The blindness of senior management

by Stephen Warrilow
(Singapore/Vietnam)

Recently I received this comment from a subscriber to this ezine:

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"In my view, it's all about engaging the right people in the change strategy.

I have bumbled along with change strategies for a while now and truly believe there are 2 elements that are missing:

(1) The 'buy-in' from people who have role authority, and

(2) The selling of the messages by me to resonate with those people."


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My response was as follows:

I entirely agree that gaining the support of those people with role authority is important - Kotter says that at least 75% of management have to be actively in support of the change for it to even have a chance of success.

However, that is not the whole picture. Until fairly recently I used to think that it was. I used to think that you made the case, created momentum and then sold it to "the troops" via excellent communication strategies.

Whilst all of that is important and excellent communication is better then poor communication or no communication it misses one key element - the involvement of the front-line troops from the outset.

I always thought change was a "top-down" process

For years - in fact most of my working adult life - I had always seen this as a top down process supported by a big and genuine effort to help the the frontline employees "buy-in" and work with the change.

And whilst I had always been very clear about the need to understand and work with - exploit even - the political dimension at the top of the organisation I was completely blind to the need to understand and work with the political and relational aspects of the informal networks that exist within every large organisation.

The vital importance of engaging the informal organisation

My damascene conversion occurred when I discovered and read the practical, evidence based work of thought leaders such as Jon Katzenbach in the US and Neil Farmer in the UK. Jon Katzenbach teamed with Zia Khan to write "Leading outside the Lines" and to quote:

"Learning how to mobilize the informal elements of an organization to accelerate the formal elements goes a long way in helping leaders fill the gap between intention and results."

UK based change management practitioner Neil Farmer has led 5 successful major change initiatives and he observes that whilst the formal organisation determines all routine aspects of what takes place, and in so doing provides the necessary "glue" of stability and repeatability, the shadow or informal organisation largely determines the scope and pace of change:

"Where the shadow and formal organisations come into conflict in a change situation, the balance of influence in the shadow organisation will almost always win the day."

Farmer estimates that up to 75% of an organisation's natural leaders and informal networks sit outside of the formal management structure.

A quantum step forward...

The recognition, identification and utilisation of informal networks takes Kotter's insights and observation re gaining a critical mass of support from senior management a quantum step forward - not least because it dramatically reduces resistance to change.

I have introduced and discussed informal networks and working with supportive subcultures in the 2 following articles:
Working With Informal Networks
Working With Supportive Sub-Cultures

There is more information and extensive resource in this section:
Dealing With Resistance To Change

Such an obvious thing

What I now find quite astonishing is that despite being blind to this dimension when I have been in management and executive roles in the past I have nevertheless always adopted this approach when working in trouble-shooting and consultative roles.

I realised many years ago that the secret to being a good troubleshooter and consultant was get alongside those people right down at the frontline, gain their confidence, and ask them to identify the problems and to come up with the solutions.

This is such an obvious thing and yet I am astonished and embarrassed that I have taken so long to realise that it is this direct engagement with frontline staff from the outset and then throughout the change initiative this is a major key to overcoming resistance and realising the envisaged benefits of the change.

I can see that the "blindness" that I had to this insight is very much the same blindness that afflicts many/most senior managers and leaders.

The reason for this blindness is, I feel, connected to the fact that so many of us have grown up and been trained in a centralised "command-control" style of management.


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