Managment accountability

A significant challenge for any large business improvement program is how to enlist the senior stakeholder community into the change program and keep them engaged. Senior stakeholders can be relied on to show an interest in the change program when it starts, but their interest will often fade as “business as usual” issues dominate the day-to-day operations.

Then, as the business improvement program progresses, the change team becomes mired in the detail and withdraws into their own world. They spend their time looking at data, completing risk reviews, agreeing the way forward, mapping processes, and preparing papers that will describe the desired outcome. The longer this goes on, the more introspective the change program becomes and the less the senior stakeholders are engaged by the change program.

The seasoned change agent knows that change is not sustainable without tangible support from senior stakeholders, and that getting the senior managers to change their daily routines, habits, and behaviours is very difficult. And it becomes more impossible the longer their behaviour is left unchallenged. The reason it goes unchallenged is that the change team believes that until they have worked through the detail, they don’t have anything meaningful to say, and they don’t want to waste the senior managers’ time.

The problem is that the senior managers run the company, not the change program. It is important that they stay engaged. But if the change agent is going to engage the senior managers, then they need to be able to frame the conversation and have an agenda.

When it comes to change, there is no better agenda than talking to managers about what they are or aren’t accountable for. If you can’t get a manager to agree on their own accountability, then you can be sure that the outcomes of the business improvement program will be less than optimal.

There are many models that support a conversation on accountability. The most common is the R.A.C.I. (RACI) model. It is a simple model, but the practical application of this model is beset with problems, the biggest of which is the question of what the acronym actually stands for.

The generally accepted definition is that it refers to: Responsible, Accountable, Contributor (or Consulted), and Informed.

This definition is misleading. The “A” cannot stand for Accountable as all four dimensions have accountability. A manager is accountable for being informed or contributing. It is not the job of the change agent or process performer to inform management. It’s management’s job to ensure that they are informed. The business holds them accountable to be informed. How can you manage if you are uninformed?

In the same sense, managers are accountable for approving a process outcome. This means they need to know what the outcome should be, what control points they should have considered, and what delegations of authority might apply. If the manager plays an active role in the process, then they are accountable for being responsible for doing their part of the process properly.

In terms of a business improvement program, when the change team approaches a manager designated as a Contributor for comment, that manager is accountable for making time and providing a well-thought-out contribution to the discussion.

Apart from the confusion arising from the fact that all four variables have accountability, there is a second misunderstanding about the RACI model, namely that it only applies within a business process.

Consider the graphic below. When RACI is applied within a process then it can be argued that the Supervisor approves the process outcomes, Role 1 is responsible for Steps 1 and 2, Role 2 contributes to Step 1 and Role 3 is informed by Role 2.

Slide-3

While it is acceptable to use the RACI model within a business process, it is equally acceptable to apply it to, or on, a business process. The difference between the two applications is significant and it makes a material difference in how each term is defined.

When applied to a process, RACI is used to define the architectural elements of the process rather than the transactional accountability within a process.

Consider the following scenario.

The managing director walks out of his office after losing a major tender. He turns to the sales director and asks, “Who designed the tender process? Who in their right mind thought that process would be suitable for us to win a tender?”

What he has not asked is, “Who filled in the tender response form? Who participated in the tender process?” Doing that would be to question the transactional aspects of the process. Rather his focus is on determining who the architect of the process was. Who designed the process, who approved it, and who can he hold accountable to ensure the process weakness is resolved and that the next tender is more successful?

Applying RACI on the process changes the definition of the terms as follows.

Responsible – accountable for designing the process.

Contribute – accountable for working with the Responsible person to design a process that was fit for purpose.

Informed – accountable for understanding how the new process works and how it impacts the informed manager’s work environment.

Approve – accountable for signing off that the process is fit for purpose. That when it is followed, it will deliver optimal outcomes. This role owns that process.

In essence, the managing director is asking his team, “To what extent did you apply yourselves as senior managers to ensuring the process your staff were following, was fit for purpose?”

Using these definitions of RACI means that the supervisor (who was previously the Approver) now may become an informed party only and the manager’s manager will approve the process.

Slide-4

The supervisor’s manager is more likely to be Responsible as the architect of the process. While the manager is Responsible for designing the process, it does not mean that they will necessarily do the work. Possibly they will delegate it back to the supervisor, but in this case, delegating the task does not equal delegating the accountability.

The two scenarios, in the process versus on the process, illustrate that depending on how RACI is applied, it will deliver very different levels of management accountability and they could be at opposite ends of the management spectrum. Supervisor vs. manager’s manager. Using the single term “Approve” for both situations is going to confuse the organisation and it raises the question: does the organisation want its processes approved by supervisors? It is reasonable to expect that this would not be the case.

The complexity between the two applications of RACI is increased when you consider that it is common for process flows to be modelled against roles and not positions. One position can play many roles. So when RACI is used in a process, it does not necessarily give accountability to a specific position. Rather, any position that happens be performing that role in that instance of the process becomes accountable. The burden this places on the organisation is significant. Just consider the training needs. Then there is the problem of process flows with process steps straddling the line of responsibility or swim lanes and the issue of mixing roles and positions in process flows. These issues make defining accountability in the process level very confusing.

When RACI is applied on the process, it is applied to positions not roles thereby mitigating the above issue.

The difficulty of working with RACI is exponentially increased when applied to a matrix management organisation. Simplistically, matrix organisations can be broken down into service functions such as Human Resources, IT, Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment, Legal, and Finance, and the do work functions such as Operations, Work Winning, Logistics, Maintenance and Repair, and Customer Service. The service function will define the processes for the do work functions to use. A good example is the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment function.

Slide-5

The processes defined by the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment function are used on the shop floor by the do work teams. This means that the quality function is accountable for defining and approving quality management processes that will be used by a completely different function. The RACI model just doesn’t cater for this level of sophistication. When you try and use it across the multiple silos of a matrix organisation it quickly becomes apparent that it just does not have enough variables to account for the organisational complexity and what is required is a different model for defining management accountability.

The best alternate model I have seen is the Linear Responsibility Matrix (LRM) methodology by Anthony Walker.

It is not my intention to repeat Anthony Walker’s methodology here. What follows is my own interpretation of his methodology. I claim no rights to the methodology and I acknowledge Mr. Walker’s ownership of the underlying intellectual property.

My interpretation of the LRM recognises ten functions with accountability. The original methodology had eleven.

