All posts by Simon Black

The Need for Speed : let’s not assume that change is a slow business

It is easy to slip into thinking that  ‘change’ as a slow and often difficult process. After all, we know that we can become creatures of habit, enjoying the comfort of the familiar. But this is not what defines us. Human beings are creatures that have mastered  (or, at least, have developed) the art of adapting; changing our knowledge, decisions, behaviour, environment, relationships. It is too easy to think that we ‘don’t like change’. This is simply not the case. We are beings that not only adapt to what is around us, but we often actively choose to influence what is around us. After all, it is not uncommon for us to choose to find ways to make things better or different (either for ourselves or, sometimes, others!).

My great-grandfather (who was still around when I was a youngster) was born into the victorian age in the 1880s. He was already a young man when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, yet he lived to experience being a passenger flying in jet airliners and saw the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. His life experiences, work and education had to adapt fairly radically, but I imagine it was a fairly natural process – that’s life.

Organisations can change faster that society as a whole. Perhaps we need to start seeing change in our organisation as a ‘natural’ process, although one which we can actively influence ourselves. We need to see change happen in noticeable timescales; weeks and months not years. If we want people to believe in the changes we want, then they need to be able to see those changes. This implies that changes should move over short timescales rather than at barely-observable ‘glacial’ rates. Herrero (2006) goes further, suggesting that if cultural changes cannot be observed in short timeframes, then something is wrong.

He suggests that we should reject two assumptions:

“Cultural change is a slow and painful long-term affair.”
No -it need not be slow – there is a better way.

“Short-term wins are tactical but they do not usually represent real change.”  Again no – with viral networks, small changes can lead to a big impact.

So, what is the challenge? We need to accelerate change by engaging networks of people in making things happen. In a previous post it was suggested that small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread.

Of course, our blog posts and comments have raised questions about how the position of our leaders influences change. What if leaders don’t want the change? That places the challenge on us to influence them. Influence changes to the way routines are followed and then enable people to see the impact as it evolves.

At a recent staff conference on Service Excellence we included a keynote speech and workshop led by the student union president. This is not revolutionary, but merely having students in the room at a staff development event changes perspectives and establishes new conversations and ways of thinking.

To influence others we need to encourage quick, meaningful changes; not just ticking items off the ‘to do’ list, but adopting new behaviours, new ways of thinking, new habits. These things may appear less tangible, but they do have impact, they don’t need to wait for a sign-off at the next Academic Committe Meeting and they do allow change to happen much quicker.

Remember to read:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.


Don’t be discouraged: keep your eyes wide open

I was recently reminded of Peter Senge’s (1994) work on ‘Systems Thinking’ and change. He observes that often things (including behaviour) appear to “grow worse before it grows better”. He suggests that this happens because we start to see underlying issues more clearly. For us, those issues were previously either unmentionable, unnoticed or just not a priority.

This bubbling up of negativity, challenge and expectation can cause despair – we start seeing the dangers of the iceberg lurking below the waterline. Also, other people might not like the fact that we want to challenge ‘the way things get done around here’. But don’t be discouraged!

This is a measure that things are getting better; formerly ‘undiscussable’ problems have simply risen to the surface – things can now change! As Senge notes, taking things forward might mean that an occasional toe will be stepped upon. But keep experimenting, keep building a better understanding of what is needed and keep seeking solutions to make things better.

More from Peter Senge:

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

Senge, P. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London.



“Resistance is useful”: a new assumption?

If we want to see change happen, and for it to occur in a meaningful, timely and impactful manner, we need to see any resistance that we encounter in a different light. Rather than considering resistance an unhelpful roadblock to change, we should perhaps see it (at risk of supplying any more old clichés) as both an opportunity and an indicator of progress. The opportunity is that resistance opens a door to new dialogue with others. As an indicator, resistance shows us that people are noticing what we are doing.

As Herrero (2006) points out, the assertion that “People are resistant to change” is untrue. The reality is that people are resistant to change if nothing in terms of what managers expect from them changes. Extending that notion, Seddon (2005) suggests that the reason people are resistant to change is that they often don’t see its relevance to their work, because the rest of the system – how they are managed, doesn’t change. With the right encouragement these people can identify and discuss the other areas where change might be required – and themselves, with the right support,  start to influence that wider change.

It is too easy to assume that “there will always be casualties – people not accepting change – and you need to identify and deal with them.”   Hererro does not accept this and also suggests that we need to reject the position that “skeptical people and enemies of change need to be sidelined.”

Instead when we manage change, Herrero suggests that greater care is required;

  • don’t assume that people have excluded themselves.
  • expect resistant behaviours to disappear when alternatives are reinforced.
  • give sceptics a bit of slack (they may well have something to contribute).
  • suspend judgement, be willing to be surprised, and don’t write people off too quickly.
Changes in your behaviour will influence others

We should also recognise that discord provides opportunity for debate and the development of new ideas. We always need to examine what these ‘outsiders’ are saying and learn from them what the issues or problems really are. Neither should we expect  “People used to not complying with norms will be even worse at accepting change.”  With viral change, Herrero encourages different routes to establishing new norms and for these approaches, ‘non-normative’ people often make good champions.

