Change is, at the clichés of the zeitgeist run, now a constant of organisational and individual working life. On top of market globalisation, technological advance, downsizing, rationalisation, business re-engineering, merger and acquisition, the public sector in the UK is now to face the kind of cuts that, for once, deserve the use of capital letters on the words Very Significant. Arguing about the requirement for them, or attempting to discern the assumptions and reasons for the choices that the Government will make will not change their impact: the motivations of the axe-wielder make little difference to the results of the blade’s impact.

There will, undoubtedly, be pain. Many of the howls of anguish will be real, rather than mere disagreement from those who are less directly affected. But managers and HR functions in the public sector (and in private sector companies dependant on income from public sector contracts) need to focus not on the vocal symptoms, but on repairing the damage and remodelling the future. This week will mark the change from a situation on not knowing what’s coming and asking ‘what are we going to do?’ to a situation of knowing what’s coming and doing it.

But part of the pain of change is ensuring that an organisation follows a suitable model for managing it. There are many change models, but few provide a robust, integrated and pragmatic approach to understanding the dynamics of change and pro-actively managing it while, crucially, supporting employees.  Many approaches are simply linear, built on the assumption that we can just define a ‘desired future state’ then achieve it through interventions and actions. (Life isn’t, however, as simple as ‘smaller state = cut budget’ as those who will face delivering the same legal and social obligations from smaller resources now need to unravel.) But the pace and scale of change often makes it hard for organisations to predict accurately. An election process that saw all parties, however ‘honestly’, predict a round of spending cuts rarely achieved in UK history still meant a six-month process of departmental budget reviews against scenarios of 25% and 40% cuts and a further process of approval and review: scenario planning has its uses – it’s better to look over the hedge than not – but the view over the hedge will change over time, and the response needs to flex with it.

What’s needed is a flexible and responsive process for managing change through which the desired future can be defined and achieved while leaving sufficient latitude and flexibility to respond to arising circumstances. Managing change successfully requires leaders who implement it while remembering that their organisations are not abstract entities where process is the only issue. Organisational change must also take into account what organisations are comprised of – people – and the impact of the change process on them. Leader need to act, behave and communicate to define and implement the necessary change while still inspiring people to commit to making changes in their own working lives.

My preferred process model is ‘The Dynamics of Change’ (a PDF document of a longer explanation is available), a cyclical process that is based on a series of principles:

  • Organisational change is best managed through a structured yet flexible approach.
  • Organisational change needs to be managed proactively, but the approach must respond to changing circumstances
  • Consistent leadership behaviours are vital
  • Congruence is needed through every level of the business at every stage
  • Interventions that deliver change can also define and secure commitment to it.

Not a psychometric instrument but rather a self-assessment questionnaire, its value lies in the opportunity it offers to gauge how far individuals and leaders are equipped to make any process of change come alive; it is the people dimension – first, last and always – that will ultimately dictate success.

There are, however, some fundamental points within the model they may be helpful as reminders of key points.

  • Managing through change requires clear direction.  Thinking through and articulating the business’s overall direction and purpose dimension provides the foundation and context for the other dimensions. But this dimension must respond to the human difficultly of changing: where they emphasise potential gains and keep people fully and regularly informed, leaders’ behaviours and actions make a significant positive impact.
  • Significant research in a variety of organisations has identified four principle enabling strategies that promote the necessary alignment to achieve constancy of purpose and consistency of approach:
    1. Resourcing Strategy
    2. Performance Management Strategy
    3. Reward Strategy
    4. Communications Strategy
  • Good change managers recognise that change cannot be adopted fully in an instant: faced with unfamiliar tasks, processes and working relationships, people require support and ongoing encouragement to fully embed their new behaviours. The practical, consistent implementation of business processes, policies and procedures may lack the kudos of a strategic role, but unless they are clearly and unambiguously documented, people will revert to former practice or ‘do what they think is best’.
  • Simply defining processes does not engage commitment. Organisations – and leaders – must consistently communicate the approaches and demonstrate the desired behaviours: behaviours sound louder and last longer than any words.  Where they are inconsistent with defined values and visions, people will mimic the behaviours they see rather than following what they deem to be hollow and meaningless words. Changes leaders must also remember that tasks cannot be devolved effectively unless those they are devolved to can achieve the challenges.
  • In the context of a programme of public spending cuts where the message from the Chancellor seems (ironically, in the context of the Five Ds) that there is no ‘Plan B’, the second circumstance is the one to focus on.  While good change leaders constantly scan the environment to identify potential risk, the process flow moves round to the first Dimension where this scanning and evaluation leads the business to re-evaluate.
  • While every crisis can be turned into an opportunity, it is positive communication and supportive behaviour that acknowledge concerns and fears that help them to become so. Successful implementation of change needs an acceptance and understanding – across the organisation – that it is the collective will and actions of all people in the business that will ultimately determine success or failure.

Given the social and legal obligations upon them, public services rarely have an option of failure, even if they may face endless accusation of it. Public expectation of service delivery is unlikely to change, and the mathematics of the process are not helpful. A department with a 40% budget cut may ‘choose’, for example, to provide only 9 out of 12 current services. A tax payer (and we all pay tax through indirect taxation) will not be paying any less tax: the cost to them will remain constant, effectively devaluing their tax contribution. Cutting 25% of services while costing the customer the same translates as a 33% increase in price to them for each remaining service. (It’s the same as euros costing more at the airport but still needing dinner when you land in Spain. The restaurant didn’t rise the price, but it’s still costing you more.)

Ironically, given the apparent insistence of the Chancellor that there is ‘no plan B’ (which seems remarkable unless the power to fix all prevailing circumstances until 2015 is magically concealed up his sleeve), it is a change management model that is built on the principle that Plan A is the framework that enables Plan B – F inclusive to come into being that is most likely to assist public sector managers in refocusing and equipping their organisations for the months to come.

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