  • Responsible
    • Accountable for defining the process flow and associated artefacts.
  1. Approve
    • Accountable for signing off the process flow and associated artefacts.
  1. Contribute
    • Accountable for working with the Responsible person and helping design the process.
  1. Informed
    • Accountable for being informed on how the process works and the requirements of any artefacts associated with the process.
  1. General Oversight
    • Accountable for ensuring the process architecture is appropriate and fit for purpose.
  1. Direct Oversight
    • Accountable for guiding the Responsible person.
  1. Recommendation
    • Accountable for reviewing the process and ensuring it is fit for purpose. Once satisfied, this role endorses the process for final approval by the approver.
  1. Monitor
    • Accountable for ensuring each instance of the process works as designed in the day-to-day environment.
  1. Maintenance
    • Accountable for ensuring the process is being used as designed. It is quality control.
  1. Boundary
    • Accountable for addressing areas of overlap in scope.

The word “process” in these definitions refers to the process appropriate to the level of management. At the senior level, it is the various value chains: Budget to Report, Contract to Cash, Procure to Pay, Hire to Retire etc. At the lower levels, the process is the transactional flow of a specific sequence of work. For senior management, the word “process” in the definitions can be substituted with specific items such as Policy or broader concepts such as the Governance Model for the organisation or a function.

This methodology is particularly powerful when working with matrix management organisations and the single biggest point to embrace is that the LRM is always on the process. It is never in the process.

In a matrix model, when it comes to defining the operating model for the service functions, the ten accountabilities can be loosely split between the service functions and the do work functions. On a per instance basis, this allocation could change.

Slide-6

What this means is that the change program cannot work with each function in isolation of the other functions and importantly, the other functions do not have leeway to say, “Not my job.” Rather the change agent should be establishing cross-functional teams based on the above separation of accountability to drive the change program and ensure the organisation gets a result that is sustainable and agreed.

Having ten functions with accountability gives the change agent a much wider scope for discussing the accountability of each and why senior management have no option but to become further involved in the business improvement program. You will note the first four functions with accountability largely correspond to RACI when RACI is applied on the process.

A senior manager would readily admit that when it comes to their function, the buck stops with them, but when pushed, it is often the case that these managers cannot easily describe what they are actually accountable for.

The ambiguity is because the names of functional areas (e.g. Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment), do not include verbs. Without a verb, defining the deliverable becomes very difficult. And if you can’t describe the verb at the parent level, then defining the verb for the children and grandchildren levels becomes very difficult.

“Well, if you do that, then what do I do?”

I am not suggesting that the names of functional areas are rewritten to include verbs. Rather, for the purpose of defining management accountability, the verb is inferred. By agreeing the verb, you can agree the deliverable, and only then can you agree the management accountabilities.

For the function Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment consider the difference between the following two verb/deliverable combinations:

Slide-8

It is accepted that the verb/deliverable combinations are not necessarily mutually exclusive and there is natural overlap between them. The verb sets up the focus for the function and will directly impact the way the function sees its role in the organisation and the culture that is established within the function.

The table can now be extended to bring in management accountability. Note how the accountability changes depending on the deliverable being sought.

Slide-9

When the verb is to monitor the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment function, then the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment manager cannot approve the deliverable as this would be a conflict of interest. In this case, using the reporting lines in the organisation chart above, only the CEO can approve that the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment governance model is working effectively. At the senior levels, the do work manager will be watching proceedings to ensure the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment governance model does not become an unnecessarily large administrative burden on the day-to-day operations of the business.

But if the verb was to deliver Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment, then the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment manager could approve that the function was working as designed. This is because the deliverable has an operational focus and the senior Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment manager is expected to be the approver. It’s part of the description of the position. The responsibility for delivering Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment on a day-to-day basis moves to the operations function as this is where the work actually happens.

If the verb was transform, then it is unlikely that the CEO would have the authority to approve the new operating model. This is where the LRM methodology really comes alive, as it brings in positions that sit outside the obvious reporting lines and the function accountability table needs to extend to allow for the additional accountabilities.

Slide-10

For transform, the Board is now accountable for approving the new operating model for Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment. The CEO can only recommend the new model up for approval, but they will not do so unless they know the senior team has been consulted on the design of the new model.

For deliver, the quality manager is accountable for maintaining the integrity of the Quality processes within the organisation. The senior do work manager is responsible for ensuring the do work function are using the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment processes across the entire organisation and, in this example, the country manager is accountable for monitoring that the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment processes are being followed on a daily basis.

For monitor, the CEO is unlikely to approve the governance model unless it is recommended to him for approval by the legal counsel and the country manager. Recommending it for approval implies that they have reviewed it in detail and consider it fit for purpose.

The LRM model is also useful for defining accountabilities within a function.

The following uses the Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment structure referred to above. It has four levels.

Slide-7

The table illustrates how the accountability for Approve and Responsible changes as you move to the lower levels in the organisation.

Slide-11

Each organisational level requires a verb and a deliverable and there should be a natural relationship of deliverables between the organisational levels. It is implied that the accountability of other relevant positions will be included as required.

It is important that Responsible is not delegated below manager level and accountability for Approval is held at the level of manager’s manager or higher.

Organisational level 4 is typically the transactional level in an organisation. This is the level where the business process is operationalised. This requires the supervisor to monitor the process to ensure it is working as defined and correct it as required when the process deviates from design. Maintenance by comparison would be carried out by a representative of the function that designed the process For example, Quality or Safety.

It is not necessary to recognise all ten accountabilities for each function or process as it will make the model overly complex and confusing. Rather, it is easier to work with the implied hierarchy between the accountabilities and use the dominant accountability. For example, there is no need to state that a manager who is recommending a process for approval is also informed. It stands to reason that they would not recommend something they were not informed on. The same applies for consulted and recommend. It is highly unlikely a manager would be asked to recommend a model they had not been consulted on, in the definition phase.

When defining which positions require to be informed, the “less is more” principle is relevant. Sure, everybody needs to know about changes, but these changes will be rolled out through the organisation structure. All that is required is to define which managers must be formally informed of the changes.

What these management accountability models achieve is to cause the business to change itself.

Without this level of accountability, the responsibility of the success of the change program will, in practice, fall back to the change team, allowing management to point fingers and attribute blame for failure. There is no doubt that change will take longer to achieve when management are correctly held to account, but equally, there is no doubt that the benefits will be sustainable and owned by management when they are forced to be actively involved throughout the change journey.

