Philippa Lamb: Now more than ever before organisations need to constantly adapt if they want to survive and flourish and while change can feel energising and productive it can also feel confronting and difficult. The truth is everyone involved is probably going to experience all those reactions at one point or another during a change programme but a careful and creative strategy is key to producing positive rather than negative responses overall.
Vilma Nikolaidou is head of OD at the Tate where the galleries are currently in the midst of a national change programme. When I met up with her in London recently she explained why the group decided that change was needed.
Vilma Nikolaidou: Three reasons really. The first one is the new Tate Modern, the new building being built as we speak at the back of the Tate Modern in Bankside. The second one is digital transformation, digital revolution around us. We are asked to deliver our services, our products, what we do much more differently than in the past and that has an impact on how we run the organisation. The third one - lack of government funding or cuts in government funding. So a shifting financial landscape out there, we're got to raise a lot more money ourselves.
PL: The organisation has responded to shifts in both their strategy and the arts environment with correspondingly big changes. They're three years in now and they have at least two more to go so this is not a short process. Now you’d think a programme of this ambition would require announcements to the staff but Vilma’s team decided not to take that route.
VN: We didn’t sit down and say we're going to have a change programme. It’s going to have this and this and this element to it. A lot of these things happened organically rather than a big change initiative.
PL: Bringing everyone with you on the change programme takes smart thinking. There's the matter of involving the stakeholders as well as managing internal communications with empathy. Put simply you have to imagine yourself in their shoes. Wilson Wong is senior researcher for OD insight and practice at the CIPD.
Wilson Wong: When you announce change the first reaction will be what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to lose my job? Is my role going to be changed beyond all recognition? Will I be able to deliver what is expected of me in this new configuration? So the first concerns are always about people and their insecurities and their fears. A lot of the blame goes to this notion of corporate transformation and every time that word is used it almost equates with headcount. So because in the last decade you can see the word transformation has always been associated with loss of jobs or changing jobs from one location to another, it’s not an unreasonable response from the part of workers who’ve only just found out that they’re going through a transformation.
PL: Perhaps a degree of subtlety is helpful here.
WW: I would start by not using the word transformation and talking very much about where the organisation wants to go and why it is going where it needs to be. So you have a strategy and you are very clear about what is it that people can do to support that journey,
instead of saying we need to close down this department because we are no longer in that business.
PL: There are numerous OD models out there and choosing one that genuinely suits your organisation is important but according to Wilson the model comes second to the clarity of vision about the change you want.
WW: What I find is the Achilles heel of transformation is the clarity of the strategic vision. It starts with the leadership. If they’re absolutely clear and they’ve done their homework and they can all sing from the same hymn sheet it’s much easier. People will begin to come forward to say, “I can do this. I would like to try that. Why don’t you put me here and I can bring something to it?” That only happens if the vision is so clear that they can see the plus points.
PL: At the Tate the idea wasn't to issue grand directives but to embed the language of the mission in everyday communication.
VH: What we wanted to do is we wanted the change to come out in the way we communicate and engage with our staff, not necessarily through big programme documents that have a lot of traffic-light systems and all that but what we wanted was our leaders to come out and talk about the change in their everyday messages and build it through everything they do, from the way they manage their department to the way they set their strategic ambitions for the future.
PL: Martin Clarkson created an OD model around telling stories. He founded his company The Storytellers in 2003 inspired by the way that telling stories had transformed the fortunes of his last employer.
Martin Clarkson: About eight or nine years ago I'd finished spending 35 years working with Marks & Spencer, a remarkable organisation. We could spend 35 years with a company that people enjoy and adore and believe should have been running the world and then suddenly overnight the world turns against them. In a spate of three years we lost half our profit and two thirds of our turnover and we acquired a new chairman. This one said, “How many people work here Martin?” and I said, “65,000.” He said, “Then you need a story that 65,000 people can understand and 65,000 people can realise there's a role in them helping the recovery of this business.” And I suddenly began to realise the human frailty or the vulnerability we all have can be so better repaired and held together by the use of stories. So I came away from that experience with an idea and I was fast approaching retirement and stole the idea and set up this organisation Storytellers. And that's simply what we do.
PL: It sounds simple enough but how does it work on the ground?
MC: How we’d engage with an organisation is starting that early discussion in terms of what is it that keeps a CEO awake at night and we work with the leadership of the organisation to firstly paint that context.
PL: So this is a series of conversations you have with them?
MC: It’s a series of conversations. It results in a very lengthy alignment session. It means everyone in the room has got to walk away really respecting the contextual journey that you've agreed to.
PL: Okay and what happens then?
