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Managing change: the key question that is rarely asked

Change management literature is full of advice about the importance of clear objectives. Clarity is always recommended: why are you changing, what do you want to achieve, what will it be like when the change is complete? Business language is replete with associated terminology: objectives, goals, outcomes and visions.

Anyone who has worked on change projects knows that a vision is important. The vision may not be static, it might evolve as a change progresses, but there needs to be something that gives everyone involved a clear sense of direction. Change initiatives without a clear sense of direction rarely end up anywhere useful. 

I don’t want to say much more about visions, as they are a subject you can find any number of books, articles and other advice about. But there is an important aspect of a vision for change that can be clarified by asking one question. It is a question that is rarely asked, is simple, but full of power and importance. It is: what should stay the same.

Why we should ask it?

Change is one of those activities that is liable to create, what military commentators euphemistically call, collateral damage. Organisations are highly complex entities. Change anything and it can have unexpected results elsewhere. Even the best process maps, role descriptions, organisation charts or business architectures do not capture this full complexity. 

The complexity is made up of things that work outside the recognized channels and are not included in the documented descriptions of the organisation. This includes tacit knowledge, relationships, side-agreements between managers, and shared understandings of expected behaviours. This is the glue that keeps an organisation working.

The best change visions for an organisation of the future do not just contain what is different, but also what will be the same. (If you want nothing to stay the same, why not start a new organisation? It will probably be a lot easier.) If you do not clarify what needs to stay the same do not be surprised if there is collateral damage. Sometimes, the collateral damage can be severe, public and cause lasting harm.

If this question is not asked explicitly, you are relying on assumptions as to what will stay the same. Assumptions vary from person to person. Ask a few people and you will find all sorts of assumptions about the “givens” of an organisation. Some you will agree with. Some you will disagree with!

The givens are usually felt rather than discussed or described. They are not understood by everyone in the same way. Even in the most aligned cultures there are differences of opinions about what is important depending on perspective. More critically, change initiatives often involve external experts, consultants and contractors. These externals are not steeped in the organisation’s culture, do not know the givens, and unless told otherwise will innocently do things that any permanent employee would intuitively know were off bounds.

Then there is the opposite side to change. Whilst sometimes we need to protect “our” culture, sometimes it is those very givens that are the target of the change. A typical example is an organisation that has a new CEO. The new CEO feels performance can be improved, or may have been brought into the organisation specifically to rescue a business in a perilous state. The CEO looks at all the normal culprits – costs, sales, margins and so on to identify what needs to change. As part of this, the new CEO realises that the problems run deeper than reducing costs by x% or increasing sales by y%. 

The real problem is the organisational culture. It is the things everyone takes as givens every day – the way we work and behave, what is and is not acceptable, what we value and disvalue. The givens may once have been a strength, but now are inhibiting the organisation’s move away from the looming risk of business failure. Cultural change is an attempt to alter the givens.

As the givens are usually not explicit or documented, it can be difficult to be specific about what it is about a culture that needs to change. Asking people their views as to ‘what should stay the same’, as a result of a change initiative, is a great way to make the givens explicit, even if the aim is actually to alter these givens.

In summary, if you do not ask the what-should-stay-the-same question, there are two contrasting risks:

  1. Something will change that you did not want to change. 

    The history of change projects repeatedly shows the failure to ask this question or to take it seriously. Executives are surprised by performance drops, annoyed customers, increased staff turnover, costs shifting out of one cost centre only to appear in another and so forth. These result in sub-optimal outcomes and even change failure. 

  2. Something will be assumed to be sacrosanct that you actually want to change.

    The givens of an organisation are often deeply linked into the overall sense of who we are as an organisation. If you want them to change, you must be quite explicit about it. Ironically, it is only when you ask ‘what should stay the same’ that you will find people proposing things as sacrosanct that you realise ‘that is precisely what needs to change’. 

If you do not think this question through the chances are you may be exposed to both of these risks. It is a high price for the sake of asking a simple question.

Why the question is not asked?

However, there are three good reasons why the question is not asked.

The first and most obvious reason is naivety and inexperience. Most organisations have gone through the well intentioned change that has ended up as a minor disaster. ‘I had no idea if I did X – Y would happen’. There are endless examples. The classic is tampering with the performance measurement system, and being surprised at quite to what lengths people will go to, to achieve those new performance measures. This may include doing things which are blatantly not in an organisation’s, its customers’ or its stakeholders’ interests. But then those interests were never part of the change vision.

