• Nick Smith

O is for ... well it's Optional

There's a few things we're convinced of here at Epion, ways of thinking that underpin what we do. Many of them are implicit in this blog series, a few of them perhaps explicit. In this blog we'll dig into one of our key themes a little, and highlight how this plays into some of the ways we work with change.

So, here's the thing: it is clear that an ability to change, and effecting change itself, continue to grow in importance for organisations - to respond to market and environmental factors, to develop and sustain competitive advantage, even just to survive. But at the same time, much of the change that's sought translates into something optional for those impacted by it. Organisations need new colleague mindsets and culture - but those same colleagues can undertake their work (at least initially) without adopting different mindsets or committing to different cultural norms. Digital transformation does mandate new ways of working - but it also offers new ways of working. For example, the collaborative tools provided by Google and Microsoft enable documents to be edited by multiple people simultaneously, but don't mandate that; online meeting tools enable video conferencing with document sharing and much more - but in most organisations colleagues can still just pick up the phone or organise audio conferences. If it wasn't for Covid-19 they might choose to meet face to face. Thus the reality is that much of the desired change is optional - and if it comprises options not pursued, then targeted (perhaps much-needed) benefits will not be secured.

How appropriate is it, then, to talk about 'delivering' change or about 'implementing' change? That makes sense, perhaps, for implementing a new Works Management system that forces people to follow its implicit process - but for (digital) transformation that involves shifts in culture and the adoption of optional ways of working? Probably not. It's why Epion talks about enabling change, not delivering it; why we talk about engaging, envisioning, and equipping people to embrace change - and embed it.

That's about language - and we think language really does matter. But how does it play out in how we approach (and we'd suggest you approach) change where some of what you seek is, let's face it, optional for those impacted? Here's three ways:

Work with those who will create pull for you. I got a great model years ago in a workshop led by Kevin Thomson. It's a two by two: one axis is about 'getting it' - understanding what the organisation is trying to do; and the other is about commitment to that. Obviously, you want to see people move into the top right quadrant - they get it, and they're committed to it. What's not obvious is the quadrant you focus on to get more people to the top right. It's neither the 'loose cannons' who are committed, but don't get it, nor the potential saboteurs who absolutely get what the organisation is trying to do, but will have none of it. Rather, you work with those already in the top right. They're your champions, and by working with them; learning from their adoption; featuring what they're doing, how they are innovating, and how they're succeeding and benefitting: by doing this, you can build pull as others will over time want to emulate them.

Shift the timing of change interventions. Classically, change interventions are deployed before change is introduced (new systems, new processes, etc). In part, that's one of the problems of programmatic change - anyone thinking 'P is for the Problem with Programmes'? But if we're looking to build adoption pull; if we're working with those who have adopted early and learning from them; if we're looking to move optional ways of working to cultural norms - then that's process, not event. And it's a process that our change interventions will do well to support. So, plan on the balance of change interventions shifting from predominantly before the deployment of (say) new technologies to predominantly after that deployment. And if that's difficult because change interventions are funded and resourced by a programme that will complete at deployment, then look to alter how change is resourced.

Model the behaviours you want. This is only part of recognising that if change features optional ways of working, then you're looking for culture change and mindset shift. There's not space here to outline our approach to culture change, but it includes an emphasis on modelling behaviours by leaders. That's not least because behaviours are more 'caught than taught', and because organisations, from first line teams to entire corporations will over time take on the characteristics of their leader. So, if you want your teams to adopt new, optional, ways of working, then make sure those ways of working are being demonstrated by their leaders.

Incidentally, if you can get hold of it, Kevin M Thomson's The Company Culture Cookbook is a wonderful source of ideas and tools to engage people.

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