Aspirations are not enough…

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

In my most recent blog I discussed the ambitious vision, purpose and values that those in the Social Sciences Change Academy are working to exemplify, individually and collectively.

But are aspirations sufficient? Of course not. Ideas make us feel good only for the amount of time we are in a room talking about them or only for the amount of time it takes to share an email with yet another good idea.

We could…we should…why don’t we?…

That is not to say we shouldn’t share good ideas. The last thing we should do is stop the flow of creativity that can lead to positive changes. But whose responsibility is it to implement these good ideas? Who are the “we” that we so often reference?

I have written quite a lot about self awareness and personal responsibility in these blogs. I firmly believe that what each of us does is key to our collective success. There is a common expression that there is no “I” in team (in English at least), but every action within every team’s plan needs an “I” to make it happen.

If I have an idea for something that should happen or change it is my responsibility to take the next step to try and make it so.

If it is in an area within my range of responsibility to make happen then ‘the buck stops with me.’ If it is a simple thing I can do on my own then I should just get on with it. If it is more than a one person job and I have people within my immediate frame of reference that I can galvanise, then I need to determine how to get these people on board to agree and to support putting the idea into action.

If my idea is one that is beyond the scope of what I can personally do anything about to make happen but I truly believe in it, I still need to find a way to influence people who can then decide to make it happen.

If it is an idea I really care about, I must not give up.

But successful implementation is one of the most difficult parts of change and a significant reason why change efforts so often fail. So what do we need to do? Here are some simple questions to ask ourselves

What is the outcome I/we want to achieve? (vision)

Why should I/we do it? (purpose and values)

How should I/we go about achieving it?  (implementation plan)

And on the implementation plan…for the team this must include: what will happen, when it will happen, and who will take responsibility to make it happen. The implementation process for each person within the team is the same:  what I will do, when I will do it, and my commitment made real by reliably delivering on what I have promised.

How should I/we track progress? (project management)

How will I/we know if we have succeeded? (evaluation/reflection/adjustment)

So how do we turn aspiration to implementation? It is up to me… It is up to us.



Why the long wait? A ‘tour’ of competence

Winning ‘le Tour’ starts with the first wobble

It has been encouraging to see some positive action coming through this summer with new people being engaged in change activities. In our experience this year the Change Academy team has noticed that, on occasion, things have moved more slowly than expected in our first year. Is this normal?

We should be encouraged to hear that experienced practitioners often see that change efforts go through a ‘lull’. This appears to be caused by a typical learning curve experienced by people going through organisational transformation (Scholtes 1998). This can be attributed to the steps made by people experiencing the change.

If we challenge ourselves with new concepts, we are faced with the question – how do we do this? We move from a state of ‘unconscious incompetence’ (we didn’t know that we didn’t know) into ‘conscious incompetence’ (now we KNOW that we don’t know). It’s like learning to ride a bike; until we sit on it and make our first push forwards (and start wobbling, panicking and falling) we don’t really understand that we don’t know how to do it. With new experience and insight, now we truly KNOW that we don’t know how to ride! That experience leads us to consciously learn more: to balance and shift our weight, to steer (but not over-steer!), to pedal left and right.

Steps to competence – (Adapted from Drejer, 2000)


At that point it appears that people can sit in a lull, where we mull over how to put the new concepts, ideas and learning  into action. Scholtes suggests this lull can take a year.


Deming is more frank:

 “It does not happen
all at once.
There is no instant pudding.”

However, once people have got their heads in gear (I know, another cycling analogy) thereafter they are able, with conscious effort, to apply the new thinking in their work. Over time, with continued effort, this new level of competence becomes unconscious – a habit. As long as we keep our eyes open and purposeful in our efforts, we will not slip into complacency. Instead our proficiency will progress into expertise and we can look for other challenges.

More reading:

Drejer, A. (2000),”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220

Scholtes, P. (1998), The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New Yok: McGraw-Hill.

Keep managing change – but deal with the issues

It is important to focus on relevant priorities when navigating through change. Few things are more irritating to people than being forced to implement changes which don’t deal with the issues. Consider the things that might really occupy people’s minds;

* what does it mean for me?

*are my ideas being heard?

* will things be better?

*will work be more effective?

*do we agree that these are priorities?

* will new costs replace the old ‘bad’ ones?

*will users’ complaints be addressed?

*will changes add any real value?

*will this just create more layers of ‘work’?

