Change management: 9 lessons for implementing change

Change management lessons are not to be found in books but in the field. On the 19th of October 2011, in Exeter in Devon, I delivered a keynote at Like minds. It was entitled “confessions of an intrapreneur.” It was made of these anecdotes and tips, which were all used to describe my preferred approach to change management. Here is the script of my presentation.

Change management Lesson: 9 tips for implementing change

Change management lesson: 9 tips for implementing change
Change management lesson: 9 tips for implementing change

Change management session synopsis: no slides

I have to apologise for having no slides for this presentation.

I tried to figure out a reason why I should add some but couldn’t go beyond the need to show a few nice pictures, I don’t believe that what I have to say – mostly derived from my day-to-day experience in these few years that I have worked – is worth being plonked into PowerPoint slides, it doesn’t add any value and besides, by refusing to show slides and pictures, I’m certain that I’ll get all your attention.

So here’s my presentation on change management, without any slides.

The problem with the French

The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur” George W. Bush is reported to have said to Prime Minister Tony Blair during a discussion about the French economy. Although this is mostly hearsay and it is not proven that George W Bush actually said that, this Bushism has being recycled a great deal of times on the Internet and beyond.

But I am here to guarantee that this isn’t true; the word exists and we even have another word, intrapreneur, derived from the first, which describes those people who attempt new things in large organisations, implement change, move things forward; relentlessly …

I am such an intrapreneur and I like it. Maybe this is because I dreamed of being an entrepreneur and haven’t had the opportunity as yet. Regardless, change is part of my business life, I love to change things, I have always done, I will always do.

I believe it must be like my second nature. I can’t help it even though sometimes I think it would be a lot safer and more straightforward for me if I chose to let things be.

Intrapreneurs love to bridge the gap between thinkers, researchers, developers and those who run everyday business operations. Intrapreneurs are doers, they like getting things done, they like it when the rubber meets the road… I am like that too.

Scott Gould [one of the organisers and the co-founder of Like Minds] decided that I should make confessions about this need to launch new projects, push new boundaries, and implement new things for the large companies which I have worked for or with.

Yet, the word “confessions” – if I believe the Cambridge dictionary – means that one has done certain things wrong, committed a crime or a sin, and I’m not quite sure about that choice of words.

Granted, many a time, being an intrapreneur means that one fights against established rules, battle against resistance, overcome obstacles.

But intrapreneurs aren’t troublemakers, because true intrapreneurs always act for the common good.

I believe that the reason why I’m talking to you about this today is coming from an initial discussion at the Like Minds Summit at Bovey Castle in March 2010 with a few alumni, including our much-regretted friend Trey Pennington, to whom I would like to dedicate this presentation.

Our subject was “how to implement social media in enterprises” and I soon realised that my experience was shedding a different light on that topic because I am an insider, I did this for years on end, and whether it be with social media or any other thing doesn’t make a difference at all.

It’s more difficult to change things if you are in a big organisation. Setting up a blog for a small organisation is a no-brainer. You just go to wordpress.com and set up your space in a matter of minutes … you cannot do it exactly like that if you are the legal representative of a large company, mostly when it has gone public.

It’s more complex, there are rules to comply with and obstacles to overcome. It’s easier to stay from the outside and just issue recommendations. I know, because I too worked as a consultant for many years. And yet, it is also very frustrating because a consultant who issues recommendations is seldom the one who is commissioned to implement the change.

Lessons learned in change management

So here is my confession, that is to say, a few lessons which I learned while implementing change and are my guiding rules for intrapreneurship. For each of these lessons, I will give you an example, if time allows.

Change Management Lesson no. 1: change management begins with a prayer

The serenity prayer to be precise; which I first spotted in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five novel, when Billy Pilgrim has this sign posted above his desk in his office stating:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

I believe it’s been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous too …

Anecdote: implementing the Sale Force Automation system at Unisys at the beginning of 1992 with my new boss who told me “OK for you to get the job, but don’t change anything about the method!”. So I didn’t, let the project fail, then proposed a new method, and succeeded in less than 4 months in implementing a new system throughout Europe. I didn’t choose to change what I couldn’t change, I just proposed the right solution at the right time, i.e. when and only when my boss realised that the old method wasn’t the right one. Besides, I didn’t have to criticise it, all I had to do was to put things right.

Change Management Lesson no. 2: think big and start small

One of the commonest mistakes is to try and change the whole world in one go… too fast, too big, too early.

Most people hate change, despite all the talk about innovation, letting sleeping dogs lie is reassuring, and change creates – in most people – anxiety, the fear that things may longer be as they were, the risk for them to become out of touch, to be left on the side, to be taken out of their own comfort zone and into the red zone (the zone in which people think that they are no longer in control, that they are losing touch, becoming incompetent and eventually … will be made redundant, even with no good reason).

Hence change has to be implemented step by step, starting little and getting bigger, in order for people to reassure themselves that they can be part of that change and not be threatened by it.

