Leading Change is Full of Nonsense

There is nothing constant except change

Be the change you want to see in the world

Take a look at yourself and make the change

So much of leading change is full of management-speak, lazy slogans and corporate bull$¬!£. As if an oxymoron is the most effective use of the English language to sum up an entire field of study.

This is why I was keen to have Steve Toft speak at our colloquium on Leading Change in Public Services. Steve writes the very influential blog FlipChartFairyTales which has as it’s strapline “Business Bullshit, Corporate Crap and other stuff from the World of Work”. I’m also delighted that Dave Watson, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland, will be speaking at our colloquium (his blog is here). Both are not shy when it comes to asking tough questions and both are adept in their use of evidence to support their analysis.

These two ‘industry-based’ speakers will be joined by a number of academic researchers who will be presenting their latest research on issues related to the topic of change in public services.

This critical academic debate is really needed. Sadly, I feel at times that analysis and evidence-based analysis are lacking when it comes to the subject of leading change. Just browse the titles of the many self-help management books that grace the shelves of every bland airport bookshop around the world. It would seem at times that there’s an entire industry of consultants and pracademics churning out clichés designed to inform ‘better’ management and self-actualisation. The titles could almost write themselves: 10 Easy Steps to Success; Think Positive; A Short Guide to Successful Change; How to Influence Change in 10 Seconds. If only it were that simple (NB: I made those titles up for illustrative purposes. Apologies to anyone who’s actually written a book with one of those titles).

The trouble is that organisational change requires people change. And people are complex, emotional, unpredictable, political, gendered, cultural beings. So any organisational change will as a result also be complex, emotional, unpredictable, political, gendered and cultural. Unless we recognise that we are likely to fail – is it any wonder that, according to John Kotter, more than 70% of change efforts fail?

Add to that mix the nature of public services (see here and here). What do I mean? Well, public services are often inherently complex and targeted at some of the most vulnerable groups in society. So there is a great risk, sometimes life-threatening, if things go wrong. Also, it’s public money so everyone has an opinion, everyone has a stake, and everyone is just waiting for something to go wrong. And of course Politicians also have an important role to play in our public services. Yet even in the more robust academic texts on leading change the distinctive nature of public service change tends to be overlooked.

It appears that anyone wanting to offer advice is best served by offering a simple model with an equally simplistic, yet catchy, acronym. This, it would seem, is what sells. Not complexity, not more questions, and certainly not theory (as we know academics don’t exist in the real world).

That’s not to say that there are excellent books out there on the subject of leading change in public services – there are actually quite a few (which I won’t list here for fear of forgetting someone). Equally the ‘generic’ organisational change texts are of course hugely valuable – to anyone. But I think there is still an important place for continued critical debate around leading change in public services. This is why I have organised this one day research colloquium: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/leading-change-in-public-services-tickets-24921644309

 

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