Renewal
May 7, 2012

Living Renewal: Myths and Reality

Conservation and Protection (C&P) is the enforcement arm of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. C&P in the Pacific region is composed of 186 employees based in 35 offices across British-Columbia and the Yukon.

In late 2005, C&P was in bad shape. Much of the pride and commitment of the employees had been eroded, if not lost altogether. Firmly determined to “restore some pride in the organization,” C&P went through its own public service renewal and, within three years, completely turned itself around to become a healthy organization.

How to turn around an organization in 1000 days
To get a better appreciation of how bad the situation was in C&P, let me refer you to an article by Jack Cole entitled “Want to know the best place to work in Canada’s federal public service?” It presents a methodology to measure the level of employee engagement based on the results of the 2005 Public Service Employee Survey (PSES). Fifty-four departments and agencies were ranked by their level of employee engagement. By comparison, C&P would have ranked very last on the list with an employee engagement score of 44.5 percent.

In 2007, C&P administered the PSES internally to its staff. In just 18 months, C&P had improved its performance on over 80 percent of the indicators.

These improvements were a direct result of the steps taken by C&P to address the issues that really mattered to the employees:

  • Clearing the staffing backlog;
  • Promptly and clearly communicating how staffing processes work, new opportunities, and upcoming changes;
  • Speeding up staffing by systematically completing internal appointment processes in three weeks (instead of the average 22.8 weeks) and external recruitment campaigns in three months (instead of the usual six to nine month period);
  • Investing in performance management skills among supervisors;
  • Creating a grassroots led initiative where employees decide on and implement changes to their workplace.

This brief summary can’t possibly do justice to the renewal efforts, but some readers may be intrigued enough to consider applying similar practices in their organization. It is therefore the right moment to shift the discussion to the myths of change management.

The Myth: Change initiatives lead to change

Most of the literature and conventional wisdom about change management is based on an assumption of top-down change. This assumption is partly flawed because it suggests that change happens the way we traditionally manage, i.e., through vision statements, measurable objectives, step-by-step plans, and of course, with leadership from the top. While such change initiatives may facilitate reporting on progress, the results are not necessarily synonymous with change. For example:

  • Vision statements don’t mean the vision is shared by the employees;
  • Measurable objectives typically exclude what is difficult to measure (such as values, leadership and good people management);
  • Plans don’t always translate into actions;
  • Sequential step-by-step approaches are of little use in a constantly evolving environment where adaptability and responsiveness are paramount; and
  • Leadership from the top often overshadows leadership at other levels and creates an expectation that it is up to senior management alone to lead (or enforce!) the change.

It is estimated that between 50-70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail. They may look good on paper at the outset, but in practice they are messy. Managers may find great comfort in finely crafted change initiatives and other 1-2-3 formulas, but in doing so they may be deceiving themselves.

Here are some of the most common traps of change initiatives and a few tips on how to avoid them.

If you want to renew your organization like C&P did, don’t do what C&P did! In other words, be critical of best practices and do some thinking of your own. What C&P did worked because it was tailored to needs of its employees. You can’t expect to get the same results by implementing the same practices in a different organization with a different mandate, evolving in a different context, and characterised by a different culture.

Beware the quick fix, i.e., trying to solve problems without changing the thinking that produced them in the first place. As Peter Senge explains, “solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem, not the fundamental causes, tend to have short-term benefits at best. In the long term, the problem resurfaces and there is increased pressure for symptomatic response.” If you apply band-aid solutions, you will simply end up reproducing the same old problems, or make things worse.

Resist the temptation to throw yourself in too many directions. The risk is to have a bunch of fragmented solutions that are not sustained over time. You may be better off concentrating on a limited set of projects that all target the same key problem and resolve it for good rather than dissipating your efforts.

Never forget that if you require a change initiative now, it is most likely because:
You and your organization haven’t changed until now;Under the same or similar circumstances, you didn’t see the need to change or didn’t know how to bring about change;What you have been doing so far, including your thinking and your behaviours, probably perpetuated the very situation you now want to change.

This is why it’s a myth to believe that change initiatives lead to change. The reality is that you must change first. Let’s face it: if you didn’t have to change, you wouldn’t need a change initiative to start with!

The Reality: Changing yourself leads to change
People often mistakenly believe the practices summarized earlier are the cause of the change experienced by C&P. The opposite is true: these practices are the consequence of a deep change that took place in the minds of C&P employees and management. For instance, the reason C&P is able to do internal staffing in three weeks is because whenever we have a vacancy, we make staffing our absolute priority and we recognize that staffing is the primary means through which trust is built with staff. By changing how we think about staffing, we were able to change how we do staffing.

C&P’s recipe for organizational renewal is disarmingly simple. The hard part is actually doing it, because you have to do it every single day. You must be open to new and challenging ideas. You must be willing to have difficult conversations with employees. You must practice truth-telling. You must make unpopular decisions. You must welcome criticism. And you must apologize to employees and be held accountable for your missteps. I know few people willing to do all of this, and even fewer organizations where this is commonplace.

Furthermore, you must sustain all these good habits over a long period of time. 1000 days is what it took just to turn the organization around. But we haven’t reached maturity yet; C&P is still fragile. We expect it will take at least another 1000 days before the change becomes part of the culture. One mistake could ruin what we have built because destruction is so much easier than construction. And that’s what makes C&P’s simple recipe so incredibly hard to implement.

Better employee engagement doesn’t mean less work

As your employees become more “engaged”, their expectations will rise, and you will feel the pressure to not only keep up with what you’ve been doing, but to surpass it in order to meet the new expectations. Rather than dealing with low morale, latent conflicts, poor performance, etc., you will likely struggle to harness all the energy of your employees in order to get the best results they can deliver. Each day will be a new test of your commitment to renewa

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