STAKEHOLDER MOTIVATION

I am frequently asked to write on the mechanics of change management, a level of detail I have tried hard to avoid until now. The reason is simple—change management is complex, it is difficult, and it should not be reduced to a series of “cookie cutter” activities. I will never understand why large business improvement programs frequently refuse to pay a decent wage for the change manager’s role. On less than successful programs, it is common to hear statements to the effect of “the change management work stream failed” or “we would have delivered a better program if we had started the change piece earlier” or other words similar in nature. These statements assume that the business improvement program had any change management at all. Frequently, this is not the case.

No doubt, each unsuccessful program would have involved the completion of a stakeholder analysis, the delivery of training, and the publishing of communications. But I doubt all of this was delivered in a cohesive, integrated broadside to the organisation. I use the word “broadside” deliberately. Treating them as activities is why business improvement programs fail to deliver the required changes in organisational behaviour. Activities tend to get completed sequentially and then signed off as complete when delivered. In this case, the business improvement program has at best, a change coordinator. “We have done the stakeholder analysis.”—tick.

When it comes to change, the most fundamental question to ask is: so what? What has been learnt from a change activity? What is the business going to do with the information?

Note that the question does not ask what the program team is going to do with the information. That is of lesser importance than what the business is going to do with it. This distinction is vital, as the program team cannot change the business. Only the business (line management) can change the business. The program team will do all the heavy lifting required to meet the agreed deliverables. It just won’t change the business. If the business does not want to change, then the program office, despite its best efforts, will deliver a sub-optimal result and the senior management team will once again wonder what went wrong. By the time they realise that they had abdicated their responsibility for achieving a successful outcome, it will be too late to make corrections without the need to invest significantly more money into the program than what was budgeted for. Effective stakeholder management substantially reduces this risk.

Effective stakeholder management starts with the program sponsor. The sponsor is accountable for achieving the business benefits and this, by necessity, must include accountability for the change management work stream. Consider: if the business was serious about improvement, then it would hardly make sense to make a support function (change manager) accountable for achieving the structural and cultural change necessary to deliver the desired business benefits. The change manager’s role then becomes one of a subject matter expert designated to guide the sponsor through the difficulties associated with change. This would not exempt the change manager from their responsibility to prepare traditional deliverables such as impact studies, training packs, communications, etc.

A primary variable in any change program is people’s behaviour, as individuals and as groups, and the key objective of the change program is to establish predictability of behaviour. Predictability cuts both ways. The change program must provide predictability to those staff impacted by the change so they know what to expect, and equally the change manager, working through the sponsor, must provide management with predictability of how those staff will respond to the change and what is required from them as a senior leadership group. When people know what to expect, then they will be more accepting of the change when it happens, even if the change has a negative impact on them.

In practice, predictability and stakeholder management are synonymous terms and this means stakeholder management moves from being a discrete task in a change management plan to being the backbone of all the change management activities. To further illustrate this point, consider the following typical change management plan.

Change plan

To actively manage stakeholders requires agreement on who the stakeholders are. A stakeholder impact analysis workshop will help to identify the extended set of stakeholders. Stakeholders can be individuals or groups. For example, the CFO is part of the executive team, a key stakeholder group, and yet the CFO is important enough for the role to be identified as its own stakeholder group. In this way the CFO is referenced twice in the stakeholder management plan.

The impact analysis is a determination of how widely the “ripples” of the business improvement program will be felt. Ripples are typically operational, financial, or reputational. I define these terms in the broadest possible way.

The above methodology table indicates that the impact analysis is completed prior to the stakeholder management workshop. In practice, the two activities are iterative as each informs the other.

Once the stakeholder groups are identified, then the next step is to determine the best means to engage with each group, to bring them into the change program and cause them to actively participate. Basic psychology says that this is best achieved by engaging them on topics that interest them, in a manner that interests them. To this end a simple 2×2 matrix that cross references Power (the capability to influence the direction or outcome of the program) to Interest (the desire to influence the direction or outcome of the program) is a frequently used methodology.

Power interest matrix

This type of analysis is only valuable if the terms Power and Interest are understood.

In her article posted on the American Express OPEN forum, (https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/s/?query=Nicole%20Lipkin%20) psychologist Nicole Lipkin discusses seven types of power, namely:

Legitimate Power is where a person in a higher position has control over people in a lower position in an organisation.

“If you have this power, it’s essential that you understand that this power was given to you (and can be taken away), so don’t abuse it,” Lipkin says. ”If Diane rises to the position of CEO and her employees believe she deserves this position, they will respond favourably when she exercises her legitimate power. On the other hand, if Diane rises to the position of CEO, but people don’t believe that she deserves this power, it will be a bad move for the company as a whole.”

Coercive Power is where a person leads by threats and force. It is unlikely to win respect and loyalty from employees for long.

“There is not a time of day when you should use it,” Lipkin tells us. “Ultimately, you can’t build credibility with coercive influence—you can think of it like bullying in the workplace.”

Expert Power is the result of the perception that one possesses superior skills or knowledge.

“If Diane holds an MBA and a PhD in statistical analysis, her colleagues and reports are more inclined to accede to her expertise,” Lipkin says.

In order to keep their status and influence, however, experts need to continue learning and improving.

Informational Power is where a person possesses needed or wanted information. This is a short-term power that doesn’t necessarily influence or build credibility.

For example, a program manager may have all the information for a specific program, and that will give her “informational power.” But it’s hard for a person to keep this power for long, and eventually this information will be released. This should not be a long-term strategy.

Reward Power is where a person motivates others by offering raises, promotions, and awards.

“When you start talking financial livelihood, power takes on a whole new meaning,” Lipkin says. For example, “both Diane and Bob hold a certain amount of reward power if they administer performance reviews that determine raises and bonuses for their people.”

Connection Power is where a person attains influence by gaining favour or simply acquaintance with a powerful person. This power is all about networking.

“If I have a connection with someone that you want to get to, that’s going to give me power. That’s politics in a way,” Lipkin says. “People employing this power build important coalitions with others … Diane’s natural ability to forge such connections with individuals and assemble them into coalitions gives her strong connection power.”

Referent Power is the ability to convey a sense of personal acceptance or approval. It is held by people with charisma, integrity, and other positive qualities. It is the most valuable type of power.

The most frequently used definition of power is legitimate power and using this definition alone is short-sighted. Staff who have relatively low legitimate power can have very high power when it comes to influencing the success of the program. This is especially true for subject matter experts who have expert power.

Once you consider all seven types of power, then it is likely that the set of identified stakeholder groups will be refined and expanded.

Equally, Interest can have multiple variables. I recommend using the same as those used to determine the “ripples” in the impact analysis, namely:

Operational Interest is a primary focus on structure, strategy, environment, and implementation; a desire to improve the operational effectiveness and efficiency of the business.

