5 key principles for managing change

Over the years I have completed a range of major change programmes involving individual and multiple organisations working together to improve the three “Es” of efficiency, economy and effectiveness of their services.  There are many books  and guidance materials on the subject  covering creating change champions, good communications and the like. But in my experience and perhaps as people don’t change, it’s not surprising how Niccolo Machiavelli’s 17th century message still holds true:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” Niccolo Machiavelli

So how can we overcome the barriers and not repeat the same mistakes of the past?  There is no easy answer but there are a set of principles that will help you avoid the deepest ‘bear pits’.  When you reflect on them you may find they are all obvious but as one client colleague said to me once:

“Stating the obvious is not a bad thing as the obvious is often more easy to spot then to state.”

Agree the key principles at the top, right from the start and keep reinforcing them throughout the change with all concerned

Make sure, right from the start that the senior managers are signed up to the key principles involved and keep them signed up during the course of the change programme.  I often hear the term ‘burning platform’.  Although this is a useful metaphor demonstrating why we should change and leave danger behind, it’s only half of the story.   The other half is what do we want to achieve?  Agreeing the principles for the change is the single most important thing to achieve.  Most people are intelligent, innovative and ambitious – They want to do well.  If we can harness their power and potential through a shared vision for the future, they will rally to achieve it.

This needs to be reinforced with a sound communications programme.  However – beware –communications specialists support but should not drive the message.  The programme leader should spend a large proportion of their time spreading the message and the vision to stakeholders.  This not only ensures a consistent message, but also provides the programme leader with valuable insights into stakeholder requirements and thinking which can pay considerable dividends in avoiding problems and issues.

You know you’ve made it on a programme through what I term ‘bar room’ discussions.  If you ask anyone involved over a beer what the programme is about – you will always get a relatively consistent answer.  If you don’t – you have problems.

Avoid responsibility without power and power without time – Empower your programme leaders

Quite simply, whoever has the responsibility for leading the change programme must have both the time and power to do it.  All too often, programme leaders are given the responsibility but are not empowered to make the changes.  This does not mean that there should be no governance nor agreement with the various line managers delivering services – simply keeping senior managers onside, needs regular contact with them so that they can fine tune the programme as it develops.

What it does mean is that whoever is leading the change has to have sufficient authority to drive it forward and the time to do it.  The UK’s public sector often misses this badly.  Typically, the programme has a programme board, a senior responsible owner (SRO) and a programme manager.  In some extreme cases the programme board is turned into a portfolio board with several SROs, programme boards and committees to coordinate multiple contributory activities.  The SRO’s role might also be delegated to deputies so that there are layers upon layers of governance and, as highlighted in the UK’s Civil Service Reform Plan, the SROs are changed far too often during the course of a programme anyway and that changes emphasis and direction.

The net result of this is confusion, mixed messages, silo working, changes in direction, long decision times, and poor performance.  There is often a temptation to reorganise the programme/portfolio in flight but as one Roman General put it:

“We trained hard… but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation.”

More quotes by Arbiter, Gauis Petronius Arbiter, Gauis Petronius (c. 27 – 66 AD)

What is needed is continuity of direction, short governance and reporting lines and leaders empowered to make the difference.  So if senior managers commissioning the change do not have time to devote to it themselves, they must empower their programme managers to do it for them.  This is a ‘scary’ position for any manager as it requires a high level of trust and confidence between the senior leadership team and the programme manager.  It also requires a direct reporting line from the programme manager/leader to the governance board without all the layers in between and the ability to speak with confidence on behalf of the SRO.  What is absolutely essential is that the individual needs the time and the authority to be able to ‘make it happen’.

Work across teams not in silos

Change programmes always work across organisational boundaries.  Even the very small ones involving a single team or person also involve their suppliers and customers.  The larger change programmes can be across several independent organisations involving multiple services.  Introducing shared services, for example, has multiple organisations collaborating on the use of central services and agreeing similar processes in the ways that the services will be accessed and delivered.  Each of these services has both suppliers feeding into them and customers taking the outputs.  However, we often tend to work around our current organisation structures rather than fundamentally examining how we do things.  This echoes one of Niccolo Machiavelli’s lesser known quotations:

“The question is, then, do we try to make things easy on ourselves or do we try to make things easy on our customers, whoever they may be?”

