Monday, 28 September 2015 07:55

Nebulous elephants: how to get your head & hands around big changes

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I was talking to one of my clients this week. He described his struggle to get his head and hands around a complex change he has been tasked with. I am very familiar with this feeling. There is that feeling at the start of  big change initiatives summarised by two questions: How do you eat an elephant? How do you catch a cloud?

Some initiatives seem too big to get your head around. There are a thousand and one separate threads that need to be considered. When you reach out and try and grab any of these threads they dissolve in your hands. The initiative seems too complex and too unclear to prepare, plan or progress. Elephants and clouds.

What sort of endeavours am I thinking of? I am thinking of the intention to implement a new operating model, the desire to meet regulatory driven changes the banking sector is going through, the integration of organizations following mergers, businesses looking to make a step change in scale or direction, and attempts to modify an organization’s culture.

One way to approach such initiatives is to think about their features. We all know they are big and somewhat vague, but can we be more specific about them? Let’s start by thinking about the characteristics of the initiatives and use them to indicate a way forward.

Characteristics of a nebulous elephant

These sorts of initiatives have a series of characteristics which differentiate them from many normal projects. Let’s focus on six common ones:

  1. They are large. The initiative will take time, probably years, to complete. There may be an initial focussed effort for a shorter period of time to get things going, but it will only be years later that every aspect of the change has become “business as usual”.
  2. They are intellectually challenging. Such initiatives are usually hard to get ones head fully around, often touching almost every aspect of an organization in many different ways at once. In fact, it is questionable if any one person can get their head around all the aspects of such a change.
  3. They are risky, important, but not priority number 1. Day-to-day business operations – selling and serving customers usually has to continue. On a day-by-day basis, maintaining normal operations is more urgent than the change. We must change, but we still need a viable business to make the change to.
  4. They are different from anything the organizations has done before. There is no great pool of experience and talent the organization can draw on. Lots of people are lost. Many put their heads in the sand and try to ignore the change. Even when everyone thinks they have seen it all before, practical and applicable experience seems limited.
  5. The work cannot be isolated. Unlike many projects, these changes cannot be set up as discrete project teams who go off and produce some useful deliverables. They require the involvement of most, if not all, of the organization, whilst they continue to do their day jobs. The change interweaves itself with all the daily activity of the organization.
  6. There are elements of push and pull simultaneously. Commentators often debate whether you can push change onto people or they have to pull it. It’s an interesting discussion for an academic moment. In my experience, you have to deal with a more nuanced reality. These sorts of changes are typically driven both by external pushes and by internal pulls. External stakeholders foisting requirements upon you, and internal team members with passion and drive to do something differently. But these pushes and pulls are not always complimentary, and are also subject to varying kinds of resistance and rejection.

It is these characteristics that mean that setting up a discrete program and leaving them to deliver the change will not work. These characteristics often lead to the mentality of lost herds of sheep. Various groups roam around the organization trying to make sense of the change from their perspective. The different groups wander off and pull in different directions, doing work that sometimes overlaps or is contradictory. At best the goal is achieved slowly and inefficiently. At worst the organization goes backwards.

Dancing with a nebulous elephant

Such initiatives do not have to be so painful. You do not have to spend too long feeling lost. Big change will always be a challenge, but there are some steps you can take to make the elephant a bit more tangible and a bit easier to dance with.

Here are seven things I recommend:

  1. Clarify the goal: it’s an obvious thing to say, but anyone who has worked on many change initiatives will tell you, it is often not clear what the goal is. Goals proliferate, diverge and get hijacked. It’s not just that the goal needs to be clear – it needs to be interpreted in a consistent way across the organization.
  2. Survey and align: these changes usually don’t have a single kick-off. Various sub-groups will already be running around doing bits and pieces. One step must be to get some sense of what is happening and to try and align it around the goal.
  3. Set priorities: these change initiatives are always contending for attention against the everyday work of the organization. If the goal is to be pursued, everyone needs to clearly know and believe that it is a priority. A priority that, at times, comes before the important everyday work. Explicit priority setting is critical. You must not evade this responsibility. Evasion is typified by a statement that does not set priorities because “this work is integral to everything we do”. Well if it is already, why are you trying to change?
  4. Involve and enable: these initiatives are going to require the insight and creativity of people across the organization. You don’t need to grab all the different threads that make up the change – as long as someone in the organization does. The initiative also needs people who understand the details of the organization’s operations. On top of this, the initiative requires most of your people to end up doing something differently. That means involving as many people as possible, and giving them the tools and capabilities they need to make changes.
  5. Define responsibilities: critical amongst these are the role of the centre and the rest of the organization. Such changes often have a central team, but this type of change does not happen in the centre. It happens in the work and activities of everyone in the organization. The centre cannot be a traditional project team creating all the deliverables. The centre becomes a co-ordinator and an enabler, letting as much as possible happen in the wider organization. The centre provides a degree of co-ordination to ensure the overall goals can be met coherently. It may also help with specialist tools and techniques, but it owns as little as practical. Think of the central team as nudging things in the right direction rather than taking absolute control.
  6. Measure progress: it’s helpful to have an explicit way of showing progress that everyone can see. Making the intangible tangible is not always easy, but it’s worth the effort. Such measures help in managing the initiative. They also help to motivate those involved and encourage the stragglers to get on board. It’s much harder to resist something fast moving. Beyond this, the measures will help keep people focussed when the initiative has been going on for many months and everyone is, frankly, a little bored with it.
  7. Track and adapt: it’s rare to get everything right when you set out on such an initiative, and anyway the world keeps on evolving. You must be prepared to regularly adapt your goals, priorities, responsibilities and approaches as the initiative progresses. This is not a sign of failure, this is a reflection of strong grasp of reality and a good understanding of what is happening.

When you next find yourself facing an elephant who, paradoxically, seems hard to touch, think through the characteristics of what you are trying to do. Then use and adapt the seven steps I propose. (If you come up with some brilliant adaptations, please let me know).

Good luck!

Read 2728 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 07:58
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at Information about his company can be found at His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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