Anecdote: I am in the process of overhauling the orange.com website but our ambition goes way beyond that. What we aim at is the establishment of group-wide governance which will give more leeway to all our entities/countries while ensuring better consistency and maximising our Web IT spend. Although it’s a no-brainer, it would be stupid to start with the biggest websites, so we are slowly but surely adding small websites to our platform, therefore showing that our new Website factory is not a threat but a tool for all to benefit from.

Change Management Lesson no. 3: choose the path of least resistance

Resistance to change is a staple of change management, so rather than confronting your detractors, it’s best to ignore them and circumvent the issue by working exclusively with the positive change agents that you can find. Therefore, there will be more than one person to advocate the change, and eventually, your detractors will follow in your footsteps when they realise you have succeeded and they can’t do otherwise.

If fights arise, I have found time and time again that refusing to confront people was the best way of getting rid of such issues. When the fight gets nasty and personal I go off on a tangent and do something else until the person tires and usually, they do.

The most aggressive ones usually make so many enemies for themselves that they either fall victim to their own aggressiveness or, eventually, they go somewhere else and make other people suffer, in search for other fights,
It’s best to concentrate on one’s work, one’s results, to be a professional, not to confront people and move ahead.

I must also emphasise that one must remain courteous and friendly, even with one’s worst enemies. Always shake hands, never attack them, remain positive: “(Matthew 5:39) But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Anecdote: when I worked for a large British Bank in the mid-1990s on the Internet strategy for the Bank and was interviewing people, I met some people who were initiating their own project. I proposed that they become part of the team and that we promote their project and use their idea as a driving force for our strategic change. They instead became aggressive and secretive, refused to share their ideas and findings, refrained from sharing their project, and eventually died with it. The Internet project – ours I mean – went on without them, they didn’t benefit from their advance, didn’t make any friends and didn’t help their company either. We didn’t have to confront them, they just shot themselves in the foot.

Change Management Lesson no. 4: set up an example for change management

If you tell people that something’s good for them, they might well believe you if your power of persuasion is good, but if they actually see you do these things yourself, it’s even better.

Likewise, if you ask your boss to show the way, it will be even more powerful and will have – at least – two positive consequences. Your boss will end up being convinced and will support you even more in your endeavours. She will in her turn become an advocate of the change you wish to implement and will help you spread the word around.

Anecdote: when I started the Orange Business Services blogs in early 2008, not everyone was convinced. I started with a couple of change agents who helped me move forward, but it’s only when I asked my boss to help us with the blogging activity that I reached a higher level of success. Indeed, from the moment I asked him to blog on his favourite topic, he stopped asking about the return on investment of expert blogging because he actually understood this for himself, and besides, he became a lot more positive about what we were doing and encouraged other people to do so. Four years later, he is one of the strongest advocates of expert blogging at Orange Business Services.

Change Management Lesson no. 5: don’t think top-down

To those who don’t understand change management very well, it would seem a good idea to ask the top man to issue a top-down statement and to assume that this is sufficient for everyone to change their ways.

Although this method sometimes works, most of the time it is not efficient and there are better ways of using top executives to implement change.

The best way for you to use top executive management to implement change is to first obtain results and field level, highlight these results, and then seek a mandate from the top manager who will use these initial results to reinforce the need for change and send his instructions, reinstating the support that he’s giving you.

In case you are an intrapreneur and are showing the way even though nobody asked you anything in the first place, then there is no other option.

Anecdote: when I was in charge of implementing a new salesforce automation system throughout Europe at the beginning of the 1990s the Unisys, I realised that my predecessor had started her process by asking the executive director of the Europe Africa division to send a letter/mail to all country managers in Europe. The result was not the one everybody expected. Nobody ever paid attention to the letter/mail because there were more important issues at hand. The proper method was to initiate change at the field level, establish a few results, then come and negotiate face-to-face with each country manager, proving the case, and demonstrating that change was needed, resources needed to be appointed, and once a few countries had been convinced (avoiding carefully the most antagonistic ones) then we went to the executive director of the Europe Africa division who confirmed our decisions and course of action. The system was deployed throughout Europe with a proper organisation and resources in less than 4 months when the previous process had led to almost a year of procrastination.

Lesson no. 6: always respect people

E-mail should always be used as a last resort. The right method is to favour human discussions over everything else.

If people are in disagreements, then they should talk and express themselves openly over these disagreements rather than bicker and send each other useless e-mails which waste everybody’s time!

Anecdote: Recently, I had to work on a very important subject related to the governance of our domain names at Orange worldwide. This particular issue was a thorny one because people had debated the subject for the past 2 years. We were in a situation whereby people were negotiating on positions, not on facts, and regardless of the common good. I spent a couple of months talking to all these people individually, making them realise that we had to converge towards a solution, and whenever we were disagreeing, exposing the case of our disagreements clearly and debating them in a human and positive fashion, face-to-face or on the telephone. Eventually, after a couple of months, we were in a position to call on a new meeting in which a decision could be reached. Detractors exposed their views in front of the entire group, decisions were put to vote, and eventually, those same detractors came to me at the end of the meeting, saying: “This decision was exactly what we wanted”. It has to be stated that the decision which was reached, was exactly the opposite of what the detractors themselves were proposing in the beginning. What we had reached is a consensus and we have built a long-lasting relationship based on trust and camaraderie.