Financial Interest is a primary focus on the ROI and the impact on the balance sheet.

Reputational Interest is a primary focus on the company’s reputation in the market or the individual stakeholder’s own brand value.

Typically, all three variables will apply to each stakeholder group, but each group will have a leaning to one or another of them. For example, a middle manager will have a high interest in the operational benefits of the program and a lower interest in the financial aspects. They get their salary no matter what, so financially the program may not change their situation much, but operationally, the program could materially impact their work environment.

Then there is a forth variable to interest—self-interest.

Self-Interest is a primary focus on oneself. The WIIFM question or “what’s in it for me?” How will the program impact an individual’s personal circumstances?

This analysis gets interesting when it is used to evaluate how the nature of a stakeholder group’s interest will change depending on the health of the program.

To fully consider the relationship between the power and interest variables, it makes more sense to use a table rather than a simple 2×2 grid.

Slide-21-A

In this example, “Executive Management” has legitimate power with a primary interest in the financial results of the program. They are focused on ensuring the program is on budget and is delivering the promised ROI. They will also want to be sure that the change program is enhancing or has a neutral impact on the reputation of the company. As they are senior managers, they are less interested in the day-to-day operations and should be least worried about their “Self-Interest.” Obviously, depending on the specific circumstances of any given change program, the priority between the four interest types will change.

The above prioritisation should remain true while the business improvement program is going well. It will change if the health of the program declines and starts to have an adverse impact on business operations. When this happens, executive management will want to ensure that the business can still run and consequently, they will become less worried about delivering the program on budget. Their primary interest will switch from “Financial” to “Operational” and they will start to release additional funds. “Financial Interest” is reprioritised to second place and “Reputation” moves to third.

If the program health declines further, they may switch their primary interest to “Reputation” and start to take action to ensure reputational damage is minimised and operations are stabilised. “Financial Interest” moves to third priority.

In these examples, I have left “Self-Interest” at priority four, assuming that the executives are all professionals. It is realistic, however, to believe that individual executives will start to reprioritise self-interest higher up the scale depending on their exposure to the consequences of a failed program.

By comparison, the stakeholder group “Subject Matter Expert” is characterised by technically competent staff who are experts in their field. This group will typically have a high “Operational Interest” in the program, especially if it relies on their expertise and enhances their reputation (“Reputational Interest”). They will also want the business reputation to grow as it helps their CV. These staff may never rise to the senior levels of management and are less interested in “Financials.” Stereotypically, as long as the company keeps funding their budget they are happy. With a healthy program, interest in their “Self-Interest” is the lowest priority.

If the program health declines, then their Self-Interest will very quickly get reprioritised to the top of the list, as a subject matter expert typically does not want to be associated with a failed program, particularly in their area of speciality.

As the program health changes, so should the mode of the interaction the program has with each stakeholder group.

The 2×2 matrix can now be used as a guide to determine the best means of interacting with a specific stakeholder group with the caveat that Power is changed to Power type and Interest is changed to Interest type and the message is tailored to suit.

The quadrant into which a stakeholder falls, dictates the suite of preferred interaction styles that could be used to engage with that stakeholder. Interaction types include:

  • One-to-one interactions
  • One-to-few
  • One-to-many
  • Email
  • Town-hall meetings
  • Theatre
  • Website updates
  • Intranet forums (chat rooms)
  • Awareness education
  • Workshops
  • Delegations of authority*
  • Technical training
  • Posters, brochures, and other marketing collateral.

* Delegations of authority refers to the degree to which a position or role can make a decision that will bind the company. Pushing delegation levels lower into the company should result in higher levels of involvement in the program as the applicable manager responds to the fact that they can make a meaningful and sustainable difference to the change program.

It should be noted that all types of interaction are relevant. What changes is the importance and reliance that should be placed on a specific type as a means to effectively engage a specific stakeholder group, with a realisation that the most effective mode will change with the health of the program.

Subject matter experts will probably respond to detailed website updates and awareness education sessions far better than to face-to-face meetings. Executives, on the other hand, will most likely respond better to succinct emails and face-to-face briefings. Tied to this, is the content of the interaction. As a stakeholder’s interest changes with the health of the program, so should the content covered in each interaction.

The matrix now looks as follows:

Power interest matrix with comm type

I close with a reinforcement of the principle that only the business can change itself and that the change manager must ensure that their activities do not absolve the sponsor and other key stakeholders from their accountability to make the program successful.

SURVEYS AND DIAGNOSTICS

There is a significant body of management science behind the formation, delivery, management,  and  interpretation  of  surveys, sufficient  to fill a series of books in its own right. The intent of this article is only to  provide  the  layperson with  some  guidelines for  preparing  and administering a  survey, suitable for use within  a company or  the customer base.

There are three truths that underpin any change initiative. The first two are:

1.   If you can tell me how you are measured, I will show you how you behave. The principle is that measurement (including the absence of measurement) drives behaviour. So only measure criteria you can change. If you can’t change it, don’t measure it.

2.   People only change when their discomfort is high, caused by “pain” or unrealised “pleasure.” These two points are on opposite ends of the spectrum. If people are experiencing any point in between, then they are unlikely to change. Choose questions that will measure where the respondents are on the spectrum.

A survey is a quick and easy means to measure the survey populations position relative to both points with the second point being easier to measure than the first. The most important feature of a survey is that it is only a snapshot of people’s perceptions at a specific point in time. This brings me to the third truth:

3.   General statements do not  define the specific and the specific does not define general statements.

A survey provides a snapshot in time on general statements only. For example, a survey on customer satisfaction may indicate that customers are highly satisfied with the service  they have received. This does not mean that every single customer is happy and it would not be difficult to find a single customer who was unhappy. All you can conclude from the survey is that generally customers are happy. Equally, just because you found one customer that was unhappy, that does not invalidate the survey.

The biggest mistake in surveys  is measuring what you cannot change. This  issue typically manifests itself  through  broad  questions. The less specific the question, the more it is open to interpretation by the respondent. Consider the question: “Are you happy? Answer yes or no.” This may seem like a specific question due to the binary nature of the answer, but it is actually a very general question. What is “happy?” How do I know when I am happy, or do I measure my happiness the same way as the next person?

Assume a 60/40 split in responses,  yes to no. At best, given the inherent vagueness in the concept of happiness, the most reliable insight that can be inferred from the study, is that, at the time of answering the question, 60% of the respondents were not unhappy. It does not predict if the same people will be happy one minute or one hour later. If your objective was to make everyone happy, then this survey offers no insight into what is making people happy or unhappy. It provides no clue as to what needs to change. In summary, this style of question is a waste of time.