The second reason comes about from experience. An experienced manager or a consultant knows that asking too much about what we don’t want to change makes life harder. When tasked with implementing changes it is far, far easier to do if you do not have to worry about collateral damage. The analogy with the military is apt: it’s much easier and quicker to win a battle when you don’t worry about hurting civilians. (Needless to say, that is not a good reason for doing it).

Managers may deliberately avoid this question for fear of raising sensitive and time consuming problems. This can arise from self-interest, sometimes encouraged by the fact that collateral damage often happens after the change initiative is complete and the responsible manager has been rewarded. More positively, not asking it may be based on a strongly held belief that the change is important enough to accept collateral damage. Temporary performance dips can look like a small price for a critical change. True, but only if the performance dip really is as small as expected and the individuals who are impacted by this drop accept the consequences. It is not uncommon for the beneficiaries from a change and the sufferers from performance dips to be different groups. The conflict of interest is clear.

The third reason the question is not asked is wisdom. That may seem an odd thing to say given that I am claiming we ought to ask this question. The wise do not ask this question because they know it can be a very dangerous question.  It can be a dangerous because it can cause essential or value adding changes to stall. This is shown in the experience of paralysis-by-analysis where initiatives never get going because absolutely everything must be analysed first.  It can also be seen in the decision roadblock where initiatives stall at a key decision points as managers become afraid of the risks as they are overwhelmed with a growing understanding of the complexity of the organisation. 

The wise realise that if you do not ask the question, by the time problems arise the organisation is committed to the change and there is no going back. This is a strategy that can work, but it is a risky one and I think unnecessary.  

The problems the wise worry about can be avoided by the approach used to ask this question.

Asking the question shrewdly

The answer is to ask the question shrewdly. Real management is not science. Management decision making requires balancing sufficient information with intuition and experience, taking a view of risk partially based on analysis and supplemented with contextual understanding.  It also requires astute stakeholder assessments – who should be involved in what discussions?

Consider the extreme answers to the what-should-stay-the-same question to give a sense of its importance. If the response to ‘what should stay the same’ is ‘everything else’: the organisation will rarely implement meaningful change – at least not quickly. If the answer is ‘nothing’: then the change can go ahead quickly and brutally. But when the response is ‘nothing’, it is pertinent to ask ‘how do you expect to sustain the organisation during and after the change?’ It is often a sign that sustaining change has not been considered. Soldiers learnt long ago that winning battles and winning the peace are very different things.

The shrewd know the truth lies between the extremes of risking everything and nothing. They are seeking a point at which some collateral damage is possible, in which it is understood that change involves risk, but also at which the situation is sufficiently well understood that the risk is proportionate to the potential benefits from the change.

Asking the what-should-stay-the-same question shrewdly requires carefully deciding who should be involved in answering it. Everyone in the organisation has an opinion about what should stay the same. Rarely will management achieve goals successfully by trying to achieve universal consensus. 

Asking the question ‘what should stay the same’ to everyone in the organisation is a way to find an endless list of why nothing should change. On the other hand, asking the question only to a small cadre of senior executives, may result initially rapid progress, but will often result in unexpected surprises as the change progresses. Senior executives rarely sufficiently understand all the operational details of a business to avoid this risk.

What is needed is a group of people from across the organisation to make an assessment from a risk perspective. What should stay the same?  What do we risk disrupting as this change progresses? Is the risk understood and acceptable? Which of the givens must we challenge? This group should be familiar with the explicit facts and implicit culture of the organisation. Ideally, this group agrees with the aims of the change proposed.

Organisational change entails risk. At the pace most organisations move at, you cannot analyse each and every aspect of the organisation to be sure that no collateral damage occurs as a change progresses. But you can do three things:  

  1. Be alert to the risk of collateral damage without letting it becoming an excuse for doing nothing.
  2. Analyse changes sufficiently to be able to mitigate the worst risks, thinking both about what you want to change and what you want to stay the same.
  3. Be prepared to respond quickly if something goes wrong.

Ignoring the what-should-stay-the-same question is a recipe for organisational pain, pain that was largely avoidable.

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