If we ignore obvious issues we risk establishing a norm where honesty is avoided in conversations. This leads to people wrongly assuming that honesty should be traded-off against ‘support for change’ such that people fall into ‘towing the party line’.  Unfortunately, over time, a lack of openness undermines trust. More fundamentally, there are more immediate operational effects, since filtered discussions block learning and improvement. Previously we have pointed out that (quoting Basil Fawlty) the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ can be unhelpful. This is true if noticing the obvious is not followed by thinking about the issues- seeking symptoms not causes.

It would be more helpful to stop ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’; we should stop pressing on regardless or merely  ‘just doing our best’ in the face of genuine difficulties. Nevertheless, it does take effort to change; we need new types of knowledge and skills. People need to establish new ways of thinking and working, to share ideas, to identify and test recommendations, to communicate those ideas and implement relevant action. The good news is that all of these things can be learned.

There are also some useful ways to analyse problems which help to identify priorities, such as 80/20 thinking (see Barratt and Coppin 2002), which Joe Juran was the first to identify as a “universal principle” applicable to many fields; focus on the ‘vital few’ rather than the ‘trivial many’. It is helpful to be ready to seek knowledge (and get some hard data) before plunging headlong into well-intentioned but mis-directed effort.

Read more:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY




One small group, one set of values, one ambitious purpose and vision…

By Cindy Vallance (@cdvallance)

Last week’s blog focused on the importance of values. But some wonder, wouldn’t they be pretty much the same for any organisation? The reality is that the subtleties count.

For instance, compare these: The UK army’s values are: courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment whereas the 2012 Olympic/Paralympic values are respect, excellence, friendship, courage, determination, inspiration, and equality. Yes there are some similarities (courage, respect), but some real differences too in the words as well as the intent behind the words. For instance, courage in the sports arena undoubtedly looks quite different from courage on the battlefield. However, both of these organisations have determined that choosing these values to inform their actions is useful. Many organisations today share this view.

To bring values closer to home, how can we make these real at the University of Kent? Well, here is one example. Back when the Social Sciences Change Academy group first gathered in September 2011, we decided at a grassroots level some values that were important to us – in fact, so many values we had difficulty remembering them all (after all, 11 values is a lot and we even added a 12th – learning – based on our collective experiences this past year).

LESSON 1 – most people can likely remember no more than seven key words; five or six values are much more manageable than twelve.

And how did we get from twelve values to our final five? It was quite simple really. Firstly, we refined our existing purpose and vision through a lively discussion with everyone taking part and working to ensure we didn’t get too precious about who came up with which idea. We ended up with some refinements to our working statements created this past year.

Our Purpose

To encourage a stronger community of learning through collaboration between students, academic staff and professional services staff.

Our Vision

We will be stronger by working together through times of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We will inspire creative partnerships that deliver positive organisational change.

LESSON 2 – leaving egos at the door to allow for an open discussion is critical in obtaining consensus on purpose and vision.

Finally, with our purpose and vision in mind, we individually voted on our top 5 from the 12 values we had developed. We used post-it-notes to write these down, and then posted them up on the wall. We then counted them up and took stock. We found there was some repetition with wording when we considered values compared to our purpose and vision and after some further discussion, ended up with the following five values.






It is our goal to exemplify these values, both in our day-to-day behaviours as well as how we approach activities within the Social Sciences Change Academy initiative and with regular check ins against our purpose and vision.

LESSON 3 – take the time to set strong foundations and then use this as the basis to develop something the group believes in and can be proud of.

What kind of environment might we build if we all did our best to live these values at the University of Kent?


What does ‘good’ look like?

Usain Bolt didn’t fit the ‘norm’ for championship sprinters, but his performances redefined ‘what good looks like’

Early in my career I was fortunate enough to work with some very good change experts who introduced me to some very useful ideas which have proven to be very enduring.

One perspective was to understand ‘what good looks like’. Although essentially straightforward, this is not about the obvious. In the world of work, what ‘good looks like’ is about how ‘good’ actually works. Good is good because it is effective (not because it is trendy or fits current norms).

Look beyond the outward signs of ‘good practice’ (i.e. methods) and seek the inward signs: symptoms versus causes, stability and control versus instability and chaos,  integrity versus game playing and politicking.

The best change leaders engage people’s attitudes and mindsets before discussing methods; they are able to engage with feelings and emotions. Human beings are emotional entities and, to put it bluntly, we don’t behave rationally. This happens because we process logic through the intricate filters of emotion and experience. If we ignore emotions of working people, we are unlikely to get their support. Charles Jacobs (2009) suggests that we engage people with the story of change, not merely the logical argument. Why? “Because people are more likely to change when the motivation comes from within, and when we ask rather than tell” (Jacobs 2009).