A better approach is break the concept you wish to measure into its component parts, ensuring that  no matter what the answer, you will be able to introduce a change that will improve the result. Assume you wish to survey management’s  perception of the quality of information they receive. The first hurdle is to define the concept of “quality.” As per the happiness example, it would be futile to ask management if they considered the information they received to be of poor or good quality, as you would not know what to change if the answer was that the quality of the information was poor.

To resolve this issue, I define quality information to be information that is complete, accurate, and timely. In other words, I get all the information I want, when I want it and without errors.

Using this definition the first question could be: “Do you consider the information you receive to  be complete?” It  is substantially easier to resolve issues around incomplete information than it is to fix issues of poor quality. A further refinement of the question can be to ask “How often are you required to request additional information for use in the decision-making  process?” as it may not be possible to be confident that everyone defines “complete” the same way.

The  survey is further improved by moving away from using binary answers (yes/no) to using a scale. A scale allows the respondent to be more specific in their answers. The Likert scale is my preference. The primary characteristic of a Likert scale is that it considers all responses to be equal. To set it up, the survey author should write down the question and then,  at a minimum, define each side of the scale. Ideally each response point in the scale will also be labelled.

A Likert scale should comprise at least five choices. The ideal number is eight as it allows the respondent to show a higher sensitivity in how they respond to each question. I prefer using an even number of choices as it forces a decision from the respondent. Using an odd number provides a natural midpoint that  can become the easy choice for respondents not wishing to commit themselves. There is no midpoint with an even number of choices.

The question on completeness now looks like this:

How often are you required to request additional information for use in the decision-making process?

Constantly                                                                Seldom

1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8

The results are presented by totalling the number of times each point is selected, as each point on the scale is equally valid.

I also recommend asking the question twice. The first question is to evaluate the current position and the second is to determine the ideal or desired position.

The results graph could look as follows:

Completeness - Managers - revised

 

The current position is in front and the ideal position at the back.

From the graph it can be seen that of the 160 respondents (managers within the business), 40 rated the current completeness of information as 2, 20 rated it with a 3, 0 rated it with a 4, 30 rated it with a 5 and 20 rated it at each of 6, 7 and 8.

The important point is that there is no trend line. It is only a series of discrete scores.

From the graph it can be extrapolated that the vast majority of managers consider the information they receive to be incomplete. This is an easily accepted result. What is unexpected is that approximately 60% of managers have an ideal score of 4, 5 and 6. That is, over half of the survey population do not consider it important to have complete information to do their jobs. (Not all managers responded to the question for the ideal position).

These results can be further enhanced with follow-up interviews to better understand them.

And  further  insight  can  be  gained  through  cross-referencing their responses to the demographic information about the respondents such as seniority, gender, location, function etc.

Once you have established the gap between the current and the ideal position, the question of how to close it arises. My experience is that the gaps are closed through a combination of changes to policy, behaviour, process, and technology. The following table illustrates how this can be worked through:

8

On the left are the criteria measured by the survey. On the right are the four change drivers of behaviour, policy, process, and technology. The numbers represent which of the four drivers need to be addressed to close the gap and are in decreasing order of priority. (1 is highest priority and 4 lowest.)

It can be seen that substantial improvements across all measures can be made by changing or introducing policy supplemented by changes to behaviour and process. Frequently companies jump straight to changes to technology. In this case, changes to technology will help, but they are not the place to start.

A survey can act as a catalyst for change and can provide a baseline prior to making changes. But it is important to keep in mind that it is only a snapshot in time and it only provides answers to the specific questions that you ask.

DRAW THE PICTURE

Two of the biggest difficulties in the work environment are a) being able to quickly understand and contextualise difficult concepts and then b) being able to convey these complex concepts to colleagues or managers. These skills are almost mandatory for uninterrupted career advancement.

There have been many studies on the way people assimilate knowledge and no one shoe fits all. Depending on who you are you will prefer written text, audio, or graphics. My view is that if you can’t  draw it, you don’t  fully understand it. A graphic forces you to summarise your thinking, to organize it tightly into a visual object. Both written and spoken words allow you to describe the same concept from a few different angles and to really elaborate on the idea. A picture is static. Everything you want to say has to be summarised in the graphic and you are limited by the size of the page.

To  get a picture right means that  you really have to understand the concept you are drawing and the interrelationships within it.

There is no right or wrong way to draw a picture. You can use blocks and lines, symbols or a mind map. Once you get the picture right, you will be able to talk to it for an extended period of time.

Sometime back I  was wrestling with  how strategy was related to  a business. I drew the following picture.

diagrame editia 2

I look at the picture today and while I still agree with it, there are parts of it I would change. But at the time I drew it, that was how I understood the world. It summarised a few hundred pages of text. Once I had the picture clear in my head I was confident that I could take any question on the topic and be able to answer it in detail and in the context of how it worked with the rest of the business.

There is no formal methodology for drawing a picture and you need to be patient with yourself. It may take a few days to get the picture to a point where you are comfortable with it.

The underlying assumption of this approach is that any message  you receive, be it a written text, a verbal instruction or lecture, or even a visual event will only contain a half dozen important points. It is these points that you must include in your picture. The trick is identifying the points in the first place. My recommendation is: don’t try too hard. Use an A4 size piece of paper and draw your understanding of what you have just read or heard or seen. Make the picture rich in detail. The more detail, the better. Once you believe you have all the concepts on the page and you have related them to each other, take a new A4 and fold it in half. Now draw the same picture in half the space. It will force you to summarise your first picture. If you can, repeat the exercise with a one-quarter  size piece of paper.

Then reverse the process. When you can draw the summarised picture from memory, then draw the next level of expanded picture and when you have that right, draw the very detailed picture again. When you can do that, then you will find you really have internalised the concepts and you will be able to talk about them fluently. Then, depending on who your audience is, you can produce the appropriately summarised picture on the white board without notes and speak to it with confidence.

The following is another example of a picture I have used for years to describe the business architecture.

9 Point Model (2)

This picture conveys a significant amount of detail without being overly busy. It  describes the  elements of the  business architecture and  the context in which they exist. I now know this picture so well I can speak to it for over an hour if needed. I have also prepared pictures for each of the nine points (shown as blocks). This allows me to drill down into additional detail if necessary.

I have mentored a number of entrepreneurs who have come to me with an idea and the passion to start a business. They will all have prepared detailed business plans, but  when asked to  describe their  idea they invariably battle. My recommendation is always: write up a brochure of one page only with a picture. The potential client must be able to look at the picture and understand your business. The text is supporting detail only. When you can do that, you understand what you are selling.

