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Resistance to change is yesterday’s logic

"Take risks, operate without answers..."

It was Peter Drucker who said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence - it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” I’m not sure there is an organisation standing today that would disagree.

Organisations across the UK have felt the consequences of this ongoing pandemic in a very real way. Many have already closed their doors for good. For the remainder, we see a relentless struggle to shape what the “new normal” means for them.

This “new normal” is forcing our organisations to no longer tolerate the status quo. The pandemic has proven that business as usual and perfectly planned, yet somehow inherently flawed, target operating models belong to a logic that meant something yesterday.  Today, it demands a very different thinking.

The “new normal” demands navigating the unknown. It demands decisiveness. It demands action. It demands that we have the courage to address the apathy, bureaucracy, silos and resistance that have been in the way of our organisations for years. It means we have to make space for a mindset that thrives in a truly uncertain world.

In short, our “new normal” demands that our organisations rapidly and confidently step into the environment in which Changemakers have always operated.

I have been speaking to some of those Changemakers. They are people who have spent their entire careers in relentless pursuit of making our services, organisations, and indeed, our sectors better. Whilst their stories differ, together they are bound by innate ability and readiness to navigate the most complex uncertainties the UK is facing. They shared stories of resistance, inspiration and curiosity. Of what it truly means to make change happen, to take risks, operate without answers and empower teams around them to charter the unknown. Here are their most common themes:

Purpose will drive our organisations’ most significant changes

The one common thread of every Changemaker discussion: Purpose. It is the glue that holds teams together. It provides a golden thread that links the smallest of tasks to the greatest of visions. But most importantly, purpose is the single reason why every one of these Changemakers joined the organisation they are fighting for.

The Met Office’s “genuine focus on improving lives and improving environments” is what drives Charles to continue exploring the cutting edge of technology innovation for the organisation. It is Virgin Atlantic’s purpose and unwavering vision to be the most loved travel company that keeps Ash striving to see them succeed. The ability to directly impact how democracy serves the UK is the reason why Tracey built her digital expertise that is transforming Parliament today. Knowing that she can change people's lives by the services her work helps to deliver is what keeps Emelia at The Crown Commercial Service. And it is the opportunity to truly make a difference for millions of citizens in the UK that compelled Daljit to join HMRC.

The future belongs to the curious

The one thing that bureaucracy, structure, and complex process erodes in organisations is curiosity. Yet curiosity is the very thing that gives birth to new ideas, innovation and evolution. Whether we were discussing the response to disasters, the future of printing, or new services that would save lives, all of our Changemakers demonstrated that curiosity and constant exploration is one of their most significant contributions to their organisations.

As Ash brilliantly describes “to be an agent of change, you have to be an archaeologist, digging through the layers to understand why processes and people are working in a certain way”. As he points out “We have great people in our organisations, who just want to be shown how to do something differently. No one gets up and thinks they are going to do a bad job; that’s just not how humans are wired. We have a responsibility to understand what is getting in their way.”

For Parliament, it was that focus and constant curiosity of how digital can and will transform democracy for the UK that enabled Tracey to break new ground for how Parliaments could operate during a pandemic. Describing Parliament not as an organisation, but as “an institution and an organism”, she has remained relentlessly focused on understanding the complexities of how it works and where it can be better: “My number one priority is being able to understand our customers; our Members, their staff, and the citizens they serve and being relentless in making sure that what we are doing meets their needs, and enables them to do their jobs without friction. When their jobs change, so do ours.”

Leaders no longer have the answers, nor should they.

No longer do we live in a world where any one individual has the answer. Changemakers recognise this better than anyone else.

Leah passionately explains, “It is the biggest challenge our organisations face today, becoming comfortable with not knowing. Western societies are built on having the right answers, on knowing. That's how we identify ourselves as being successful. We need to pull back from that and recognise that other people have the answers and that we need to listen to more diverse voices and to people with experience of the problems we seek to be part of resolving, to understand the right way forward”.

Therein lies one of our most significant gaps. “I get frustrated when people say they have a talent or skills gap within their organisation. They don’t. What they often have is a leadership gap” explains Daljit. “In many cases, there is a real failure of leadership at all levels. Leaders don’t behave like they are on the same team. They remain siloed. There is far too much debate, argument, discussion leading to inaction. This is true in all sectors.”

