Elemental Change: seven scenarios for that sinking feeling

In an exclusive extract from his new book about making complex change happen, British workplace strategist Neil Usher describes a series of alternative change scenarios that companies might recognise right now

British workplace change expert Neil Usher, the man behind such landmark schemes as Sky Central in London, has followed up his acclaimed book The Elemental Workplace (2018) with a new publication, Elemental Change: Making Stuff Happen When Nothing Stands Still.

Described as a practical guide to making complex change attainable, it has direct relevance to the challenges many organisations are facing right now as they adjust to new ways of working. In this exclusive extract from the book, Usher describes the different scenarios that people encounter when they begin a change initiative…

Change scenarios

We could just crash headlong into our change initiative, get cracking and make stuff happen even if the world doesn’t stand still. When we look around, everyone else seems to be doing it.

A lot of people are talking about doing it, too: posts on social media decked in stock photography featuring stress-wrinkle-free foreheads, easy smiles and sparkling teeth, sanitised change effortlessly delivered to order. It can make us feel inadequate if we dwell on it. That’s because the first point to consider with change is how it makes us feel as we contemplate what lies ahead.

Through my career I’ve met and worked with people for whom change resembles one of these alternative scenarios. We’ll see ourselves in these situations somewhere (although we probably won’t want to say so):

An emergency: We’re on a burning platform, mostly fictitious – change, or die (horribly) – so do whatever it takes and do it now. It ends up being frenzied and chaotic, but the objective is achieved despite the ridiculous proportion of effort to productive outcome. When it’s all done and celebrated, no one especially worries about that, believing that next time it’ll be different – better planned, more economical, less stressful. The underlying philosophy, printed onto team tee-shirts in Wham! sized letters is: “JFDI!

Resistance mitigation: It’s a bulldozing. We’ll get to the other end no matter who gets in the way. It’s going to happen, and opposition is futile. Success is identified as a simple result – victory. Us versus them. There’s emotion, and there are casualties (tears, resignations) on both sides. Existing relationships are broken never to be repaired and few new ones are created. The underlying philosophy mumbled at meetings is: ‘You have to crack a few eggs if you want to make an omelette.’ At the time of mumbling, no one knows who the eggs are. Everyone secretly wonders if it’s them. And hopes not.

Repairs and maintenance: A mechanical operation on a stationary object, safely isolated from the mains. We follow the manual, do what’s required, reconnect and test. The process is highly linear, punctured by phase gates and signoffs, so completion is usually late and buried under a mountain of auditable paperwork. No one fiddles with the rest of the inactive object while we’re performing our work. No one gets hurt and no one falls out, yet someone usually gets blamed for it being late. The underlying philosophy that starts each meeting is: ‘Perfect planning prevents piss-poor performance.’ It doesn’t, of course.

A popularity contest: We must do this, but please don’t hate us! We do whatever it takes to keep others on our side. Resources include short-shelf-life charm and a jumbo order pad. Satisfaction becomes habituated and so it’s over budget and late due to the scope-creep/​stampede. Efforts to keep people happy usually result in not many people being especially happy. Recriminations include promises to be tougher next time. The underlying philosophy, printed onto team mugs is: ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ People really still do this.

A conspiracy: We have to do this but there’s another hidden agenda. It’s just masking a more sinister aim, so we’ll play along while we try to uncover what’s really going on and find out who stands to gain. When we discover, no one will believe us as the ‘deep state’ (corporate leadership) has its tentacles everywhere. We’ll never know which side anyone is on. Leading change is a manicured pretence. We grin and bear it, all the while looking over our shoulder, trying to work out who’s lurking in the shadows. The underlying philosophy, barely whispered to anyone, is: ‘Trust no one.’ So, no one does.

A tragicomedy: It’s going to be awful, but if we can laugh at ourselves, we may just survive. The laughing usually begins too soon. The entrenched cynicism wafting around culture and process means it never stands a chance. It happens on time and on budget, but the tragedy outweighs the comedy, and when it’s all done everyone just feels as though they let themselves down. The underlying philosophy, printed onto team coasters, is: ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.’ It actually doesn’t help.

A steeplechase: A defined linear route, with a few hurdles and a water jump, that we can train for and will get to the end of puffed out, with wet feet and a twisted ankle, but happy. It has the whiff of spirited amateurism about it, all rather gallant, effort over craft. Some of the workarounds will look odd and fail, but no one will mind as long as someone had a go. The underlying philosophy, concluding a reassuring leadership briefing when the team look a bit frazzled, is: ‘Worse things happen at sea.’ Yes, they do. But they needn’t happen here.

Of course, we’re likely to see change through more than one lens at varying times on the path. None of the above scenarios are necessarily wrong, but they’re all rather negative. In each, there’s an assumption that change is a burden, something to get through or be overcome. We’re apprehensive, queasy, empty. The whirlpool of emotion doesn’t make us want to do it, and sure as heck doesn’t make us want to lead it.

It needn’t be this way.

To read a further extract from Elemental Change on dispelling change myths, go to WORKTECH Academy’s Innovation Zone

WORKTECH Academy’s Innovation Zone is for Community Members, Corporate Members and Global Partners only. Join here.

Elemental Change: Making Stuff Happen When Nothing Stands Still by Neil Usher is published by LID Publishing (2020)
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