It is said, a picture speaks a thousand words. This is true and when you have your picture, you will have a thousand words at your fingertips.

BUSINESS OUTCOME MANAGEMENT

One of the greatest challenges for any company is the execution of strategy or the realisation of benefits from the implementation of large change programs. Frequently, the reason isn’t organisational resistance to change, a difficulty that is commonly referred to. Rather it is for a more serious reason: managers and management teams focusing dogmatically on what they are doing rather than what they want to achieve. This causes managers to narrow their thinking and, in effect, operate at a more junior level. They “can’t see the wood for the trees” and the return on investment from their time is diminished.

The more senior a manager, the more they  need  to  work  within  a team to achieve the business objectives. Irrespective of how siloed the organisation is, the silos have to come together eventually. The lower in the organisation that this cross-departmental engagement occurs, the better.

A major inhibitor to  cross-departmental  engagement  is  the  absence of common purpose. Frequently managers believe they are working cooperatively but when pushed they have difficulty explaining the interdependencies between the initiatives they are all working on. This is because they are working towards completing initiatives, rather than delivering outcomes.

1

Initiatives are the activities managers and staff are engaged in. Outcomes are the result of one or more initiatives.

Consider the technology salesperson. Their role is to approach prospective customers and convince them that their technology solution will improve the prospects’ business operations.

For example, a CRM (customer relationship management) salesperson will state, “Buy my CRM software and you will have happier customers and improved revenues.”

BOM 4

Anyone who has implemented a major piece  of  software  will  know how flawed this scenario is. The truth is that once you implement a technology solution, all you have is a database of names and files.

BOM 2

To achieve the benefits promised by the CRM salesperson, the company must implement a range of complementary initiatives. The collective output of these initiatives will deliver the desired outcome.

BOM 44

The approach of interlinking initiatives and outcomes is known as Business Outcome Management. It is fundamentally different from traditional approaches to project planning in that the emphasis is almost entirely on the outcomes required.

The principle is the same as it is for ball sport players in the sense that it is better to be where the ball is going to be rather than where it is.

Business outcome management is a methodology that assists management teams to establish a common purpose. It  produces  two  deliverables. The first is a two-dimensional mind map that graphically displays the outcomes and initiatives and the second is a document that transposes the map into a business plan.

The importance of having a two-dimensional mind map cannot be overestimated. When discussing the importance of business outcome management with my clients they generally point to a range of documents or a single thick document and say they have it covered. At this time I ask them what the relationship is between their various documents, or how page x relates to  page  y  in  a  single  document. The point is that documents are “three-dimensional,” making it exceptionally difficult to know or visualise the multiple many-to-many interrelationships that exist in a single document, and between documents.

A two-dimensional mind map surfaces the interrelationships  and explicitly reveals how a single business outcome is dependent on multiple initiatives. It highlights relationships that are not immediately obvious in a document. The following is a simple example of the concept. Initiatives are represented as a square and outcomes as a circle. Risks can be included as a different shape.

300 (3) small 4

The graphic details the basics of implementing a change program. The entire “island” is labelled change management.

For larger projects and programs of work, the map will comprise of multiple “islands,” each representing initiatives and outcomes of similar intent and strategic focus. They provide  an  additional  dimension  to the map and assist the process of aggregating the relationships found in traditional documents into an easier-to-read format. Each “island” is labelled to provide context for the outcomes within the island, and collectively these labels are the executive summary of the program of work. Each island will have its own owner, a manager who is responsible for ensuring all the outcomes in the island are achieved.

800 (3)

Initiatives are written in the format: verb/noun. For example: “document the business process” or “administer  a  customer  survey.”  Outcomes are written in the past tense. “Staff morale has improved” or “customer requirements are understood” or “shareholder value has increased.” Using the past tense is important as it assists managers to clearly articulate the desired outcome.

Focusing on achieving the outcome encourages the manager to avoid tackling a project with a checklist mentality, as it is almost impossible to document all the initiatives required to achieve an outcome.

If you were focusing on initiatives you would work on “review and agree upon the business plan” and once completed you would consider that the business plan was reviewed and agreed.

3 copy

However, if you take a broader view, then you could only consider the business plan to be “reviewed and agreed upon” once all the indirect contributing initiatives were taken into account.

The indirect initiatives that contribute to “business plan reviewed and agreed” are:

  • Induct work package resources in project approach
  • Agree activities in scope and document approach to each
  • Establish change management program to mitigate risk
  • Review and agree risks to project
  • Agree approach to business planning
  • Socialise business planning approach
  • Prepare business plan
  • Review and agree business plan

These initiatives are part of two different strategic groupings (islands) but they all still contribute to the outcome and the manager who is signing off the business plan will expect to see contribution from all of those initiatives.

700 (3)

An important insight is that if a decision is made to delete or not complete an initiative, the impact of its absence can now be traced to those outcomes that relied on the initiative being successfully completed.

To prepare a business outcomes roadmap requires a workshop of four parts.

Part one is to agree the “endgame”—the flag on the hill. This is the medium-to-long term objective for the company or, if it is for a major project, then it is a statement of what the project will achieve. It should be a “big statement” but equally one that is achievable.

Example: “A culture of delivering excellence is implemented and a collaborative unified management team that is the envy of the industry is established.”

The second part of the workshop is to discuss the current issues facing the business. This is because managers and staff frequently cannot discuss the future without first explaining the problems they face in doing their job. You have to give them the chance to “put their baggage down.”

Part three of the workshop is to capture intermediate outcomes, those outcomes that must be realised in order to achieve the end game.

Part four is to capture the initiatives collectively required to deliver the sub-outcomes.

The methodology for collecting the data is important and it starts with the room selected for the workshop. The room should be set up without a table and the chairs should be arranged in a semicircle or similar. This assists people to “open up” in the workshop.

Each person is given a felt-tip pen with a broad point and a pack of post-it notes. Part one of the workshop can be completed on a white board through normal facilitation techniques.

Parts two to four will follow the same approach. The facilitator requests that the participants write one issue, outcome, or initiative (depending on the session) on a post-it note and to keep producing post-it notes until they have exhausted everything they have to say on the topic.

While the participants are writing down their thoughts, the facilitator should walk between them collecting the completed post-it notes and placing them randomly on a wall or window. As the notes are placed, the facilitator should read aloud a selection of the notes. This will stimulate the thinking of the participants.

