change management is about reaching win-win and this is the only way it will truly succeed. The significance of this instruction hadn’t really sunk at the time.

I attended an inspiring course by Impact Factory earlier this year. The firm provides change management services to a range of clients including the likes of BP and Deloitte. Personally I feel their most impressive success story was developing a change programme for Gala Bingo. For anyone not familiar with Bingo, it’s a card marking pastime in the U.K with points awarded for completing a ‘full house’. With approximately 5 million bingo members, Gala’s management were wise to think ahead of issues that could affect the playing environment of these valued customers, as a result of the Smoking Ban that was coming into effect in the United Kingdom. Everyone in every club, from Operations and General Managers to ‘on the ground’ staff members (who you could argue know the club better than anyone) went through a version of their programme. Impact Factory’s approach didn’t just focus on the implications of the smoking ban, but also on how to help people grapple with the issue of imposed change, an approach that can create “divisive or difficult behaviour, negativity and feelings of impotence” as they described it.   

During the course, several discussions about the challenges we were facing were brought up and I mentioned the role of urgency. I asked if a little fear was a good thing. That little bit of fear to make you cross the road quicker to prevent getting run over. Or to make sure that you do get to work on time, because somebody might just decide that your poor time keeping was a reason to let you go. One presenter suggested that such an approach would work with her, but not universally – different people require different tact. It dawned on me then that the urgency associated with the burning house Lawrence was referring to doesn’t have to be a scare tactic at all. Employee motivation and engagement can be communicated without any negative connotations and it will be a much more powerful approach as a result.

So in the end I left the course with some closure and something that has gone to form my current view of change management. There isn’t actually a set way of approaching it. So I’m sorry to disappoint anyone reading this, including knowledge workers hoping to find a solution for their own ‘burning house’. I simply can’t endorse an omni-applicable solution. Even if I did, one blog post would hardly be able to encapsulate the many facets of change management. Like knowledge management, it’s a huge topic, with many approaches and I’ve found the road can get very rocky when trying to address either of them.

You may not have the luxury of dedicated change management departments like the Accenture's of this world. Or the crucial support of senior management, if they choose to ignore how important it is to the success and many times the very survival of an organisation.
As a lone crusader you can still make a difference. My change manager friend told me that when he asked about going into the field he was told simply not to. That he’d be continually going upstream, find it frustrating, confusing and lonely at times. Not too dissimilar to how we knowledge workers can feel. 

Except we do what we do because we believe in it and that belief can go a long way. As a starting point then, change management, like KM needs to be taken very seriously and in many cases tried, tried and tried again.

I’ll no-doubt continue to see companies spending like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions on IT solutions, including knowledge management technologies, without taking the requirement for change management seriously or at all. Like politicians, senior management support can have a habit of communicating one message outwardly and a different agenda altogether internally. A good starting point is surely to be sincere about change and not attempt it half-baked. Lay down the good and the bad and if you’re not willing to embrace it yourself, then what’s the likelihood of your employees playing ball?
By merely providing tool support and believing that something user-friendly and glitzy or making change the responsibility of one person in an organisation without the appropriate firepower, or worse still try to force changeyou’re really just delaying the inevitable, not avoiding it.

So I’ll end by steering away from blame and offering some solutions instead. Here are some insights I have picked up from research, talking to people and my own thoughts during my journey into change management so far. 

-         Change is achievable and inevitable, but it isn’t easy and it can take time. Communicating change, including knowledge management is easier approaching it person by person, department by department and division by division than an entire organisation at one time.

-          People aren’t stupid and disrespect breeds disrespect. Good leaders are at least testament to the fact that being sincere and empathetic with your stakeholders is the best way to achieve a win-win.

-          Communicating the benefits of change effectively will in the majority of circumstances be more successful than any strong-arm tactic. Change shouldn’t be addressed with fear – unless it is a very real and last resort. Positive urgency on the other hand can be a very worthwhile method.

-          If your organisation hasn’t already, urge Senior Management to take this discipline seriously. Any change initiative will be far more likely to succeed with their support, especially if they not only endorse it, but live it too

-          Practical tips for implementing change is a huge area to cover. However, Lawrence Polsky from People NRG has created some brilliant potted guides. I also like the A.R.M.E.D approach. Get their Attention. Make it Relevant. Give a clear central Message. Give an Example. Say what you want them to Do. Change often needs to be articulated clearly and succinctly in order to deliver a powerful yet concise message.

-          Do look at academic theories of Change Management. I support Dan Pinks aphorism, “science knows what business doesn’t” However, no amount of mastery of these theories will work if understanding, engaging and empathising with people isn’t addressed effectively.

-          Along with ‘Blue-Sky thinking’ and ‘lighting a fire under someone’ confine the term ‘Carrots and Sticks’ to the business jargon bin. If you’re reading this Dr Harrison, then I agree with you completely now. It really does sound like an insensitive, tacky and uninspiring business approach.


-         A Knowledge CafĂ© about the topic of change will be held in the Manchester area on February 6th 2012. More details HERE