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Organisations have to think differently before they behave differently

I have been looking at the reasons why large and complex organisations have such difficulty in bringing in changes that are designed to improve performance but often fail to do so.

These can be private sector corporates or public sector organisations – the thing they have in common is that they employ a lot of people in a multiplicity of teams, groups, divisions, departments and operational and business units.

The simple conclusion is one that many have come to before us: an organisation cannot improve its performance by simply introducing new systems and processes. The desired benefits don’t come from the new processes, nor do they lie at the door of the project manager, or even the chief executive (although his role is crucial). They come from the changes its people make to the way they work.  

But people have to think differently before they behave differently. The key is how to get people to think differently.

John Seddon, the systems guru, would argue that behaviour is a product of the system you put people in. He says people are not naturally idle and devious, it’s the command-and-control approach to management that assumes they are – and so they become so.

To a great extent I think he is right. You only have to compare organisations which have empowered their people with those that measure and control every aspect of the workflow to notice the fundamental difference in pace, enthusiasm and sense of shared purpose that comes across from the moment you walk into the offices.   

And people in the organisation will only begin to think and behave differently if they are given the leadership and opportunity to do so – in other words, it’s the top management team that has to start thinking differently, before the rest will follow. So to return to the proposition: the key is how to get the top management team to think differently.

Seddon would, at this stage, argue strongly for the introduction of a systems approach, which requires a re-assessment of the whole approach to meeting customer needs and designing processes around that.

As a ‘jobbing’ consultant, proposing such a revolutionary solution to most clients just isn’t feasible. So although we might agree with the power of systems thinking to achieve a real sea-change in customer satisfaction and the organisation’s performance, the reality is that most clients will demand a ‘business as usual’ approach. 

That does not mean we should give up on the key question: how to get people – and specifically the top management team – to think differently.

One approach which I am now using with clients, is to carry out an assessment of the complexity of the project in the context of the organisation’s capability to accommodate change. This uses a Project Readiness Assessment toolkit based based on a methodology we call INPACT (Integrated Process and Culture Transformation).

INPACT addresses the dual core of a change project: processes and people, and uses a set of models and tools to quickly identify the underlying causes of actual or potential failure of a project. The output from this assessment is used to work with senior managers to shift their thinking about how to achieve the benefits they need: efficiency, cost savings, improved quality of service etc.

The first model we use is the Management Culture model, which describes the dominating management style of an organisation (or at least that part of the organisation being assessed).

The model is based on the realisation that there is an underlying tension between the individual and the organisation which affects every aspect of the way that organisation works; its management culture and its capability to introduce – and take advantage of – change. The nature of this tension needs to be understood, brought out and dealt with, if we want to change the way the people in the organisation think and behave – and be successful in bringing about change and improvement.

Seddon’s systems approach sensibly looks at the workflow from outside-in and gives far more responsibility to the people closest to the customer (internal or extrernal) for management of the variety of decisions that need to be made to achieve high customer satisfaction first time around. But he doesn’t focus directly on the people, their needs and aspirations, their attitudes and motivation, which is the purpose of the Management Culture model. If you do that, it is easy to spot misalignment and disempowerment – two indicators of potential barriers to success when implementing a change project.

Consider, in your own organisation, your responses to the following three statements:

1)       My team works:


Totally without my intervention – they will come to me if they need me


Without my intervention under normal circumstances, for routine work


I need to keep my eye on them


Unless I am on them constantly, nothing gets done


2)       My manager represents my interests well, consults me when necessary and keeps me fully informed about any changes that might affect me, my job or my area of responsibility


a)       Totally


b)       Mostly


c)       Not too confident about this


d)       Not at all – I have to find this out through the grapevine


3)       I have a good relationship with my peer group – other managers at my level in the organisation. We share information and ideas and they keep me informed about any changes that might affect me, my job or my area of responsibility


a)       Totally


b)       Mostly


c)       Not too confident about this


d)       Not at all – I have to find this out through the grapevine


If you scored less than 6 out of a total of 12, you may need to pay attention to the lack of trust that will slow down any project that seeks to introduce changes to the way people work in your organisation. A score of 3-4 indicates a significant problem which will almost certainly stop a change project in its tracks!

This set of questions is only one of the inputs that we feed into the Management Culture model to help us understand where the barriers to change will lie. The model also points to the approach to take in order to shift the way people think and behave.

But looking at management culture is only the starting point. We also need to look at the capability of the organisation to manage its processes.

Brett Champlin and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University developed a generic 5-step Capability Maturity Model to describe process management capability, which allows us to map this very effectively. An organisation with a low level of process capability is unlikely to be disciplined enough to be able to  standardise processes across the organisation effectively.

The interesting finding is that an organisation’s management culture and its process capability maturity correlate quite closely in many organisations.

In this sense, Seddon is absolutely right: the behaviour of people is a product of the system you put them in. An organisation which has an aligned and empowered workforce is likely also to have introduced standardised and efficient processes, which are being used consistently by everyone to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction. By contrast, if the organisation is inward-looking and bureaucratic, its people will be focused on meeting imposed performance targets, rather than working together to meet the needs of their customers.

Changing this behaviour must start with a change in how the organisation manages both its people and its processes. And that means that senior level managers have to start to think differently and involve their people in planning, implementing and ‘owning the changes. This is not revolutionary, but it is transformational. And we regard most change projects of any size as transformational – and not simple.

Which brings me to the third key model in the INPACT toolkit, which looks at the complexity of the project. We measure this and map it against the organisation’s management culture and process capability to come up with an indication of how successful we think the project will be in coming in on time and within budget, and how well it will deliver the planned benefits.

Typically, a project that is more complex than anticipated by its sponsors will exceed the capability of the organisation to achieve the necessary changes in people’s behaviour. However, with the insights that INPACT can bring, senior managers can put in place the actions needed to overcome the barriers to success, whether they are more appropriate resourcing, better benefits realisation planning, greater involvement of customer-facing people in the design and implementation of the changes, or even (as has been the case on a number of occasions) a parallel initiative to develop a more mature, knowledge-sharing and empowered management culture.   

Or in other words, start thinking differently.

My new book, The Change Equation, sets out the principles of the INPACT methodology – Find it on Amazon from mid-November. You can also download exerpts from my website:   

Peter Duschinsky can be contacted at:


May 9, 2008 - Posted by | business change management, project and programme management | , , , , , ,

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