When everyone has written down everything they have to say, and the facilitator has stuck all the notes on the wall, then the participants will be asked to sort the notes into groups. The rule for this part of the workshop is that the participants must work in silence. They cannot discuss their thoughts on the grouping. Once everyone is happy, the participants take their seats. At this time the facilitator will review each group and agree on a title for the group. These groups will later influence the “islands” in the mind map.

When all three mini workshops are complete, the workshop is over.The facilitator types up the workshop and prepares the business outcomes mind map. This will include de-duping the lists. The issues list does not make the map. Rather it is used to validate that everything that is included in the map will address the issues. Microsoft Visio is a good application for preparing the mindmap.

An important feature of this approach is that the outcomes are collected independently of the initiatives. This means there is no direct link between the outcomes and initiatives. When the map is prepared, the author must draw their own conclusions on which initiatives are related to which outcomes.

Once the map is prepared, it is critiqued by all or a subset of the participants from the original workshop. It may take two or three iterations until the map is agreed upon by all.

Viewing the map for the first time can be quite confronting for the participants. The best personal example of this was when I presented a map to a group of executives in the aviation industry. When they first saw the map, the room descended into chaos as each manager tried to find their department or function in the  map.  When  they  couldn’t, they turned on me. I explained that each of their functions was spread out through the map and that they had to work as a team to deliver the endgame. It was a significant moment and once the emotion died down, they really embraced the concept. Later the managing director wrote to me to say that they were 27% up on the budget as a direct result of the workshop. He was ecstatic.

Once the map is agreed upon, it needs to be turned into a document. This document has two parts.

Part 1 focuses on outcomes and part 2 on initiatives. The layout is as follows.

For outcomes:

BOM 7

 

The idea is to list all the initiatives that contribute directly or indirectly to each outcome. The “person accountable” refers to the outcome, not the initiatives.

For initiatives:

600 (2)

This table relates all outcomes to a single initiative. This is important as it informs the owner of the initiative about which outcomes are dependent on their activity being successfully completed. The R.A.C.I. table describes who will own the initiative (accountable), who will deliver the initiative (responsible), who will contribute to the delivery, and who should be informed of progress.

This is a powerful methodology and the results will improve with practice.

SAVING THE TEAM

One of the great projects I had the opportunity to work on was the IBM consultancy to Mercedes-Benz South Africa. The project managers did everything right. At the start of the project they took the time to properly establish a  project team  comprising of  MBSA and  IBM  staff. This included classroom training for the team to ensure a common approach, team-building activities and engaging with the client. This foundation ensured that the project was enjoyable and rewarding. The hours were long as is normal on a consultancy but nobody seemed to mind.

The  end of my involvement on  the project correlated well with my move to Australia. I made the final recommendations presentation to the MBSA executive team and two days later I moved to Australia. The presentation had gone very well and I was on a high.

Once I found my feet in Australia, I reapplied to IBM to join the local consulting practice. My application was accepted and I was soon on the projects. The problem was that the projects were not MBSA. The teams were new, the  objectives were different, and  the  project culture was different. In short I was unhappy and I quit. On the MBSA project I had been part of a high-performing team, established over months of focused project work. I mourned for what I had left behind.

As a consultant you are expected to move from project to project without difficulty, and I do it today without thought. What made the MBSA experience different is that I left it at the high point. I had delivered a successful final presentation and walked out of the boardroom, out of IBM and out of the country. I took no time to celebrate success with my colleagues. No time to debrief from the project and no time to bring closure to my role.

 My experience provided me with firsthand practical insight into  Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s model on teaming. Dr. Bruce  Tuckman   published  his  “Forming  Storming  Norming Performing” model in 1965. He added a fifth stage, “Adjourning,” in the 1970s. Tuckman’s model explains that as a team develops maturity and ability, relationships establish, and the leader changes leadership style to further the team’s evolution. He or she begins with a directing style, moves through  coaching, then  participating, then  finishes delegating and ends with a style that is almost detached. At this point the team may produce a successor leader and the previous leader can move on to develop a new team.

Teaming

The adjourning stage is also referred to as the mourning stage, when team members mourn for the high performance  “hellfire” days of the project and the camaraderie of the project team.

This final phase is frequently not recognised as important or, at best, is poorly managed. As professionals, managers are expected to “just deal with it” and keep their problems to themselves. As I found, this is not that easy.

Once I had lived the experience, I began to see it all around me. I met many senior executives who were put in charge of large business improvement projects within  their  company,  and  who  resigned after  the  project completed. Not immediately after the project, but within a reasonably short time of the project end. For the company, this is a problem, as frequently these projects are part of the manager’s succession plan.

The more I saw it, the more I took an active interest in the problem and, through discussion and observation, concluded that the primary cause was one of exposure.

Prior to commencing the project, a manager will have been working in their normal role, dealing with the daily routine expected from that role. They would have known where the role started and ended and what the limits of their authority were. They would be diplomatic with their colleagues, preferring to worry about their own role and allowing others to do the same in theirs. 

When  the  manager is  taken  out  of  their  routine  and  placed in  a senior project role, the rules change. No  longer are they confined to the boundaries of their position. No  longer do the rules of business diplomacy prevent them from enquiring about why their colleagues are doing what they are doing; in fact, they are now expected to investigate the way their colleagues work.

Driving a large business improvement project gives them licence to ask questions of the company and to review material they would not typically see in their daily role. Through the project they are exposed to the “soul” of the company. They are exposed to  the inadequacies of the senior managers. When you look into the soul of a company, you cannot forget, you cannot “un-see” what you have seen. You cannot go back. The firm assumption that  senior managers know what they are doing becomes less firm.

As a project lead, they are expected to think strategically and consider the big picture. This can be vastly different from their previous role as a silo manager.

When the project is over, it is almost impossible for the manager to return to their old position. They have just spent six months or more working harder, longer, and  with more freedom than  they ever had before. They have had almost unlimited access to the executive team.

In short, they are no longer the same employee as they were when they started the project and it is foolhardy to expect them to forget and return to the comparatively bland existence of their previous routine. If they are asked to, they quit.

There is an equally dark flip side to this issue. As the manager grows in confidence through the project and develops their insights into the company, they become a threat to more senior management who don’t want their “dirty washing” exposed and don’t want the manager getting ahead of themselves. The end result is that the manager is forced out of the company.

To address the issue and to save the skills within the company, senior executives  need to create a new role for the manager coming off the project. Invariably this requires that the company find or create a suitably senior role that allows the manager to come “back into” the company whilst respecting the journey of discovery  the manager went through over the course of the project. It  is important  to  recognise that  the manager who led the project is not a professional project manager and frequently they wish to keep their line management career intact.