It is that same inaction coupled with the fear that collaboration means failure, that is so dangerous. As Paul describes, “It's not a failure to collaborate, to ask for help, to support something or someone else that is bigger. Now, more than ever, our organisations need leaders to have the courage to look outwards and admit when they are not the best person to lead change. If that happens, change is more likely to succeed.”

The future of our organisations, the success of the services we deliver, the innovations we will release, the lives that we will change, all rely on collaboration. It depends on tapping into the hive mind of our organisations and beyond. Just as Paul Maltby did when he took the two powerhouses of Whitehall - digital and policy - and enabled them to realise the brilliance they would achieve if they worked together.  He understands that policymakers not only need to know when, why and how Government should intervene on issues but that they also need to navigate complex bureaucracies. At the same time be alert to significant impacts including security, equality, economy and market failure. They need to understand how power flows through organisations, the culture and people required to make change happen.

Chris describes it best, “for many leaders, there is a belief that collaboration is the opposite of leadership. Some people seem to think there are two ends of the spectrum, with a needle that swings from one end to another. You're either collaborating, or you're leading. Leadership today is about blending the two things together. It is a bit of an art form, not everybody can do it.”

Resistance to change doesn’t look like no

There is no doubt that Changemakers succeed because of their ability to understand and overcome the many different forms of resistance to change that exist in our organisations today.

As Karl so accurately pointed out “it is bloody hard to engender change”. To succeed, we have to “put ourselves in other people’s shoes and try to understand their drivers. If we don’t, Karl warns “they are going to put up resistance.”

To make it more complicated, this is resistance, that most leaders don’t always recognise. Michelle, explained the risk perfectly. “people don't say, I don't want this change. So resistance to change doesn't look like no. Instead it looks like, ‘oh, let's just wait a bit and see if it works. Which means fellow leaders do not intervene, because the obstacles don’t look or sound like change resistance, they believe their teams are supportive of change. What they don’t see is how that apathy and lack of pace will absolutely threaten an organisation’s ability to adapt.”

It is merging that purpose, inspiration, co-creation, collaboration and the ability to create agency that forms the critical factor these Changemakers use to not only overcome resistance to change, but indeed, to achieve it.

But beyond all else, the most exciting opportunity is here

Whilst this crisis may not be wanted, in it lies significant opportunity. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the ways in which our organisations work forever. We have the opportunity to harness and shape that change. To replace apathy, bureaucracy and resistance with agility, collaboration and renewed purpose. We have the chance to be remarkable. As the Changemakers put it, now is the time to inspire our organisations:

To stay the course: Even when everyone else tells you It’s not the right thing to do. If you believe it, hold the course.” Ash Jokhoo, Chief Data and Information Officer, Virgin Atlantic

To be driven by evidence: “Be curious and seek evidence and insight to understand the changes you need to make and unite people behind a shared vision of the future.” Dr Leah Pybus, Head of Strategy Planning & Performance, British Red Cross

To take calculated risks: “We need to become comfortable with taking risk, because otherwise we're never going to change anything” Karl Hoods, Chief Digital and Information Officer, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)

To be our true selves:  “Be genuine, authentic and take a great deal of pride in doing your best.” Charles Ewen, Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer, The Met Office

To follow the energy: “Whether you're talking about a person, a policy area or department, our future is a radical interoperability across all policy services, systems, organisations. So find and follow the energy for where that radical interoperability can begin.” Chris Ferguson, Director, Government Digital Service (GDS)

To care about people: “Leaders care about people. The sky's the limit. We need to go for it. We need to aim high and chase what we feel. But always remember that people, not you, decide whether change succeeds.”  Emilia Hogarth ( nee Cedeno) - Enhancing capability Lead at Crown Commercial Service

To seek out others: “Get a reverse mentor. Tap into minds that are truly different to yours.” Daljit Rehal, Chief Digital and Information Officer, HMRC

To be kind to ourselves: “As Changemakers we throw everything we have into making programmes succeed. We have to take care of ourselves too” Michelle Thorp, CEO, Insolvency Practitioners Association

To share our stories: “Find those other reformers, share your stories about what works and also what doesn’t work and what’s hard!” Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

To enter unchartered waters:Let’s enable people to do the things they didn't believe they could do.” Paul Birkett, Head of Commercial Software Solutions, HP Inc

To be fearless: “be relentless, be focused, don't be afraid to make mistakes, but learn from them.” Tracey Jessup, Chief Digital and Information Officer, UK Parliament

See also: NY Fed Chief Information Officer Pam Dyson on going from graphic artist, to CIO