by Stephen Parry

5 forces of friction which put a brake on change

Sep 26, 2018
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipTechnology Industry

Why better methods and frameworks have not always led to the improvement in the success of change.

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Credit: Thinkstock

In recent decades, the world of change management within organizational environments, particularly in technology related businesses, has improved significantly. Several change methods and frameworks have developed incrementally and at pace. Today we have change methods and tools far superior to anything that was available in the Nineties and the “Noughties.” So why is it that even with better methods and frameworks we have not seen corresponding improvement in the success of change?

Traditionally, change management has been about system mechanics working within top-down “direct and control” structures. Today, we have greater understanding and appreciation of the human dimension of change, supported with methods to match. There are golden opportunities for organizations to achieve more profound and meaningful change. But even with all of these approaches at our disposal, the cause of change failure in past decades is still the cause of failure today, and it is actually something that can be easily addressed.

5 symptoms of an age-old, but easily fixed problem

People who work in the technical domain and achieve a demonstrated level of excellence in their jobs are often moved into management positions. And even though these people have deep technical knowledge and expertise within their own areas of operation, it is common for them to receive little or no training in what can be seen as basic or obvious, but which actually matters most for success in their new positions – the skills for forecasting, planning and organizing workload.

When the time comes to undertake change, and there is a requirement to plan and organize work differently, these managers inadvertently become the victim of a negative force that proceeds to consume the organization from the inside. It manifests itself through five main points of friction:

  1. A day-to-day management skills gap to conduct the forecasting, planning and organizing of daily work. While these managers may understand the daily work and how to allocate work to their teams, it is mostly an unplanned and reactive response; only seeking to do as much as possible each day. It can be characterized as “first-in-first out,” dominated by which customer shouts the loudest. In such situations, managers have little time for looking into what work may arrive, planning the best sequence and ensuring teams are resourced to cope with it. This is a disaster waiting to happen and inevitably, it does.
  2. Work backlogs. With lack of attention to defining the scope of work and organizing it accordingly, some things are not getting done. This causes work to back up and so the backlog intensifies and increasing amounts of work are left uncompleted. All of which leaves managers and staff even more overburdened than the day before.
  3. Prioritization of work. When work backlogs increase incrementally each day, the manager soon reaches a situation when the only seemingly sensible response is to prioritise. Everyone demands attention, but only some receive it – usually those shouting loudest. This generates a growing resentment among others left behind. Managers become more reactive and less proactive and then slip seamlessly into the third friction – that of firefighting – which only makes matters worse.
  4. Willful managerial blindness. Managers who find it hard to be honest with themselves about the real levels of instability and overburden adopt a “we are doing the best we can” attitude. They know if they were to step back and admit they were not planning the work, it could be interpreted as incompetence accompanied by demands from senior management to do better. Often managers tell themselves: “This is the only level of resource I am allowed, and I have to be creative in finding ways to do more with less.” Managers cannot be creative when they are expected to absorb increasing levels of work with a fixed or even diminishing level of resource. Thus the 4th Friction: open your eyes and ask yourself is the work controlling the managers or are the managers controlling work?
  5. Resigned acceptance. Managers feel powerless, unable to make a case even for optimum levels of resourcing or negotiated caps on demand. It is only when managers have the skills for forecasting, planning and organizing the work that they can they begin to obtain the simple numbers with which to successfully run their business. So, there is just a resigned acceptance of work that will be left undone, resulting in overworked, demoralized staff who know that however much work they accomplish today, a bigger pile will await them tomorrow. The 5th and final source of fiction: A sense of futility created by the absence of a simple set of managerial skills everyone expects managers to possess – simply because they are called managers.

Overcoming friction: Stop pushing harder on the accelerator and take your foot off the brake

In the face of this scenario, it is understandable that organizations will sometimes look to structural reorganization as a solution, seeing it as a kind of “silver bullet” that will sort the mess out. But then, with the organization in a new shape, the symptoms still persist because the main, foundation problem still persists. And that problem is to do with the fact that basic but essential aspects of management training have been overlooked by senior managers and HR departments.

I have been involved in change management for many years, and I come up against this training blind spot time and again. While training focuses on such things as goal-setting and motivating staff – undeniably important areas – it often overlooks equally important things, namely the forecasting, planning and organizing of work. When I teach people how to look at demand, assessing staff numbers and predicting how much work will be left at the end of the day, it is often seen as a revelation and greeted with amazement.

The change management tools for today’s business organizations are better than they have ever been. But no matter how fast or how dramatically the business landscape evolves, there will always be constants and upon these, success so often depends. One such constant is ensuring that managers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to manage the day-to-day operation of forecasting, planning and organizing of work. This is the vital key to reducing the five forces of friction which put a brake on change.