The same issues exist for more junior staff members seconded to projects to work with consultants, either as subject matter experts or as a general project resource. These employees are also exposed to company details they would not normally see and witness or participate in conversations with the consultants that discuss the failings of the company. Under the influence of this often negative messaging, they start to see their managers in a different light. They will also start to work longer hours than their colleagues. As an individual, they will grow in confidence and as part of a team, they start to “perform.”

Project staff do not expect to get promoted when a project ends, but they do expect to be recognised for their contribution and to this end it is important to hold structured celebratory events to recognise the project and individual efforts. Failure to recognise an individual’s  contribution will almost certainly cause the staff member to  become disillusioned with the company. They will feel as if they have become an expendable commodity and not a valuable contributor to the company.

It is unlikely that they will resign, but it reasonable to expect that they will be less engaged with the company. This feeling of isolation can be amplified if the project has caused them to drift apart from their colleagues. Before they could gossip and share information. Now that they have had  access to  confidential information, they cannot  share information and invariably this creates distance between themselves and their colleagues.

There is no easy remedy for this problem. The most successful mitigation strategy is to agree the post-project role description for the employee before the  project starts. The  new role should stretch the  employee more than the project did. In this way they will rely on skills they learnt through the project and will not have time to mourn the end of the project. Done well, the employee will hardly notice the change.

An equally viable strategy and similar to  the above, is to  ensure the employee has a structured succession or  career development plan in place. This plan should supersede the project enabling the employee to contextualise the project as part of their greater development program. In this case, it is expected that the employee will come off the project requiring  less structured  support  for  their  re-assimilation into  the business-as-usual routine. Their period of mourning should be reduced but it is unlikely to be removed altogether.

Both of these strategies will be of immense benefit if the company works with the consultancy from the beginning to agree how the consultants should  develop the employee. This  will includes activities such  as allowing the employee to deliver important presentations through the course of the project.

In closing, I note that the above observations and strategies are general in their nature and will assist executives  and managers to retain staff, but when it comes to human nature, each person is different and has different needs. Those staff who are in “deep mourning” will require a re-assimilation strategy personalised to their specific needs.

PERCEPTION: IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK

Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans…  If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown in communication … and there is the real illness.”

I read the above quote by Philip K. Dick and it reinforced how relevant perception is to change management and the importance of what we say and allow others to say.

This was first highlighted to me when I was working with IBM on the Mercedes-Benz South Africa business transformation project. In the early part of the project we spent considerable time collecting data, the bulk of which was qualitative. I asked the seasoned project manager on what basis we could rely on qualitative data to make far-reaching recommendations. His reply was: if enough people repeat something to be true, then it is true, irrespective of the facts. In other words, perception is reality.

The primary agenda of any change management program is to deliver a change in behaviour. This is equally true for very large programs such as national “Don’t Drink and Drive” campaigns to small localised programs, internal to a business, such as how to code an invoice properly. In all cases people only change when they perceive the need to change, and it is the change manager’s role to socialise a message that will create this perception at the individual level and within the crowd.

It is not difficult to determine the view of the crowd as people will readily repeat what they perceive to be a commonly held truth. It is considerably more difficult to reliably determine how an individual perceives the world as their views are coloured by an unlimited range of personal circumstances to which the change manager is not privy. Consequently, it is a waste of time to try and change an individual’s foundation perceptions.

Rather the change manager should focus on managing how individuals express their perception of the work environment and the changes within it.

The importance of managing perception is represented by the dip in the graphic.

Change curve (2)

Every business transformation project shakes up the organisation. People become uncertain and routines are disrupted. This will cause organisational performance to decline, as represented by the dip, before targeted improvements are realised. As people become disrupted they lash out in their language.

Statements such as “nothing works here” or “management are idiots” or “why bother, nobody cares” become increasingly common and indicate a low level of engagement. The less engaged a person is, the more they will resort to using sweeping statements instead of taking the time to consider what is truly bothering them before they speak. These types of statement only serve to widen and deepen the gap and make the change program appear more confronting than it actually is.

Without intervention, and without a message to the opposite, there is a real danger that the sweeping statements of an individual become the view of the crowd. It must be true if everybody is saying it. Consider a new hire stepping into that environment. What else could they realistically believe?

The change manager cannot change how a person feels. However, the change manager can change the way people express themselves.

Instead of condoning or ignoring sweeping statements such as “this software is useless” ask staff to be specific with their complaints. Persist until they come up with a specific concern like “I can’t print a copy invoice.” That is the real problem. Encouraging individuals to replace sweeping statements with specific statements will cause them to actively think about and engage with the issue. When people speak differently they allow themselves to think differently and they start to perceive the world differently. This tends to reduce emotion and exaggeration. In addition, when people know that they will be called out on a broad generalisation, they tend to become more circumspect in what they say. Eventually they may even behave differently.

From a change management point of view, it is far better for staff to know that they cannot print a copy invoice than to believe the software is completely useless. Then, when they are complaining to other staff, they will be accurate and specific, not vague and inaccurate. The crowd becomes infected with the truth, which is, in this case, that you can’t print a copy invoice, rather than by broad inaccuracies about perceived deficiencies in the software.

Only when a person changes the way they express themselves, will they really be able to change the way they perceive their work environment, and subsequently change the way they present themselves in the work environment. Occasionally you will hear that someone has had a real change of attitude. What this really means is that their language has changed, from negative to positive. When people say positive things their colleagues will respond positively.

The same can apply to the group, but to achieve it the change manager needs to introduce a common vocabulary, a company lexicon. It will promote an environment where individuals use the same words for the same things. That way everybody knows what is meant when statements are made. Conversations should get shorter and the disquiet caused by miscommunication should be reduced. Introducing a common vocabulary is exceptionally difficult. It requires that the change manager has the vocabulary to start with and a mindset that realises that change management is not just about training people in a technical skill.

I recognise, that despite the change manager’s best efforts, it is impossible to get everyone in an entire organisation to change the way they speak. The best mitigation is to introduce scorecards. Using a scorecard moves the conversation from subjective perceptions about what happened to factual data. It should cause the conversation to start with a discussion on actual business results rather than a particular person’s behaviour, or more importantly, the manager’s perception of the employee’s behaviour.

I close with the thought that trying to manage perception is similar to standing in a hall between two mirrors. Each mirror reflects the other and this continues until each mirror appears to have an infinite number of reflections in it. These reflections represent the perceptions two people could have of each other. To know which two “perceptions” are active in the conversation is impossible.