Working with busy front-line teams to make change happen
As I walk between the stands of a transformation fair listening to the rise and fall of the enthusiastic voices of those presenting and those enquiring it occurs to me that this really is ‘the sound of change’. What better way to gauge the impact of a transformation programme. Although, at this time, I am not certain of the actual measure. Is it the maximum decibels, the extremes of rise and fall or is it the constant buzz over a sustained period? After some discussion with my client partner we agree on the latter as we really had not expected everyone to be continuously busy over the full five hour period of the fair. As it has turned out our most useful role as team leader and coach has been to provide a constant supply of food and water to the teams to keep them going!
So who are these enthusiastic people causing such interest? They are, in fact, people doing something very much outside their normal comfort zone. People who are going to be returning to a busy day job on the customer front-line after this opportunity to tell a constant stream of colleagues from across the business what they have been doing for the past few months and why. Months in which they have become the core team driving a transformation programme; a programme to build a more efficient, effective and modern organisation capable of supporting an exciting future business.
Balancing a full day job in a busy client-facing environment, whilst driving change, is clearly not easy. However, it is a far better way to create change that will stick and will actually become an integral part of that day job.
It takes a brave team and inspired leadership to do this. To do this you have to really understand that you have issues in the first place. You have to explore them, open them up and even when you have done this there may be other problems lurking underneath. As a leader you need to understand very clearly where you want to be in the future but be prepared to take an incremental approach to achieving it, giving your team enough length of runway to try things out, employing innovative approaches to unlocking the potential of your people, removing barriers, doling out loads of encouragement and most importantly getting out there and being part of the change.
At this particular client the challenge was to build a modern organisation capable of supporting an expanding portfolio of both traditional and new-technology based services for both government and commercial customers. The client had already taken the decision to invest in building new capabilities using a ‘hothouse’ approach. A separate team was created with a mix of new and existing staff to ensure that the right skills, processes and ways of working were available right from the start. However, there was a big risk that this would develop into ‘NewCo’ and ‘OldCo’. It was just as important to ensure that the broader organisation could take on the support, not just of those new services already identified but a range of other new products and services too. This requirement to really ‘up the game’ across the organisation led to the creation of a transformation programme focusing on four critical areas: communications, behaviours & new ways of working, standards & procedures and the transition of services from design & delivery into operational support.
We realised from the start that the key to success in this busy customer-focused organisation was to create a pull for change from the staff themselves, providing coaching and support rather than trying to impose any processes or ways of working from the recently created ‘new services’ team or from a consultancy kit bag.
We created four teams all led by permanent members of staff with sponsors, who were able to provide a customer perspective, and members including staff from related parts of the organisation such as project and programme delivery, communications and HR. We launched the programme much to the surprise of some staff, that they had been given this opportunity and, the concern of other staff, that they would be able to find the time. With gentle urging and reassurance we got things going, giving each team specific input from earlier research and other sources – such as the recent employee survey – and we started a pattern of weekly checkpoint meetings giving the teams a focal point and us the opportunity to help them. Early on we established the principle that the teams were facilitators. Their role was to identify or confirm issues, to design an approach and plan, and most importantly to work with others in the broader organisation to ratify the issues and approach and of course to take things forward.
EARLY SIGNS OF CHANGE
Using this approach we were able to implement some good early wins, particularly in the communications area. We were also able to develop a comprehensive action plan to address barriers to effectiveness identified by staff; a plan that was steadily worked through by the team with their immediate colleagues as well as other business colleagues. We also developed a process maturity model and an approach to assessment which engaged many different areas of the client organisation and resulted in some significant early improvements, particularly in the ability of the broader team to respond smoothly and seamlessly to end-customer issues.
This was never plain sailing, as often the teams were diverted by day to day priorities, but the key thing was maintaining the motivation and enthusiasm to move things forward bit by bit. Once people realised that they had leadership support and were genuinely empowered to make a difference, they tried to manage their time so that between them things were possible. Some people, of course, moved on to other things over the course of time, but this was then an opportunity for others to get involved. We also kicked off other new initiatives such as a workforce strategy and a programme to help all team leaders and teams across the client organisation to manage themselves effectively and to create more headroom for training and up-skilling.
About 9 months into the programme a transformation manager joined the team. This was a new role and another sign that this organisation was taking change and continuous improvement seriously. What was interesting was that one of her first comments was to liken our approach to that of Team GB’s Olympic Cycling team where success was described by head coach Dave Brailsford as being due to ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’.
NO LEADERSHIP NO CHANGE
As leader of this team, my client partner enjoyed seeing her people getting involved, unleashing their potential, coming up with ideas, practising new-found skills (such as presenting and facilitating), being an inspiration and source of ideas for other parts of the organisation and really feeling proud of their achievements. ‘It’s very easy for a leader to view things from his or her own perspective and to get frustrated when people do not respond to calls for action or to what appear to be obvious issues that need fixing. However, there are often myths that need dispelling, barriers (physical and emotional) that need removing, a vision of the future that needs constantly to be reinforced and on top of that generous amounts of encouragement provided as people start to work differently. That is a key part of my role’.
As consultant and coach, I believe that this could not have been done without a team willing to recognise their issues, not just at a superficial level resulting in limited action and failure to address the real causes, but at a fundamental level that created the energy and enthusiasm to fuel an incremental approach to improvement that was there to stay. ‘It also takes a team willing to take risks -firstly with a new approach that focuses on outcomes not activities and allows a good degree of flexibility in how and when they are achieved, secondly with a very proactive, highly visual and engaging communication style requiring people to ‘put their heads above the parapet’ with often surprising and very pleasing results!’
A year after launching the programme there was still a way to go but the crucial point was that much of the approach was, at that stage, embedded and therefore could continue to flourish. We held another transformation fair at that time, but on that occasion it was organised by the new transformation manager and with a number of new faces on the teams. Some really professional touches and some innovative ways of presenting the progress to date made an excellent impression on all who attended.These ideas all came from team members.
One of the features at this transformation fair was the recently completed staff survey. Early feedback showed that the number of surveys completed had nearly doubled over the previous year so we were not sure what to expect. We thought that staff might come up with feedback identifying more barriers to effectiveness and that would be because they knew it was worth the effort. They would now be confident that everyone would work together and do their best to address them. In fact we made some stunning improvements in many of the categories that were within our power to influence. Overall we achieved the most improved score in the organisation.
I reckon that the ‘Sound of Change’ will be heard in this organisation for some time to come!
Suzanne Felber leads Felber Consulting’s approach to business transformation which is flexible, outcome-based and rooted in people and teams. Give her a call on +44 (0)7515 895156 or contact Felber Consulting at firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0)20 8891 5073.