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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

K is for Keys, toolKits, and Kitchens

I've always been wary of the silver bullet, of the idea that just one thing is the key to anything. Actually, never mind just one thing, I'm deeply suspicious of definitive lists, and the shorter they are the more suspicious I get: the three keys to ... : not for me. And it's the same with guaranteed quick fixes - things are so very rarely like that. Yes, I can over-nuance, and over-complicate, but I can live with that. So when I read 'the key to business change is' x, y or z; or come across an offer to ready a business for immediate, positive, creative transformation in a week, I cringe.

So far, unnecessary self-disclosure. But it's prompted the question for me, what's working with, or leading, change really like? What kind of role do we have? Where does our value really lie? I guess the above makes it pretty clear that I don't think we're locksmiths (or escapologists). We don't turn up with (or even cut) one or a few keys that unlock everything. Nor do I think we relentlessly produce the sequence of keys required to unlock challenge after emerging challenge as change initiatives move forward. That feels, to me, too much like magic, too much casting us as the 'special ones' who will guarantee success, by producing whatever key is needed next. At its heart, this perspective views the business change leader / professional and / or techniques they bring as sufficient for successful change, rather than necessary.

A more promising framing might be to cast us as handywomen / handymen, bringing and deploying a toolkit. There's no claim that any one specific tool will always be the answer, nor that the same set of tools will be required for every change initiative. Our value lies not in a magic unlocking, but in the selection, sequencing, and application of tools. So, sometimes benefits mapping is going to be critical, other times not; sometimes equipping for change will involve face to face training, other times not; and so on. And, we business change professionals are not the only tradespeople in the house - there may be (to push the analogy) electricians (programme and project managers), architects (business strategists), and a range of others with whom we work. I like this model, but ...

There's one problem with the toolkit perspective for me, one that is actually important in business change. It seems to me that, as change leaders and professionals, we're not just selecting and sequencing tools and their use. Rather, we're integrating a range of capabilities (engagement, coaching, organisational design) and tools (impact analysis, process modelling, benefit mapping) into a coherent whole. Yes, there may be distinct phases, or organisational elements with which we're working, but in each case, we're integrating what we do. I'm wondering, therefore, if cooking is a better analogy for what we do? In a 'kitchen', we're developing menus and preparing and serving dishes, evolving them in the light of ingredients available to us, and what's going to go down well with our diners, so that their experience is good. Maybe sometimes we're chefs, but our team includes the dishwashers, prep teams, sous chefs, and more. We rely on our suppliers, and have to work closely with front of house teams. Works for me.

So, if I'm finding that the kitchen / chef analogy works best for me, then the key takeaway (sorry) is that, as business change leaders and professionals, integration is absolutely critical - a key value add. We need to have the nouse to identify just what capabilities, tools, techniques are needed in each different change situation - and then critically, how to blend them into an effective whole. Lots of further implications for the particular leadership skills we need if that's the case, maybe for another time.

What models / analogies work for you for what we're doing in business change? Love to hear.

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