Tuesday, November 10, 2015

5 Ways to Mess up Organisational Change #4: Pollyanna Planning

There is more smug guff written about planning than any other aspect of the change process.  If you believe just half of what you read, planning for transformational change is simply a matter of keeping a tidy schedule, knowing how to read a GANTT chart and checking in brightly with your equally organised team members.
I don’t know about your experience, but nothing in the above description matches what I’ve seen, apart perhaps from the reading of – or sobbing over – those lovely GANTT charts.
The truth is, all change plans fail. 
You start out with the best intentions, you think you have taken account of all the variables and risks, that you have been genuinely rigorous in identifying best-case, worst-case and most-likely scenarios.  Then the change starts and you realise you have called most, if not all, of the shots wrong. 
Everyone has this experience.  One of the most successful entrepreneurs I know recently looked back at the planning record of his star business, expecting to see outstanding foresight and planning accuracy, only to discover to his embarrassment that fewer than half of the goals set had ever been achieved. 

Why getting plans wrong is okay

The truth is, only Pollyanna Planners expect to get change right from the get-go.  Just like the irritatingly optimistic girl in the books, they believe that everything turns out for the best if only they do the right things: setting clear and measurable change goals, making comprehensive communication plans, setting S.M.A.R.T. targets and assigning responsibilities.
None of these thing are wrong, they just are not enough to ensure success.
Once upon a time, they almost were.  Back in the days when industrial production dominated the economy, accurate change planning was sometimes possible.  In stable markets, the cost of a change such as introducing new machinery could be measured pretty precisely, and the stages of change – disposing of the old machine, installing the new one, training operators to use it and getting it up and working – could be clearly set out, understood and implemented.
Today it’s all different.  Over half of all corporate value is locked up in people and around 70-80% of Western economic activity comes from people-intensive services rather than production. 
People have many advantages over machines, but managing them is far less predictable. 
The dynamism that makes people such valuable drivers of business success is exactly what makes it impossible to plan out change involving people in advance.  Until the change gets going, leaders simply cannot anticipate exactly how their people will respond.  The risk with Pollyanna Planning is that by getting too specific in the early stages of planning, change leaders get too wedded to their beautiful plans to notice when they are not working, or to admit that they need to be changed or even scrapped.
Is Agile Planning the answer?
Smart change leaders have recognised the need to flex and adapt plans for some time now, and many regard the Agile Methodology as the best solution to both the challenges and the opportunities of managing people-focused change.
Agile started out as an approach to software development.  It helps teams manage the inherent unpredictability of development projects by building up results through short, iterative bursts of work focused on specific, cumulative changes.  Agile builds quality assurance into every stage of the process and constantly revisits each stage of the process at each step, ensuring that the final outcome has been tested, flexed and finely adapted to project goals and outcomes.
Recently, change and HR leaders have begun to look at adapting Agile for people-focused change.  Companies such as Barclays have eagerly taken on Agile principles such as “Responding to change over following a plan”, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation”.
But there are limits to Agile’s applicability to people. 
Jobs are not as easy to change as lines of code, and people react in more complex ways than operating systems.  When you look at successful Agile People approaches, they have strayed some way from the Agile Manifesto and in some cases have ended up with something very much like traditional linear methodologies, only with milestones for review and adaptation built in.
The risk of Agile is, in the end, the same as the risk of using traditional waterfall change planning approaches – using the methodology can distract change leaders from the reality of people, work and organisations. 
So how should change leaders plan?  What does it mean to take into account the reality of people, work and organisations? 
Given the infinite variety of people, work and organisations, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  But there are three principles which, when applied rigorously and continuously to change, make the difference between success and failure. 

Anti-Pollyanna Planning Priorities

1.      Engagement

People-focused change needs to be driven by, well, people.  Yes, of course change leaders are people too, but I am thinking here of real people, people at all levels of the organisation, at all phases of the change process.  There is strong evidence that people give of their best when they are truly engaged, and there is no time when those best efforts are more needed than during organisational change, whether it is a major upheaval such as a merger or the continuous, incremental changes that represent business as usual for most of us.
Engaging people matters most at the planning stage. Nobody wants to be blindsided by change and however difficult or unpopular changes may be, they will only be made worse if people are not involved from the start in planning how to address the issues.  It is a clich√© to talk about taking ownership of change, but engagement is all about that sense of belonging, of the change mattering personally.  Start your change programme as you mean to go on, by involving people throughout the organisation in a meaningful way.
This is often very hard for change leaders to do, primarily because it involves giving up managerial control.  Power via facilitation is far more effective than power via diktat, but it does not always feel that way.  Change leaders need to become very self-aware, and often to change the way they themselves work, if they are going to engage the organisation in making and implementing genuinely powerful plans.

2.      Keep your Eye on the Prize

As well as engaging the workforce in change planning, leaders need to be constantly watching for the times and circumstances where plans need to change.  Cry wolf too many times and everyone will start moaning about change fatigue.  Miss out on key evidence or developments and the whole change programme gets written off as irrelevant.
So, no pressure there.
Actually, you can relax.  Making the right call when it comes to adapting plans is not difficult.  If your metrics are focused not on the change plan but on the people, you will automatically pick up on where you need to devote extra effort, perhaps where you need to go back and review your initial methods or even objectives. 
Focusing metrics on people instead of process means looking at a range of lead measures, most of which relate to behavioural change.  If nobody turns up to your launch event, you have a problem.  Ditto if managers report no difference in how people are carrying out their work.  Be careful, however, that you use metrics which have proven predictive value.  Surveys, for example, need to be designed with care and used pretty much continuously if they are to be of genuine relevance.

3.      Honesty

The most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your change programme is be honest with yourself.  Like the other Priorities, this sounds easy but is genuinely challenging in practice because it is often the most painful aspects of change that require the most honesty.
You will make mistakes.  If that’s likely in work, it’s inevitable in change.  Come up with contingency plans well in advance, so you have a starting place for deciding how to fix things.  Most of all, notice when you have implemented a sub-optimal solution and fix things pronto. 
Honesty in change is very difficult to achieve without support.  If you have a coach, now is the time to step up your interactions.  Within your change team, establish a culture of questioning, of requiring evidence, of challenging each other to get the best, not just the easiest, answer.  And balance all this interrogation with kindness, with genuine concern for each other and a focus on learning and helping each other learn – which inevitably involves making and fixing mistakes.

People-Focused Planning

Truly, there is no excuse for keeping on with Pollyanna Planning.  By taking a responsive, people-focused approach you can get so much more achieved in your planning, and energise the entire change programme.
Unfortunately, there are still more ways in which organisations can mess up change.  I could probably continue this series indefinitely, but for now I will pause after #5: Crashing the Culture.