MC: Well that's the end of the beginning and now time to share that with the organisation. You’re trying to take that context, that journey and help each and every one of the members of the organisation connect so that it makes sense to the area that they’re working in. And you do that by localising and personalising the story.
PL: So you would send your people into different areas of the business and have a discussion about what this aspiration for the organisation means to them in terms of what they do everyday?
MC: We do. We don’t go into the organisation, we help the leaders themselves present these stories to their own people. People follow leaders, they don’t follow strategy and they certainly shouldn’t start following external consultants. I think that's the beginning of the end for any organisation.
PL: So that gives you the authenticity that you’re looking for?
PL: Senior management needs to be entirely in agreement about the way forward before going out to communicate with the rest of the organisation. But doesn’t the idea of ‘announcing’ a ready-made change programme to the workforce feel a little old fashioned now? Shouldn’t there be a collaborative conversation about it and if so how can you make sure it’s a constructive one?
WW: I think a lot of the leaders, if you look at the trends and fads in management, will say “Oh we would like to co-create this with our workers.” You are the leadership, you are paid to provide leadership so the co-creation I believe happens within a clear frame. So if you say, “That's where we want to go,” how we get there we want to bring you onboard to create that path, that's where the engagement and the co-creation and the conversations and negotiations are richest.
PL: And that needs to be real doesn’t it because we've all encountered organisations who have mouthed those phrases but on the ground really how it was all going to work has all been set in stone for some time and all those conversations they’re having with their employees really don’t go anywhere.
WW: There is that danger. One way you can be over-directive by over-planning it so that nobody has a voice in how they get there and that I think in kind of modern management, modern employment relationship, jars because people have expectations on how they do their jobs in a modern workplace. They do not want to be told how many widgets that they can do in an hour, they want to be able to say, “This is how I can do it so that I can maintain quality,” and it’s a process of give and take. If you allow too much latitude in the frame and allow for uncertainty with no answers, I think as a leadership you really need to be very clear about where you want them to answer the questions. When it is too wide you create a lot of uncertainty with staff who want that scaffold, who are leaning on the leadership to provide the sense of direction and purpose.
PL: At The Storytellers collaboration with all employees is paramount but that's not to say that the hard and fast framework hasn’t already been established in advance by the leadership.
MC: The most important ingredient is, having lived through leadership and enjoyed it through the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, I think the inspirational leadership that we're now experiencing, that is those teenagers of the 60s and 70s who are now sitting in the boardrooms of most of our businesses are practising inspirational leadership. Increasingly that's about having a conversation with the organisation, not standing behind a lectern and if you’re having a conversation part of it is listening to the organisation. Part of The Storytellers’ proposal is always that you begin by gauging what is in the head of the audience you’re talking to, considering therefore how this particular story needs to be presented, the context of the story and at all times through the different layers of leadership. This is not prescriptive, you are having a discussion about how this best connects to your part of the business.
PL: So as they respond to the story you’re telling the stories they give you back they become part of the change process?
MC: They become part of their story and for instance if you take a corporate story that has been signed off by the board and now you visit later in the year something that's happening in the Stats department or the IT department, of course the framework that was set, the framework will be an absolute replica of what was signed off. That's why the board can get to sleep at night knowing the framework’s safe but it was a framework for a conversation and the conversation that you will have in each of those areas will reflect the colour, the tone and the examples that that team brought to it.
PL: The advent of widespread social media needs to be addressed in any OD process. It can help but it can also hinder so OD management needs to be savvy and smart about it.
WW: The confines of management is now very porous. I cannot control the kinds of information that affects people’s views. I can't legitimately stop them from using their own private devices. If the organisation is as porous as social media experts suggest then for organisations to do an effective Comms strategy it has to look at the kinds of people it brings onboard and populates its workforce. They have to be very clear about the deal that they put on the table when you join this organisation. So if you are a high security organisation I'm afraid you have to leave those devices at home.
PL: But the average organisation where people are bringing their SmartPhones in and Facebooking at night and talking about what’s going on at work, that's a challenge isn’t it because if you’re not getting this OD process right it’s right there in the shop window for everyone to see.
WW: It is and that is a risk for every transformation process and you have to factor that in from the start. So if you’re doing well you'll know it, if you’re doing badly there’ll be lots of traffic all over the place, especially if, not your staff but, your external stakeholders disagree with where you’re going.
PL: So it can bring negatives or positives to an OD process. Perhaps it’s best thought of as a simple barometer of how employees are responding to the process and some organisations have even begun to use apps to measure levels of staff engagement on a daily basis. Wilson isn’t convinced.
WW: I think it’s part of a kind of data overload, we're just fascinated by data. Personally speaking it’s useful to know people’s moods and attitudes towards the organisation. It gives them an outlet for some frustration they may have for the day and that itself may be good for managing their wellbeing.
