Robin Ryde: Build Your Organisation

Leaders across the civil service are wrestling with change management. Here’s how to rise to the challenge

By Robin Ryde

19 Sep 2014

The civil service is not good at change, or so we are told. Successive capability reviews, departmental improvement plans and cross-service engagement surveys all point towards the same deficiency in the business of leading change. Change leadership is, it seems, our Achilles heel; our nemesis; our Room 101. 

In fact, the civil service isn’t unusually bad at change: most change programmes, whether in the public or private sector, fail to deliver in their own terms. Research from a variety of sources has backed this up. Academic Rune Todnem has suggested that “in the order of 70% of change programmes typically fail”. LaClair and Rao found that “In a recent study of 40 major change initiatives, 58% failed and 20% realised a third or less of the value expected”. And Beer, Nohria and Bibler concluded that “studies of change efforts report failure rates of one third to two thirds”. 

This knowledge might offer some fleeting comfort that we are in good company, but it doesn’t in itself make us any better at leading change. So what will work? What can be done to raise our performance? There are four main ways in which civil service leaders can start getting better at change. 

First, make a clear and real commitment to engaging employees in the process of change design – and not just during implementation. We have been through various ages in change. In the ‘Age of Tell’, leaders felt it was sufficient to instruct their people to change; in the ‘Age of Sell’, they realised it would be easier to foster change if people bought into the agenda. Then came the ‘Age of Consult’ – a cynical and easily-detected development of the Age of Sell – and enlightened organisations are now moving into the ages of ‘Involve’ and ‘Empower’. Importantly, both these latter stages involve genuine engagement with employees, getting feedback on every topic from the external factors demanding change to the design of the change effort itself. 

A particularly useful approach in facilitating greater involvement and empowerment is the ‘large work group’, through which much of the workforce can get engaged in change design. Adherents include the National Audit Office, the BBC and Nokia.

The second suggestion is to foster authenticity in the process of change. Leaders shouldn’t hide behind “having” to introduce change because “it has been decided”, but initiate a genuine and human dialogue with the staff. And they should not only lead authentically, but also lead authenticity in others – inviting frequent and honest reflections on the genuine aspirations, fears and insights of those involved in change. Without authenticity as a discipline in professional life, it is unlikely that problems will be genuinely understood or solutions meaningfully adopted.

The third suggestion is for leaders to work at the systemic level in creating sustainable change. Consider a fish tank: over time it becomes discoloured, dirty, full of algae and bacteria. Fish can be taken out and and placed in a clean, aerated tank, and they’ll become healthier; but if returned to the first tank, they’ll quickly decline again. Organisations work in much the same way; and whereas in the fish tank it’s the air supply, water, equipment and so on that creates the system, in organisations it’s the structure, processes, values, skills, culture etc. So no change is sustained without a leadership focus on the system in which people (or fish!) operate. And it’s for leaders to build their fluency in this space and, in doing so, their understanding of how the system shapes employee behaviour.

Fourth, we invite leaders to focus on building adaptive capabilities. Creating organisational adaptability is often just as important as delivering a particular change programme. The pace of change is quickening, and shows no sign of slowing down. And today’s big push towards strategic commissioning or prevention or downsizing might easily reverse without warning, change direction or take an entirely new form.

All this heightens the need for organisations to be agile and adaptive regardless of what is thrown at them; and we look to leaders to reshape their organisations in this way. The UK Fire and Rescue Service is an interesting example, in that it has adapted its capabilities through a major shift in emphasis from cure (eg. extinguishing fires) to prevention (eg. fitting smoke alarms) – and with that, it has revisited the psychological contract with employees, the processes it adopts, the culture and so on.

As with all organisations that have undergone substantial change programmes, though, the fire service’s big challenge is to continually repeat this cycle of reinvention. These days, leaders across the public sector must share with their peers in the private and voluntary sectors a management mantra for modern times: be agile, and be adaptable.

Robin Ryde is a former head of the National School of Government, and now runs a management consultancy. He is also a management author, with four published books


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