Niccolo Machiavelli

Working in silos may appear easier but in reality can cause further confusion and duplication of effort.  I worked on a part of one corporate services portfolio programme that had used separate programmes (silo working) covering Shared transactional services, Finance, Estates, Procurement, IT and HR across multiple partner organisations.  Each programme area set about agreeing its own principles, approach and delivery mechanism.  Twelve months into the programme, the portfolio governance tried to join things up.  But by this time, individual programmes had developed and in some cases implemented ideas for new customer websites, organisation structures and delivery mechanisms.  The opportunity for transformational working had been lost and would not be regained without a considerable amount of rework and cost.

This really underlines the first lesson to get the principles agreed right from the start.  There can be benefits in silo working – it tends to be easier and de-risks some of the changes.  However, this should be recognised explicitly and detailed in the scope of the work so everyone knows why it is not joined up  rather than trying to treat it as an ‘add on’ during the process

Be honest, courageous and really understand your role

I was once asked to ‘trouble shoot’ a £20 million software development.  This was part of a major change programme to streamline and enhance the life insurance sales processes.  The problem was that the software delivery manager would forecast a go live date in 3 months and then the month before implementation would forecast he needed another 3 months.  Senior managers could not understand the problem.  I found that the main issue was that the software delivery manager, whilst a highly competent technician, shied away from being fully open and honest with his bosses.  I was asked to take over the delivery; we went live within the year and the software was eventually rolled out to 2,000 users and won an award for innovation in IT.  Most of the credit for this goes to its original designer – I just created the environment in which he could succeed.

In any project, programme or portfolio involving change or the development of a product, there are always 3 elements in complete balance. These are:

  • Timescale
  • Resources
  • Delivery content or scope

A change to one necessitates a change to at least one or both of the others.  In this case, the software delivery manager simply did not have enough resource to keep up with the changes to the actuarial calculations for the insurance company’s life products.  The scope kept changing and so, with a fixed resource, the timescale had to be extended.  There were other issues as well around using more efficient development methods but these were secondary to the main challenge.

A similar situation arose on another major programme to introduce shared services but for slightly different reasons.  Four months before the first go line date it was patently obvious to all the work stream leaders that the date would not be met and the programme should be classed as a deep shade of crimson.  It was reported as amber green to the programme board – ie on track but with some issues.  In this case the SRO did not want to hear bad news and instructed the team to classify report good news.  The SRO didn’t understand that their role is to ensure that if the timescale cannot be met, that appropriate action is taken.  In this case it could have been increased resource, reduced scope or simply an early warning of the change in timescale.  None of the programme team had the courage of their convictions to be honest and courageous and the SRO really didn’t understand his role.

There is a tendency for senior managers not to like bad news – but they should encourage it.  Really high performing change programmes foster considerable team spirit where problems and issues are there to be resolved not to cast blame.  So when a senior manager is presented with, a detrimental progress report, their reaction should not be to dismiss the findings and shoot the messenger, but to understand the issues, take action to improve the position and create the environment where the team can succeed.

Manage in front not from behind

This principle came from a Price Waterhouse partner, John Laycock, I worked with many years ago.  It is all about anticipating issues and problems in advance and averting them or at least being prepared for them when they arise.  Modern project and programme management call this risk and issues management.  However, all too often current project and programme mismanagement is about recording and monitoring the risks and issues rather than proactively managing them.

Managing in front is all about empathising with stakeholders, putting yourself in their place and anticipating their reactions, needs and challenges.  It’s also about anticipating what can go wrong and steering away from the problems in advance so you don’t even encounter them.  If you do this, a great many issues can be ‘headed off at the pass’ – well before they become real challenges.  Not anticipating them or waiting for them to occur with no real contingency plan can put you on the ‘back foot’ and the leader is then constantly events driven rather than driving events.


Of course you don’t always get it right but keeping these principles in mind will help a great deal.  Of course you also need the change tasks and techniques of developing change champions, nudging sceptics into line and building the momentum for change.  But this is about doing things right. Your leadership is about turning the words ‘things and right’ around and getting your change programme team to do the right things.

Article by David Mason – Blue Alumni