We need to emotionally own and engage with the change on our own account. As Coppin and Barret (2002) put it, “whether we believe we can  or we can’t, we’re right” – we need people who choose to make change happen. They remind us of the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“People who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Or to paraphrase Ghandi: “…be the change you want to see in the world.”

Read more here:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, Penguin Group Portfolio, NY

Consistent thinking and values – the key to integrity

People may differ in look, make-up and role, but can still share a few, common, underlying values that last.

There is a growing discussion in our institution about the ‘values’ and the principles which we should use to run the organisation, make decisions and design the future. Few people would argue that ‘values’ are irrelevant – even politicians dare to refer to them when there is a moral outrage or a disclosure of unethical behaviour.

However as Edgar Schein (the man credited with inventing the term ‘corporate culture’) noted back in the 1980s, what an organisation says are its values are not necessarily the same as its ACTUAL values. This makes sense because in reality, organisations don’t have values – it is the people within them that carry and interpret values, on an individual or collective basis (probably both).

Actual values are represented in rules, policies, conversations and behaviours (including our decisions to ignore or break rules); these are the things which are followed by people on a day-to-day basis. Values may be stated or unstated, but because they guide the way people think and work, it is the actual, enacted values which most accurately describe the culture of the organisation (rather than the common wish-lists included on posters or corporate websites).

One challenge is to understand what those actual values are and then to decide if any need changing. The consistency and integrity of stated and actual values is not just a conversation topic; it has impact on performance and results. If we say we value innovation, then that must be reflected in the innovative way we work, the innovative services or products we offer and the innovative skills and mindsets of people that are recruited, retained, developed and promoted.

However, if an organisation claims to be innovative (or ‘encourages innovation’), yet has rules, sets budgets or makes decisions which are constructed such that they prevent or discourage people from innovating, it is clear that:

i) innovation is not a meaningful value at all.

ii) staff will be demotivated; a lack of integrity in ‘values’ creates cynicism and undermines trust.

iii) mismatches between ‘what we say’ and ‘what we do’ de-stabilises people, decisions and work.

To make matters worse, it is likely that points i, ii and iii combine, discouraging otherwise innovative staff even further, thereby making the organisation even LESS innovative than might have been the case had ‘innovation’ never been promoted in the first place.

This is why it can be so damaging if values and vision are addressed, discussed and promoted by an organisation without the full and consuming understanding and commitment of the leaders who wish to see them implemented. It can never be  a paper exercise, because the negative the consequences are real.

So if we are going to talk values in our organisation, we need to do this with integrity and care – based on very clear thinking. If our thinking is muddled, our message will appear confused. Confusion runs the risk that our value system will be considered either unauthentic or ill thought-out; either of which reduces the credibility of what we say.

This presents several challenges. How do we make sure that the values we espouse are internally consistent (with each other) and how are the same values externally validated through our own behaviour (and shown to be authentic)? This might seem to be a significant challenge, but there is a silver lining:

If we see inconsistencies in values and behaviour that others see, by changing our behaviour and creating helpful, meaningful consistency, we will show that we are serious and this will influence other people, accelerating the change.

By working hard to fall behind clear values, and re-set the rules, policies, conversations and behaviours in the institution, leaders can have a big impact on culture. Some organisations have been transformed this way in relatively short periods of time.

Leaders need to develop a good ‘cultural radar’ and be aware of how people’s behaviours match (or do not match) the desired values of the organisation – and be ready to challenge where necessary.

With the correct thinking it is possible for Leaders to develop conversations with everyone about shared values. These conversations can occur in any meeting, or at set-piece events such as a ‘management forum’, a strategic presentation, a new-employee induction event, or at an all-employee ‘town hall’ gathering). Conversations should enable constructive challenge concerning how things work now and what might be an agenda for change. The change agenda should be set at a practical level, addressing aspects of service delivery, budget setting, recruitment and promotion, for example.

Everybody should be expected to maintain integrity in the way that they operate against the communicated values. This includes being courageous enough to challenge inconsistencies when they become apparent and having a healthy and supportive debate when new or unexpected issues arise to challenge our previous assumptions.

Integrity starts with ourselves, then flows out to others with whom we work; it builds trust.


Read more on Organisational Culture:

Schein E. (2004) Organizational Culture and Leadership, John Wiley and Sons, NY