Putting people before buzzwords

Matrix management, process re-engineering and disruptive technology. When you are going through a business transformation you’ll hear a lot of language like this, so it is easy to forget that transformation is about the people. Real people, not just boxes on a flow chart. Real people who get up at 6 am to get the kids ready for school, drop them off at breakfast club and get to work on time. And after that, they want coffee from the usual place in their own mug. Forget that and your transformation heads for disaster.

That’s a real example from a transformation I worked on. For regulatory reasons, a company’s operations were being split in two but occupying the same building. When one team realised its much-loved coffee machine was now behind a newly installed security door, with no direct access, it was the beginning of the end. People were furious their routine and personal space had been trampled on, without notice. It might seem trivial but it is not.

A small disruption to people’s working lives, done in the wrong way, can plant a seed that will grow in their minds. As resentment festers, any additional glitches, miscommunication or unfulfilled promises will be attributed to a fundamental flaw in the transformation. A rumour mill will produce wild conspiracy theories behind even the most transparent, logical justification for change and in reaction people will wilfully start to go back to old working patterns.

It’s easy for a critical mass to resist change without getting fired. They use Post-It notes and call colleagues instead of exploiting the new business processes and software that was supposed to catapult productivity to the next level. They enjoy being renegades pushing against the new ways and spread rebellious tips with likeminded colleagues.

CEOs and senior execs are used to change. Managing it well probably got them where they are. But most people don’t like it and will only entertain ideas of change for a short period before counter arguments stack up. Change programmes have a short period in which to bed-in and get people established in a new routine. Miss that window and you could be fighting a losing battle trying to get people onside.

In reality, there is rarely a Machiavellian agenda behind most business change. The vast majority are rational responses to changing market or regulatory circumstances. To ease change, management needs more communication, much earlier and it needs to be more candid and consistent.

People see through management-speech very easily. They laugh, they play buzz-word bingo. You need leaders who are sincere, credible, personable and open and who are comfortable in social situations. They need to tell a story that resonates with the listening workforce not their top down view of things.

Some companies get more junior employees to take a lead in certain parts of a transformation. In cases of digital transformation, they are more accepting, and others are less likely to see them as a threat. Unlike those in more senior management roles, they are not seen as acting in short-term self-interest.

After all at the end of the day MBAs, detailed business process diagrams and transformative technology are worth nothing if you don’t put people at the centre of every change programme. That’s true in any language.

Andy Tinlin is on the board of the Management Consultancies Association and Managing Director of Accenture Strategy UK & Ireland. Originally featured in the Raconteur special report on Business Transformation, distrubuted in The Times.