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Avoiding challenge: A strategy for organisational change
Have you ever wondered as a manager or worker what the best way is to avoid having your ideas challenged? Tired of trying to make organisational changes and having those changes called into question. Fed up with trying to instigate something only for someone else to be less than keen. Had enough of trying to do things that will promote your ambitions only to be thwarted by others that just have to add their two pennorth in? Annoyed at extra work being created for you because of a lack of acceptance of your ideas? Are you fed up with the ‘nay sayers’? The answer is simple… don’t communicate anything, just make the changes, and wait for yet another calamity.
The above of course is somewhat tongue in cheek and I am reminded of working with some consultants several years ago (you know the ones; steal your watch to tell you the time). I jest, as they had some sage advice on change management. Two things that come to mind: If you think you have communicated enough about change, you haven’t; communicate more. And find the person or group that needs convincing and work with them, it’s the ‘nay sayers’ that need to be convinced, not the ‘yay sayers’. They are far more valuable to your organisation than those that say ‘yes’.
What we were talking about was major organisational change, but even small changes can have a major impact on a workforce. In our own organisation a recent staff survey suggested that ‘Over 50% of respondents considered that consultation about change at work is poor’. That of course relates to previous iterations of change and a new management team would hope to address the issues. However, in doing so there is a need for organisational change.
I’ve had recent experience of being told that something was happening because someone, in agreement with someone else, thought it was a good idea. It promotes their department, showing them in a good light; they took the idea to a meeting and lo and behold, it is agreed. No consultation with those that need to implement the idea, which may be good or bad, who knows. The point being that it is not just change brought about by managers without consultation that causes annoyance, anxiety and stress, it is those daily working practices of people in the organisation that fear challenge of their ideas. Changes are often made with the best of intentions. Sometimes those intentions are to alleviate burgeoning workloads within a department, sometimes to promote the organisation or individuals or to lighten the burden on students, for example. Often, there is consultation, but it is consultation with the wrong people, consultation with the ‘yay sayers’ and those that have little idea about the impact of the change (for the best will in the world, managers can’t know every detail of the work carried out by their staff). Such consultation avoids scrutiny but provides a thin veneer of respectability. Time and again we see staff queuing up to join consultative groups, but how many of these do so with a view to providing a real critique? Take the idea to a management meeting, get it agreed and there you are, its done. If asked about consultation, then the answer is ‘yes of course we did’. The problem is nobody asks the question ‘who exactly did you consult with’?
It will take a huge shift in organisational culture to get the ‘nay sayers’ to volunteer for consultative exercises. They need convincing that their voice is valued and yet they are a valuable asset. Challenge and scrutiny are healthy and help to mitigate unwanted and unintended consequences.
There is nothing worse than having it done to you when it could so easily have been a case of having it done with you. Next time you think about changing something, don’t assume you know best, by doing so you demonstrate how little you value others.
An alternative Christmas message
Sometime in October stores start putting out Christmas decorations, in November they slowly begin to play festive music and by December people organise office parties and exchange festive cards. For the best part of the last few decades these festive conventions seem to play a pivotal role in the lead up to Christmas. There are jumpers with messages, boxes of chocolates and sweets all designed to spread some festivity around. For those working, studying, or both, their December calendar is also a reminder of the first real break for some since summer.
The lead up to Christmas with the music, stories and wishes continues all the way to the New Year when people seem to share their goodwill around. Families have all sorts of traditions, putting up the Xmas tree on this day, ordering food from the grocers on that day, sending cards to friends and family by that day. An arrangement of dates and activities. On average every person starts in early December recounting their festive schedule. Lunch at mum’s, dinner at my brother’s, nan on Boxing Day with the doilies on the plates, New Years Eve at the Smiths where Mr Smith gets hilariously drunk and starts telling inappropriate jokes and New Year’s at the in-laws with their sour-faced neighbour.
People arrange festivities to please people around them; families reunite, friends are invited, meaningful gifts are bought for significant others and of course buy we gifts for children. Oh, the children love Christmas! The lights, the festive arrangements, the delightful activities, and the gifts! The newest trends, the must have toys, all shiny and new, wrapped up in beautiful papers with ribbons and bows. In the festive season, we must not forget the kind words we exchange, the messages send by local communities, politicians and even royalty. Words full of warmth, well-meaning, perspective and reflection. Almost magical the sights and sounds wrapped around us for over a month to make us feel festive.