PL: Just venting?
WW: Yeah just venting, but as real data I'm not so sure that you can do very much with it because if somebody says, “Oh I feel that I've had a rubbish day…”
PL: There could be so many reasons for that that aren’t anything to do with your change programme.
WW: Exactly that's right. It could be that I've just had a terrible day trying to print off stuff and the printer’s been acting up. These things happen, we all have bad days but you don’t hold the organisation to the wall because you say, “You've just done this to me,” you just don’t.
PL: So the message is to look at trends and not to look at day to day minutiae when it comes to social media traffic?
PL: At the Tate Galleries they have two big aims and they’re seeing good progress.
VN: Structurally for example we're still structured very much functionally so you've got your marketing division and your HR division and all these divisions that you find in all organisations.
PL: A bit siloed?
VN: A bit siloed. We're much more collaborative in the way that we work with each other now. From a culture and values point of view we very much want to bring the values of openness and transparency and creativity and diversity very much inside the organisation as much as it is outside, so you can't talk about diversity for your audiences if you can't demonstrate diversity in your workforce. Creativity for audiences, creativity in the ways that we work, that's another shift.
PL: There have been both successes and difficulties according to Vilma and although social media hasn’t been central to their communication strategy they’re thinking like Wilson about harnessing informal social communities to spread grassroots messages about OD.
VN: The successes are around taking people with you on the journey. It sounds a little bit of a cliché but it works and we have invested quite a lot on informal networks of staff that can make change happen much more bottom up. So that's a clear success because our employees carry the change with them.
PL: So you’re empowering your people to do stuff and make decisions?
VN: Yes, yes. And that very much has worked and has given us some great results and successes. The flipside of this is that often you have to tell the story many times in many different ways. Sometimes you fight, there's jostling about priorities and where does this message fall in relation to a number of other messages and priorities we have in the organisation.
PL: The very notion of change can be difficult for staff to accept and resistance and cynicism can spread even faster with social media use. The way that the concept of change or transformation is introduced to an organisation and the importance of the language used to do so is something that The Storytellers are keenly aware of.
MC: There are boardrooms that you enter where there's no doubt there are those who think it’s the organisation who brought Once Upon a Time and Happy Ever After.
PL: Does it read as patronising, storytelling, as a phrase?
MC: I think if it’s carelessly handled it can and I also accept that we've got to be sensitive particularly when we're dealing with some of the public sector areas that they in their transparent accounting can't be seen to be spending too much money on storytelling exercises. But there are lots of ways of getting around that and I'm very happy to be called the jar of jam but once I get in there we would still very much deal with the teams in sharing experiences and sharing their stories. We worked with one of the great men of Vegas, Steve Wynn who built the Bellagio, he built the Mirage, he went on to build Wynn Hotels and now Encore, each with 6,000 staff and he really believed that storytelling would be a great way of bringing the teams together but he didn’t necessarily look forward to people arriving with storyteller banners at Las Vegas airport. We arrived and slipped into the hotel and worked with him and his team for six or eight months. Today he visits most international conferences and speaks so loudly and proudly of storytelling being the answer.
PL: But for you in order to get the idea implanted you need to be perhaps a little pliable about how you describe it?
MC: Oh most certainly. I love people discovering; there's a lovely line that people only do what they believe in and they only believe what they discover for themselves. The greatest joy, particularly to sceptics in any organisation, is when their eyes open and they say, “I was a sceptic, I wasn’t sure where this was going but I have to say storytelling is really worth us taking some time to explore.”
PL: It’s clear that razor sharp communication, a very well honed strategy that's unanimously shared by the leaders and the involvement of staff to just the right degree, are key here but of course no one size fits all and the type of organisation and the internal culture have a real impact on what a successful programme will look like, something Vilma Nikolaidou understands very well.
VN: One of the things I say always about change is that it takes a long time if you want it to stick and people at Tate are very sensitive to fads and flavour of the month type of initiatives so we work really hard to make sure that there is continuity and there is respect for the past on everything we do.
PL: I mean as you say you’re dealing with a highly intelligent, highly skilled workforce and it sounds from what you’re saying there's quite a degree of inbuilt scepticism about management initiatives, HR initiatives, so the whole process of change has had to be much more sophisticated.
VN: Often the position is who is asking them to work differently because it isn’t us, it’s the people out there, it’s our visitors, it’s our audiences. Our task is to engage differently with audiences and the public and that's the ask. I'm not asking that it’s there, I'm just here to enable it to happen.
PL: Next month following on from Wilson’s comments about porous management we’ll be focusing on social media. Why are so many organisations still unwilling to acknowledge its presence and potential and is this really likely to change any time soon?