Lesson no. 7: murphy’s law should be your guiding principle

This point is a thorny one because it is often misinterpreted,
Good project managers and change managers are able to foresee not the future, but most of the alternatives in-store.

This is what is described often as managing a project by Murphy’s Law: “if anything can go wrong it will!”.

Good project managers, therefore, can predict the ways in which projects might actually screw up, in order to take all the precautions which will help them avoid these issues.

Bad project managers are 100% positive that the project will work beautifully, pay no attention to the things that could go wrong and therefore are ill-prepared for issues when they arise.

It is therefore often misinterpreted that good project managers working with Murphy’s Law are negative or pessimistic, whereas in fact, they are merely cautious and professional.

Anecdote: it is difficult for me to quote a particular example because I do this all the time. I have a sixth sense for predicting issues arising on the path of a project and knowing the issues which could cause a project to fail, enable me to take precautionary measures whenever needed. This is also why I always tend to put a lot of pressure on a new project at the beginning of its launch rather than towards the end of the delivery period when it’s too late. And then I press my project managers with questions about the things that could go wrong and how they have protected themselves against them, which enables me to deliver projects either in advance or at least in a very cool manner. I have never seen one of my projects generate tension towards the end of the delivery period.

Lesson no. 8: act swiftly

Most organisations tend to reinvent themselves every 6 months. I have seen very few people actually like the idea, but this is nothing you can resist, and you rather have to put up with this and make the most of the opportunities it offers.

This means that if you want to implement change, you had better do it within this six-month period. 3 months is even a better period, as it allows you to show positive and effective changes to management, complete with results and proof of concepts, for them to prepare the forthcoming reshuffle described above.

Preparing your projects and teams to move forward like this, will ensure that you are part of the new organisation; rather than having to submit to the change decided by others; it is better for you to drive that change instead.

Anecdote: when I implemented the new IT security blogs at Orange business services in 2008, my first instructions were that I was not supposed to be touching the blogs. Yet, I managed to find some change agents in the course of three of four weeks who made it possible for me to implement my new vision very quickly. I sold the idea of expert blogging a couple of weeks later (elevator pitch) and then went on to implement them very quickly, laying the stress on the deliverables and the content, rather than spending years on end on IT delivery. In order to speed up the process, I went on straight to a software as a service solution (Typepad), even though that was not the optimum technical solution (i migrated it a little later), but it was a good enough solution to land a result very quickly, prove my point, show some positive and immediate results, issue a press announcement, establish the change within the organisation, and build brand content for the long-term.

Lesson no. 9: in times of trouble, speed up the process!

Most people stop implementing change when chaos arises. There is a very common mistake because chaos is the mother of creation.

The use of chaos in the derived sense of “complete disorder or confusion” first appears in Elizabethan Early Modern English but the original sense, taken from the Greek mythology and later religious writings, describes the original state of the world before it took shape.

Chaos is therefore not synonymous with havoc, but rather describes the state of things before the change is being implemented before things start to make sense. Visionaries, always try to implement change in periods of chaos, because these are the times when everything is possible and creativity is often given free rein.

Almost all my change management endeavours have been carried out at the worst possible moment, moments of which I had trouble finding my place within the hierarchy, and this is exactly when I decided to launch new initiatives.

Launching new initiatives are times when organisations are being in re reinvented is in fact the right way forward because this is the period at which top executives are searching for solutions to solve their problems, and are therefore more open to innovators, an intrapreneur is, who are going to bring solutions to their problems. 

Anecdote: one of the most stressful periods of my working life took place when I came back from England to Unisys France to join the consulting practice in the middle of the 1990s. That period was a period of turmoil, a period of crisis too, and the consulting outfit I had just joined didn’t last for long. But right at that moment, the World Wide Web had just started to become more popular, and I seized this opportunity to apply my marketing skills to the web and to become one of the pioneers of web marketing. At a moment when I had trouble to find who I was reporting to, I multiplied visits to various clients, departments and sites in order to promote these Internet skills and I ended up bumping into Steve. I had built a little website as a proof of concept (visionarymarketing.com, which still exists and is still my personal website) and when Steve spotted visionarymarketing.com he immediately asked me to come back to London to implement something similar for him (it ended up being http://internet-banking.com, for his new Internet banking practice. The next thing I knew, the French part of Unisys didn’t want to let me go any more, and I had ceased to be a consultant without a hierarchy, I had found myself a new job, a new purpose and that eventually led me to even leave Unisys a couple of years later and join Gemini and then Orange. Had I decided not to do anything because of the chaos which was surrounding me, I would have been laid off like so many others at Unisys, which unfortunately went from a 120,000 employee company in the 1980s to a 30,000 company in 1997!

Yann Gourvennec
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