It is all too beautiful, so you can be forgiven to hardly notice the lumbering shadow, at the door of an abandoned shop. Homelessness is not a lifestyle as despicably declared by a Conservative councillor/newspapers decades ago. It is the human casualty of those who have been priced out in the war of life. Even since the world went into a deep freeze due to the recession over a decade ago and the world is still in the clutches of that freeze. More people read about Christmas stories in books and in movies, because an even increasing number of people do not share the experience. Homelessness is the result of years of criminal indifference and social neglect that leads more people to live and experience poverty. A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of homelessness. There is no goodwill at the inn whilst the sins of the “father” are now returning in the continent! Centuries of colonial oppression across the world lead to a wave of refugees fleeing exploitation, persecution, and crippling poverty. Unlike the inn-keeper and his daughter, the roads are closed, and the passages are blocked. Clearly, they don’t fit with the atmosphere… nor do the homeless. Come to think of it, neither do the old people who live alone in their cold homes. None of these fit with the festive narrative.
As I walked down a street I passed a homeless guy is curled up in a shop door. A combination of cardboard, sleeping bag and newspapers all jumbled together. Next to him a dog on the cardboard and around them fairy lights. This man I do not know, his face I have not seen, his identity I ignore; but I imagine that when he was born, there was someone who congratulated his mother for having a healthy boy. Now he is alone, fortunate to have a canine companion, as so many do not have anyone. What stands out is that this person, who our festive plans had excluded, is there with his fairy lights, maybe the most festive of all people, without a burgundy coat, I hear some people like these days.
It is so difficult to say Merry Christmas this year. In a previous entry the world cup and its aftermath left a bitter taste in those who believe in making a better world. The economic gap between whose who have and those who do not, increases; the social inequalities deepen but I feel that we can be like that man with the fairy lights, fight back, rise up and end the party for those who like to wear burgundy, or those who like to speak for world events, at a price.
Merry Christmas, my dear criminologists, the world can change, when we become the agents of change.
Findings on the ‘traditional lecture’ format – perfect timing!
I seem to be reading more and more reports on the need to retain lectures as a form of teaching, as it is claimed to ensure students are more engaged and committed to their studies when this method is used. Well, these findings have come to my attention just as I am testing online technologies to replace the ‘traditional’ lecture, via Collaborate on the new Waterside campus. Collaborate is a tool in Blackboard which opens an online classroom for students to join, listen to the lecture and see slides or other media, while also being able to pose questions via a chat function.
On the face of it, not so different, just the physical world replicated in the real world, right? Well, I will reserve judgement as I am still coming to grips with what this technology can do, I am aware younger generations of students may embrace this, and the reality is, it is the only forum I have to offer teaching to large numbers of students. I suspect student experiences are mixed, I know some really like it, some are not so keen, so again, not so different to lectures? The article in the times suggests that students are less likely to drop out if they are taught via lectures and have perceptions of good one-to-one contact with staff. Some more interesting issues were raised from replies in the tweet about the story, raising questions about the need to focus on quality, not method, that many universities are playing catch up with new teaching technologies and that this needs to be better understood from social and cultural perspectives. I think it is also worth picking up on perceptions of students, along with their expectations of higher education and remember, they must develop as independent learners. The setting in this respect would not seem to matter, it is the delivery, the level of effort put in to engage students and reinforcing the message that their learning is as much their responsibility as ours.
There is certainly a lot to grapple with, and for me, just starting out with this new technology, I myself feel there is much to learn and I am keeping an open mind. I do feel there are aspects of traditional teaching which must be retained and this can be done via group seminars, with smaller numbers and an opportunity for discussion, debate and student-led learning. If we see the lecture as the foundation for learning, then perhaps its method of delivery is less important. Given the online provision I must use for lectures, during seminars, I step away from the powerpoint and use the time I have with students in a more interactive way. For those modules where I don’t use online lectures, not much has changed on the new campus, but I am always keen to see how online teaching methods could be adopted – and I am prepared to use them if I genuinely can see their value.
It would be easy to offer only critique of this technology, and I think it is also important not to see it as an answer to the perennial problems with lack of engagement and focus many lecturers experience from mid term onwards. Perhaps online provision can at least overcome barriers to attendance for commuting students, those who feel intimidated in large lecture halls, and those who simply find they don’t engage with the material in this setting. At a time when some courses attract high numbers of students, and the reality of having lectures with 150+ students in a room means potential for noise disruption, lack of focus and interaction then maybe online provision can offer a meaningful alternative. There is provision for some interaction, time can be set aside for this, students can join in without worrying about disruption or not being able to hear the lecturer and it removes the need for lecturers to discipline disruptive behaviour. It does require some level of ‘policing’ and monitoring, but the settings can enable this. Having done lectures with 100 plus students, it is not something I miss – I’ve always preferred smaller seminar group teaching and so I can see how online provision can be a better support for this.
