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Take people with you

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“Books on change management don’t sell.” I remember getting that message from my publisher and thinking: “What about John Kotter and the Cheese guys?”

But she was right. Interrogate the data and you’ll see the standard book-sale power law, but with a particularly steep curve. A few titles dominate a relatively small market, and the long-tail books sell barely a handful. It seems many of us are content to learn about managing change from articles, slide sets and tweetedrules of thumb.

Perhaps that’s fine for the moment. Because it seems to me that the rules are changing. And just saying that is making a big presupposition – that we ever really knew what the rules were.

Let’s take an example. Lasting change needs to come from the bottom of an organisation. Top executives can’t just impose it. If they try, they will face a wall of resistance and covert subversion, and the change won’t stick. Somewhere down the line, their successors will see the futility, and quietly reverse out.

On the other hand, we also know that people won’t make a change unless they see people at the top supporting it. If less than 75 per cent of top management endorse the change, it won’t last. That’s a figure cited by change management guru Kotter.

So, change needs to come from the bottom and it must be led at the top. Whose rules are these anyway?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the nexus of academics, authors and consultants. Practitioners just get on with it. But if there are rules at any time, it seems to me they do little more than reflect the prevailing social norms. After all, different cultures around the world support their own models of organisational change.

And for much of my adult life, here in the UK – and in many of our culturally closest neighbours – society has been moving towards greater respect for individuals and their diverse points of view. That’s a trend I’ve enjoyed.

But it’s also one that some parts of society want to challenge. There is also a greater appetite for authoritarian structures, and less adherence to evidence-based policymaking. We’re seeing a greater desire for simple solutions, delivered with blunted messages.

So, who says change needs to be led from the bottom and that people at the top must take responsibility? What I’m seeing is change led from the very top, justified by patriarchal arguments about the rest. And I’m seeing blame and excuses start to supplant true responsibility throughout organisations.

Yet perhaps this is the natural state of human affairs. It certainly prevailed for most of recorded history. Appeal to people’s fears about the ‘others’ – competitors or enemies. Justify your failures as the result of outside forces. And push for tighter controls, greater efforts and more stringent incentives.

A cold wind is blowing through the cultures of many British organisations, and project managers stand in that wind. You may not be able to stop the wind blowing, but you are in a position to channel some of it to make light, warmth and useful energy.

I don’t think there are any rules about how to make change. There are just people. Understand how we work, show us compassion, treat us with respect and offer us something we’ll value. Then you can lead us anywhere.

As project managers, we learned this early on. And we see it every day. Leading change has no rules. Just take people with you, one at a time, day by day.



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