Manager to Architect – all change?

One of my areas of interest is Change Management. This is the familiar name given to the process in organisations for some fundamental systemic change (introducing a new IT system, for example).

Commentators reckon that 80% of change projects fail to achieve everything they set out to achieve – and they usually blame human factors. Often it is the victims (and I use the word deliberately) of the project who sabotage it. More often it is the lack of understanding of human behaviour by the project sponsors which scuppers things.

Here’s a thought.

Instead of using the word ‘manager’ and ‘management’ in the context of change, why not take a leaf from the science of behavioural economics and call ourselves ‘Change Architects?’

Okay, it has a ring of pretension. Change Architect? Moi?

But, I argue, it has merit. For a start it creates a perception of greater interaction in the process without losing the idea that there is captain on the bridge who has set a course and has a compass.

A Change Architect creates the behavioural framework that nudges us into making correct decisions in line with desired outcomes. S/he doesn’t create and manage the means to the end but rather goes with the grain of our behavioural preferences – knowing that we will tend to behave in certain ways in certain contexts.

As humans, we take short-cuts all the time in our thinking, choices and decisions. We think we are super-rational – a bias reinforced by our education and work experiences. Any understanding of how the human brain works will show that much of our mental processing is done at a non-conscious level. If we want to buy a sandwich at Greggs, we do not create a mental spreadsheet, itemise all the criteria we might apply, then score accordingly. We usually wonder: “What do I fancy today?” Our choice may be influenced by what we had yesterday. In the end, we’ll probably choose the sandwich on the shelf at our eye-level, as long as it meets criteria we’re probably not even vaguely aware of.

The Change Architect makes it easy for us to make the decisions and choices necessary for us to change our behaviour and for the desired outcomes to be achieved, AND with a greatly reduced consumption of scarce resources.

The UK Government has latched on to behavioural economics and has set up the Behavioural Insight Team to help achieve more (behavioural change) with less (people and money).

Whilst I’m not a fan of the Coalition in many respects, I do welcome their willingness to embrace new ideas. My big criticism of the previous Labour Government was that it was overly-prescriptive, creating a massive bureaucracy to build and run an incredibly intricate and complicated machinery to achieve its outcomes. It turned us all into bureaucrats and the bureaucrats into prison camp commandants.

I’ll post more on the insights of behavioural economics over the next few weeks.

Is business anti-social?

Research by Matthew Lieberman of UCLA suggests that for humans, ‘social is our basic operating system.’

He goes on to say that one of the reasons organisations and the workplace may not be ‘socially conscious’ is that most managers and leaders are promoted for using their analysing and strategic thinking skills which tend to switch off their social neural networks.

No wonder then that so many workplaces are grim, joyless and dehumanising, and that stress is the single biggest cause of absenteeism, certainly in the UK. Not only are people expected to work harder and smarter and hit targets, they are also being managed by people who lack the social skills to give us a sense of community, of common purpose, who will engage with us and enthuse us and help us to become the best we can be.

Daniel Goleman is probably one of the most famour exponents of the idea of Emotional Intelligence as the key differentiator between great and not-so-good leaders. The idea of EI has its critics – not in principle so much but in how Goleman interprets his evidence – but research increasingly points to social skills as a key characteristic of great leadership.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2005) Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame) talked about Level 5 Leadership. He focused on a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will as being the key characteristics of great leaders. Interestingly, his hierarchy was not sequential. Level 4 Leaders – characterised by highly analytical and strategic-thinking brains – do not graduate to become Level 5 Leaders.

This would seem to support Liebemann’s idea that too much analytical thinking is bad for us socially. It would also confirm the view that promoting technically skilled people into managerial roles can be disastrous for the individual concerned, for the people who have to work for him/her, and for the organisation as a whole. It used to be called the Peter Principle – people are promoted to the level of their greatest incompetence. If you are good at one job you get promoted to another. As soon as you are not good at your job you never get another promotion. Your career is a shipwreck and you become marooned in a job that is like a slow death, unwilling to lose face by requesting a demotion, unhappy, demoralised. I suspect a lot of such practices still take place. How much more attention do we give to technical rather than social skills in a competency framework or a job description?

I would go so far as to say that anyone with good social skills may be regarded as suspect in many organisations. They certainly won’t ‘get on’ as quickly or reach the heights of their colleagues from finance or legal. (That’s not say that accountants and lawyers don’t possess social skillsĀ  or that HR people are all empathy and motivation. I generalise to make the point.)

Taking Liebemann’s point – I wonder what it would be like if we regarded our organisations as communities and utilised the socio-cultural neurons our brains have evolved over millennia, as opposed to favouring the analytical parts of our brain and seeing humans as a set of technical competencies, ignoring their social needs.

Like the boss who removed the water coolers from his business because people were, in his view, spending too long at them chatting…