Currently, I use the online session as a form of recap and review, with some additional content for students. This is in part due the timing of the session and I am sure it can work equally as well as preparation for seminars. Students can then use the time to clarify anything they don’t understand and it reinforces themes and issues covered in seminars as well as introducing news ways to examine various topics. As with any innovation, this needs more research from across the board of disciplines and research approaches. In order to move such innovation on from ‘trial and error’ and simply hoping for the best, as with any policy we need to know what works, when it works and why. Therefore, along with my colleagues, I will persist and keep a watchful eye on the work of pedagogic experts out there who are examining this. There have been the inevitable issues with wifi not supporting connectivity – I can’t believe I just used this sentence about my teaching, but there it is. I am optimistic these issues will be overcome, and in the meantime, I always have a plan B – relying on technology is never a good plan (hence the featured image for this blog), but this is perhaps something to reflect on for another day.
Policies for the ideal, reality for the rest.
This week saw the appointment of a new minister for suicide prevention announced on world mental health day (BBC), and an article in The Guardian observing that mental health resources are woefully underfunded.
My thoughts first turned to the fact that the appointment of a minister to address the problem was reminiscent of New Labour’s previous attempts to address issues with the appointment of various czars, none of which were very successful (BBC). Allied to the appointments were the inevitable plethora of new policies, many failing at the first hurdle. Nonetheless their longevity and to some extent durability lay in ministers’ and state agency managers’ egos, and inability to see beyond fantasy and media pleasing rhetoric. However, it would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge that some policies and strategies are conceived and implemented with the best of intentions, both at the macro and micro.
The old saying that ‘no plan last[s] beyond the first encounter with the enemy’ (Hughes, 1993:14) probably explains why so many policies fail, not because the essence of the policy is wrong but because politicians and those in charge fail to take into account or to rationalise that at the very core of the policy intentions, lay people. People are unpredictable, people do not conform to ideals or preconceived ideas and, yet policies are formulated to address ideal situations and an ideal homogenous population. No one member of the public is the same, whether they are a victim of crime, an offender, a person in need of medical care or mental health services, a worker, a student or a user of a service. They can be one of these things or a combination of them, they are a product of so many differing socioeconomic influences that any one policy cannot ever hope to deal with the multitude of issues they bring. People are both complex and complicated. A plan or policy needs to be adapted and changed as it progresses, or it will inevitably fail.
That brings me very nicely to one of my favourite authors Michael Lipsky. Lipsky presents those working at the coal face of public services as street-level bureaucrats. Attempting to navigate policy and strategy implementation whilst dealing with predominately less than ideal clients. Lipsky observes that in doing so the street-level bureaucrats are faced with a number of different issues:
- Resources are chronically inadequate relative to the tasks workers are asked to perform.
- The demand for services tends to increase to meet the supply.
- Goal expectations for the agencies in which they work tend to be ambiguous, vague, or conflicting.
- Performance oriented goal achievement tends to be difficult if not impossible to measure.
- Clients are typically nonvoluntary; partly as a result, clients for the most part do not serve as primary bureaucratic reference groups.
(Lipsky 1983, 27:28)
Policies and strategies are difficult to implement, if they are formulated purely on ideals without ever having recourse to those, i.e. the street level bureaucrats, that are required to implement them, they will inevitably fail. If plans rarely survive the first contact, then they need to be adapted or ditched, those best placed to advise on changes are of course those at the coal face. Herein lies the rub, politicians and managers do not like to be told their policy is failing or that it will not work in the first place. They inevitably place the failure of policies, or reluctance to implement them, on those at the coal face with little or no knowledge of the issues that are encountered. The raising of such issues are simply seen as an excuse, laziness or a reluctance to change. More often than not, the opposite is true, street level bureaucrats want change, but for the better not for the sake of it or to be seen to be doing something.
It is difficult to see how the appointment of a new czar will make a difference to suicide rates without fundamental changes in the way that policies and strategies are conceived. Those thinking of writing policy whether at the macro or micro, would do well to get a hold of Lipsky’s book and to reimagine the ‘real’ world.
Lipsky, M (1983) Street-Level Bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public services, New York: Russell Foundation.
Hughes, D (ed) (1993) Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Random House, (ebook)