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Change: Rip it up and start again

Helen Mayson

Tom Cheesewright

Is your organisational model outdated? Tom Cheesewright suggests that change has probably already made it obsolete - so don't be afraid to start smashing it down

Change breaks organisational models. Change is happening ever faster. Your organisational model is probably broken.

Once we have designed an institution, every change we make tends to be within the parameters of that original design. Fractional shifts, this way and that. Hierarchies, silos and job roles remain, while the people within them are shuffled up and down, in and out. Sometimes you need to take a step back and consider whether the design still works at all.

A great example of this change is the web. It’s nearly twenty years since the web went mainstream. Yet still I regularly hear arguments about who owns a company’s web presence. Is it an IT function, a marketing function or a communications function?

You might as well argue about who controls the building you all work in. Is it facilities? IT runs the server room, all the cabling and machines. HR decides who can come in and out. Each department head runs their own offices. Running the building is a collaboration facilitated by different people with the relevant skills.

Getting perspective

Stepping back and recognising where things are broken is hard. Building and adopting a structure and flow that works for the new reality is even harder. It means everyone releasing their claims into an open forum and accepting that the old ways don’t work in the new environment. And that actually, they don’t have the skills or resource to tackle new challenges successfully on their own. Rarely is this a painless process. Which is why old, broken models persist so long with minor amendments disguising more fundamental issues.

The first step in fixing something broken inside your organisation is identifying the problem. As I have written previously in this column, perspective is all too rare. Once inside an organisation people rapidly acclimatise to the limitations and political frictions that prevent change. They become blinkered.

There’s no shame in being institutionalised - it happens to everyone. It’s only a problem if you don’t recognise it. If you even suspect you’ve lost perspective, get someone external in to see what you can’t. Not only will someone from outside be able to see changes that might be needed, they can afford to be politically unpopular enough to state them. You don’t want a consultant who plans to be around for the long term: they will be bound by the same strictures that you are and rapidly become institutionalised themselves.

Alternatively, try this: when you come back from a decent holiday, or maternity leave, or any extended break from the business, pretend you’re a consultant. Try looking at the business with fresh eyes. Write down everything that catches your eye. Every inefficiency and failing. You might surprise yourself how much stuff you deep down was broken, and how a fresh return to work might give you some optimism that it can be changed.

Orders of magnitude

The next step is in identifying what is required. Good data is invaluable here, something I often find is lacking inside companies. Good data helps to take the political edge off decisions, or at least to make strong cases in the face of resentment. If you have even the slightest suspicion that things are not the way the should be in your organisation, invest in building good metrics first. Prove your case.

In many situations though, required changes are obvious with the right perspective. If you’re not sure whether something qualifies for a revolutionary change, consider this: will it make a difference that can be measured in orders of magnitude? This is an approach I use to filter possible future trends and focus on the most important. If you made change X, would it lead to 10x or 100x lower costs, better quality, improved service, faster transactions? If the answer is yes, get out your hammer and start smashing it down.

The process of change is undoubtedly painful. But the results are sufficiently rewarding. Which is good, because when you’ve finished this change you need to start on the next one. The world is changing ever faster, and that process you thought was fine six months ago? Well, you might want to take another look.

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