This means that anyone involved in change, at whatever level, needs to take on responsibility for getting on with the change, to be seen to do the things we want to see done. We need to be open minded and able to discuss and debate effectively, not quash dissent, but seek opportunities for engaging new ideas.

Rather than challenging the nay-sayers with a dogma that ‘resistance is useless’ perhaps we should have a new perspective that will engage their input: resistance is useful!

Read more…

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Change and work: more misplaced assumptions

Conventional wisdom has tended towards considering change in the context of ‘programmes and projects’. However this approach does not easily lend itself to embedding change into day-to-day work. For example a common misconception is to use ‘training’ as a method to secure change, when other influences need to be addressed first. A second commonly ineffective method is to use ‘communication’ (telling people about the change), but this will have little impact in terms of real change.  Leandro Herrero (2006) recognises this misconception and suggests that the most important focus should be on behaviours. Seddon (2005) emphasises that work behaviour driven is by a change in thinking; how we see what we do and why we do it.

The change of perspective is subtle but important; for example there is the misconception that “New processes and systems will create the new necessary behaviours.”  Herrero (2006) suggests that instead it is new behaviours that are needed FIRST  to support new processes and systems. If you change a system first, people will adapt their behaviour BUT it may not be the behaviour that you want – it will depend on a variety of other factors. If you s=get the thinking right first then the design of improved systems will follow.

This brings us to challenge a third misconception, “People are rational and will react to logical and rational requests for change”; often we are individually and collectively much more complicated. Instead, people’s behavioural changes only happen if they are reinforced; leaders need to walk the talk and be consistent in the way they prioritise, make decisions and use resources in line with the change they expect to see (Seddon 2005).

Part of this is to embed continuous improvement and a culture where change is expected – a normal part of work. This is change with purpose, seeking improvement (rather than change for change’s sake). This contradicts a further misplaced assumption that “After change you need a period of stability and consolidation”  – on the contrary, we need a culture of continuous improvement, involving an on-going dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work and a mentality that makes things happen. Establishing these new behaviours as a routine means that momentum can be maintained.

Change is a balancing act!


Read more on change…

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Highlighting misplaced assumptions: the myth of leadership-driven change

In the past 15-20 years there has been an increasing trend towards viewing leaders as the change agents and transformers of organisations; this view even has its own brand name ‘Transformational Leadership’. Although many of the suggested ‘transformational’ leadership behaviours are well researched, the inevitable catalogues of ‘best practice’ have resulted in the embedding of incorrect assumptions about managing change. Leandro Herrero (2006) is one author who challenges three such misconceptions.

A vision for change need not come solely from leaders

First, Hererro challenges the misconception that:

Only change at the top can ensure change within the organisation”.  Not true

Change at the top is desirable, but it is not always necessary in the first instance. Leaders can be influenced by others and people across the organisation need to realise that their own ideas can make a difference.

A second incorrect assumption is:

“Vision for change needs to come from the top and cascade down”.

Not necessarily and cascades of information and ideas can be slow and ineffective.

Vision may or may not come from the top. More importantly, if people want to implement change, then working through the hierarchy may also NOT be the best method and may even impede progress. There are better ways to devise, test and implement change in a way that will stick and this possibility challenges the final misconception:

Big change requires big actions”.

Big changes in complex organisations can make things worse rather than better.

A big, organisation-wide programme is not necessarily the best method to engage people and make things different.

If we always expect leaders to be the source of change it will put the brakes on progress. Leaders do however have the key role of encouraging people, looking for opportunities and providing an environment where people are not threatened by change, but are encouraged to make a difference. Small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread. If we engage in new ways of thinking and acting we can influence the people around us and engage in the development of the university in a new way.

Read more about these ideas:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Kick out the old assumptions about change

‘Change’ is a hot topic, sometimes exciting and engaging, but all too often an issue which leads to disappointment, frustration, uncertainty; even suspicion, fear and resentment.  Concerns may be raised from the direct impact that changes have on people’s work life, but are also often caused by the way change is implemented or the expectations placed on people during the change.

It is rather easy to copy the received wisdom about change and how it should be ‘done’. However it is sensible to challenge many of our assumptions which, whilst perhaps being well-established and apparently plausible, are actually incorrect (Herrero, 2006). We need to take care; if we follow the wrong assumptions, we are likely to make mistakes.

John MacDonald, a leading management practitioner and writer, who sadly died earlier this month, frequently challenged what he saw as ‘Mindless Change’ – where each new fad leaves “another layer of barnacles that in time encrust the organisation and impede progress”. His observations remain relevant in the current climate of change in Higher Education – how do we avoid the crush of ‘initiative overload’?. MacDonald tells us that organisations need to get back to managing the ‘business,’ organically incorporating only those changes and practices that can actually improve their operations.  For us, this means improving value for students.

We shouldn’t view the university as a management machine that is impervious to anything other than a major overhaul. Instead we should see things as a human system: people, the work that we do, the interactions we have with each other, the physical environment that we create and use. These are the routes to change.

Stephen Covey’s famous ‘7 habits of highly effective people’ calls us to think about how we, as individuals, can influence wider change through our own behaviour and choices.

When we consider change, we need to keep in mind the question:

“why are we doing it like this – is there a better way?”


Some helpful sources of reading relating to this blog include:

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK