Walter Hale looks to the past to help you face a future where change is all around.
On 5 September 1698, Tsar Peter the Great shocked Russia’s aristocracy by cutting off their beards. But shaving was only the start of his radical reforms. Yes, despite being uniquely well-placed to achieve the changes he desired, his mission was incomplete when he died. So what does this slice of Russian history tell us about the challenge posed by change management?
1. A history lesson
When a crowd of nobles gathered at the Kremlin to celebrate their Tsar’s return from the West in 1698, Peter the Great took out a razor and started shaving the nearest beard. To the Tsar, omnipresent facial hair was a symbol of the hide-bound conservatism that had kept his country lagging behind the West. Many astonished, outraged nobles felt, as Ivan the Terrible had said: “To shave the beard is a sin that the blood of all the martyrs cannot cleanse. It is to deface the image of man created by God.” Yet any noble who protested reluctantly acquiesced after Peter boxed their ears.
Shaving was only the start of Peter the Great’s radical reforms. As an autocrat, with a near god-like status, he was uniquely well-placed to achieve the changes he desired. Yet his mission was incomplete when he died in 1725, at the age of 52. Forty years later, another Russian monarch, Catherine the Great, tried to Westernize the country. And in 1918, Moscow replaced Peter’s beloved St Petersburg as the country’s capital.
So what can we learn about change management from does this slice of Russian history? Most obviously, that achieving real, transformative change is a harder struggle than we probably assume at the outset. Lacking the quasi-divine status of Russian Tsars in the 17th century, managers can’t metaphorically get their razors out and force people to change. Just as tellingly, it shows that, for all the rhetoric about change being a “win-win”, change can look very different depending on whether you’re leading the change or being asked to change.
Because of Peter’s power, position and era, his attempt to change Russia can seem exotic and irrelevant. Yet the narrative fits with all too many recent corporate transformations in which a command and control manager, inspired by a blinding flash of revelation, tries to persuade sceptical, conservative, stakeholders that they must change without really explaining why or even – apart from escaping punishment – how they benefit. No wonder, as some studies suggest, that only 25% of change management projects succeed. That low strike rate might suggest that change is not worth the effort. Yet you can improve those odds
2. Manager, change thyself
One of Peter the Great’s most famous compatriots, Leo Tolstoy, famously observed: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, no one thinks of changing himself.” Too many attempts to transform companies focus on organisational structure. Yet organisations can’t be transformed unless the individuals working within them want to change – and that applies to leaders as much as to the sales force or the accounts department.
That flash of revelation can fool leaders into thinking that they are completely objective about the change they want to make. The logical corollary of this view being that anyone who opposes change is doing so for their own deeply subjective reasons.
In truth, nobody is completely objective. We are all the sum of our own biases, preferences, perspectives and experiences. The sooner we recognise that the easier it is for us to engage in a constructive, honest debate about the changes we want to achieve. This process should give us a better chance of achieving our goals. Specialist knowledge may explain why a practice that looks outmoded, costly or irrational from the top of the organisation actually helps the business run smoothly. And if, as management consultants McKinsey suggest, successful change management is driven by the willingness of hundreds of groups to change their behaviour, genuine consultation and debate is essential, not something that’s nice to do if you have the time.
If you want to lead change, be a role model for it. “Do as I say, not what I do”, will only encourage employees’ natural inclination to defend the status quo.
3 Tell a story about what you want to accomplish
This story starts with the answer to the question: what makes this worth undertaking? Generic encouragement for people to behave differently – often accompanied by a vague programme with a lame title such as Operation New Broom – won’t suffice. Every stakeholder needs to understand their part in the organisation, the impact their behaviour has and the role their behaviour plays in achieving change.
One of the unpleasant realities that can hinder attempted transformations is that many leaders have no idea about how their staff feel about the business. If your employees don’t believe in the purpose of the organisation – and don’t feel it aligns with their own goals in life – change will be significantly harder to achieve and, paradoxically, all the more essential to accomplish.
4 Don’t treat your staff like animals
The traditional tactics used to encourage change are based more on the way we train animals than how humans think and act. Leaders offer carrots (promotions, bonuses) to those who embrace change and punish those who oppose it with sticks (demotion, the sack). This flies in the face of a mountain of research that shows that for most people, a personal interest in our jobs, a good environment to work in and rewarding relationships with their managers or colleagues, is more a motivator in the workplace than promotion or money.
5 Think it through
Not everyone who resists change is a blinkered, know-it-all Luddite. Resistance to initiatives can be both creative and principled. One of the common mistakes when companies change is that they ‘ram raid’ certain parts of the business to achieve a quick win. In doing so, they change one part of the process without considering the impact up or downstream. By consulting – and listening – such errors can be avoided. Be careful to avoid a Thatcherite division between ‘us’ (the believers) and ‘them’ (the sceptics). Such an attitude might seem to work well for a while but her inability to heed ‘them’ – sceptical ministers and civil servants – led to the disaster that was the poll tax and, ultimately, her downfall.
6 Lead, but don't micromanage
Every change management project can fall into one of two traps: either managers are so involved they try to micromanage change or they are too remote, leaving the organisation to change itself. The latter approach hands the initiative to those who don’t want to change – or are less motivated by the challenge – and makes failure more likely. Yet getting in everyone’s faces isn’t a great idea either: neuroscientists say that just telling people that you are right and they are wrong sets off defensive mechanisms in the brain. People may not argue, but they probably won’t accept your point.
7 Remember there’s more to change than the big picture
Having a vision is easy, exciting and galvanising. Realising it is the hard part. Jotting down the five most important things you have to do in the next year at a brainstorming session makes everyone feel good, but it is not the same as having an actionable plan the company can implement. This plan should include such elements as key results, milestones, a communications plan – change doesn’t just have to be work, it has to be seen to be working by everyone in the organisation – resource allocations and a motivational ingredient.
8 Once you have a plan, have the guts to change it.
Plans are great things. They make us all feel comfortable. The bad thing about plans is that they start to become obsolete almost as soon as we’ve written them. We can lose customers, valued employees and time getting our new website built. We can’t anticipate every possible setback, but we can candidly discuss the most likely ones – and create a half-decent Plan B to keep in our back pocket.
9 Change is not a one-off
Let’s say you’re one of the lucky 25% whose programme to change the business achieves its goals. With your mission accomplished, surely it’s time to relax? Not exactly. The world, your marketplace, your business is always changing and you have to learn to look outward, read the signs and adjust accordingly. The last thing you want is for employees to fall back into that mentality of “Now we’re going to do change and then we’re going back to normal”. Which, effectively, is what Russia did after Peter the Great’s death.