My organisation is going through change. This really is not unusual as for the majority of my public sector career so far there has been a series of large, individual “change programmes” rolled out and implemented. However the difference with this change is it doesn't look or feel like a single change programme in the old school way, rather it appears to be a recognition, finally, that change must be constant as the world around us changes.
As organisations and leaders within those organisations we are hugely encumbered by our history and aspirations. It appears to me humans in general resist change unless there is direct personal benefit. Bizarrely and almost unnoticed has been the change going on around us. Technology is changing at an incredible rate, and I know I might appear to be one of those older folk harking back to how it used to be. However much of our changes in response to technology have been to just do what we were doing before electronically.
What’s the difference between emails and memos? We receive them without asking, we think if we don't look at them they might go away, just before we go on holiday we go through our inbox (in tray) and ping as many of them as possible to others. Really emails are just digital versions of how we have administered for millennium.
My understanding of this current change “surge” (I really don't think we should call it a programme) is based on my experiences over the past year or so, and what I am seeing is a change in how fundamentally we are expected to work.
It has been good enough to simply deliver the basic tick-box activity on your list for too long and this is now not going to cut it. We say we know that the world is joined together yet we continue to operate in silos. We evaluate our own area in the way that has been accepted for 20 years or so, and wonder why those we are telling what to do question us, because they have a wider understanding than we consider valuable.
For me the biggest single change we need to make right now is the belief that the one thing we can be absolutely sure about is that someone knows more than we do about whatever it is we are considering. And that by talking to them we can ensure they are all working for the same team, rather than working to reinforce the historic silos and consequently, historic criticism.
Part of this is a fundamental challenge to the command and control approach, which should be in the right context, consigned to history. How can a generalist senior manager/leader be the expert in all matters? In an organisation of very clever people harnessing those brains is the trick.
One of the things that has also amazed me is how quickly twitter has broken down barriers within the organisational hierarchy. Social media is simply destroying the memo to email approach. It may not be how people think of social media in general – many think that it is full of photos of cats and people's lunch. But if you had told me 12 months ago I and others would be 'chatting' on twitter with the Permanent Secretary of Defra about things like culture change, mental health, data, changing to new ways of working, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.
All my experience was of my managers trying as hard as they could to control the messages going up the chain, limited information going up (generally only the good news unless something is REALLY bad (i.e. uncontainable) meaning limited direction coming back down (often skewed priorities or decisions staff think are divorced from reality).
Yet, the intersection of social media with work has begun changing the feeling around how we can engage with our senior leaders. By using Twitter with its character limit on tweets suddenly we can share our thoughts in a way our leaders can engage with, and unlike the memo/briefing note culture we have simply digitised our engagements are becoming more digitalised.
So, what is happening now is not really a formal change programme, it is the beginnings of a fundamental shift in how we all work, and as leaders we can fight to contain it or we can jump straight in. I remember when I first started ‘proper’ work (after running a bar for a while in a post student mourning period) I had to apply for, and justify in writing why I needed an email account for work. You might think that absurd now, but the same is happening with social media: ‘why do you need to use Twitter/YouTube/Facebook for work?’ is asked, but the question really should be ‘why are you NOT using Twitter/YouTube/Facebook for work?’.
Now this is not an advert for Twitter – honest – as it took me a while to work out why it is a useful tool for me, rather this is an advert for openculture. Twitter is one tool in that. For example, only this weekend a suggestion was made that as well as releasing data we should be saying what our questions (that we do not know the answers to) are so that others can use data to answer them. Sounds obvious? You wouldn't believe how hard it is to get a public body to admit to not really knowing the answers in public! How we share our problems doesn't need to be done on Twitter but it should be being done. We do do some of this, we ask ‘questions’ of the research community for example but not necessarily in a way that is accessible to all.
In order to maximise the collective brain power, the hive mind the Internet has created, we need to continue to push in the direction of this flatter hierarchy, we need to be much more honest in what we don't know and we need to be willing to ask for help.
To do this, we need to continue to champion the virtues of trust over extreme command and control.
Occasionally somebody may get it open culture totally wrong or abuse the trust but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change, and in fact it doesn’t matter because resisting this particular change surge simply puts you in King Canute territory of trying to hold back the tide.