Delivering organisational change across the silos


An illuminating article in TIME magazine recently looked at the problems of insular management and poor accountability in large organisations, using GM’s ignition-switch problems as a case study.

The article struck a chord with us, as it would with anyone who has had experience of working with large and established businesses. Insular management. Siloed operations. Endless meetings that fail to result in action. Individuals not held to account. In the case of GM, this had tragic consequences, with as many as 74 deaths having been attributed to the ignition-switch fault. Last week, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the company seeking as much as $10 billion in damages.

If you are interested, like we are, in delivering organisational change in challenging corporate environments, the subsequent investigation and report by former US Attorney General Anton Valuka will be required reading. Ineffective communications between departments, blamed for conflicting and poorly informed decisions at GM, has been cited in numerous investigations into industrial accidents. Poor communication between contractors was cited as a factor in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And as far back as 1951, the US Air Force Inspector General published a report entitled Poor Teamwork as a Cause of Aircraft Accidents, with the recommendation of mandatory teamwork training programmes as a means of improving safety in the airline industry.

Managing people, programmes and organisational change

There are also lessons for other organisations. In our experience, the same challenges that led to disaster at GM – siloed working and poor accountability – are the same challenges that can slow or derail any transformation programmes. We were recently engaged by a client that was mid-way through a major transformation programme. Despite the backing of the CEO and despite the urgency – investors clamouring for a step-change in performance – the programme was in real danger of collapsing, without having delivered any of the required benefits or savings. We witnessed a culture of poor accountability across all layers and departments in the business. Worse still, the day-to-day business decision-making had ground to a halt as senior managers were tied up in endless meetings, few of which resulted in any tangible decisions or actions.

As the article notes, there are various means for breaking down internal silos. Establish a set of core values or a mission-statement that everyone can understand. Apply an external perspective to challenges. Hire outsiders, and particularly women and minorities, who often communicate better across departments. At Able and How, we would echo all of these – while emphasising the importance of underlying organisational change capability. We have worked with many of the world’s leading organisations in using our Change Index to assess and monitor their ability to drive change across their business. Using the resulting information, together with our experience in supporting major business transformation, we then help our clients deliver the required interventions to ensure their programmes perform.

Author Rana Foroohar concludes with the point that silo-busting at GM – or any other organisation – requires starting at the top. In our experience, we would say the same is true for anyone wishing to drive meaningful change in their business. Visible leadership and having an effective change management strategy can make the difference between delivering successful, sustainable change – or failure. In the case of GM, the cost of failure has been significant.

Alan Macdonald

01 July 2014

How the Tube strike ‎could improve the productivity and profitability of businesses



ON A LONDON BUS — Today is another day in which the stoic and phlegmatic Briton will stand patiently at packed bus stops. Being there with far more people than any bus can carry‎ won’t dissuade them. Until the fourth or fifth bus passes, full, at which point they’ll pause to think about which direction and set off walking.

The papers, radio and TV will tell us that it will cost us £600 million in lost work hours, or £50 million a day in lost business. And we’ll be concerned, but resigned.

We’ll keep walking.

But is it really the case? Does it have to be that way?

Some recent work we have done on “flexible working” suggests that the opposite may be true. There may actually be quite a lot of money to be gained by some of the behaviours that the Tube strike will impose on Britain’s business community.

One of our clients saved $9 million in a single year simply by allowing more their employees to work from ‎home and reducing their office footprint. And they weren’t even based in London.

Another, London-based business with 600 employees is looking at a minimum £5 million annual reduction in costs — just by implementing flexible working

However, physical plant costs aren’t enough to sway most people. So it’s helpful that the research on productivity for people who work from home is also so high. Recent estimates suggest it is as much as a 13% increase in productivity for people who work at home. And there’s a 50% drop in employee attrition.  think of your HR costs saved!

Then there are the costs associated with travel in both time and money, which are ‎greatly reduced.  Fewer people take sick days.  There are many, many positive implications.

In fact, the biggest challenge to more businesses taking up flexible working is managers and organisational culture.  So, it’s mostly a change management question.

While we wouldn’t ‎suggest that the Tube strike is a good thing. It is a great opportunity to ‎encourage people to look at flexible working.

It could certainly make Tube strikes less important.  AND improve the productivity and profitability of UK businesses.

That’s surely worth a serious look.


Managing change in a world that is both changing and is not

Normcore potus















LONDON — With every day comes a new mix of the hurtling pace of change and the underlying “sameness” of everyday life.

And while change is so prevalent in business discussions that people blush to say it is a constant, there remains a fundamental, underlying constancy about what we know to be familar too.

The future is here and it’s pretty amazing.  But it’s also not as alarming as The Jetsons, Star Wars or 1984 promised.

Two articles in today’s New York Times point out the way the future is happing now, and how it very much is not.

Yesterday, the first and biggest Internet-based business, Amazon, announced the launch of Fire TV.  Whether Fire TV becomes what it hopes to or does not is irrelevant today. Amazon is so enthusiastic about it that they haven’t even bothered to explain all the ways that it may change lives.

With Fire TV we will be able to buy clothes we like on TV shows, book holidays to see a spot we like in a movie, or package up our own home movies (with great in-built production) and sell them on directly.

All of which sounds pretty exciting. It is decribed as the battle for one of the remaining areas of communication — having already colonised books, music and telephones.

At the same time there’s a lovely and clueless article in the same paper about “normcore”. This is a phenomena that may not even be a phenomena. It’s a fashion trend that has been generating masses of ink this year, and it may not even exist.

Normcore is decribed as the desire / ability to dress like a tourist.  To wear ill-fitting jeans, white trainers and a baseball hat.  That is to fit in with everyone around you.  To go to a football game and enjoy it, like everyone else.

There is plenty more that you can read on each of these developments across any media you choose.

How do they fit into business and the ability to manage change?

Well they do. They tell us about the world we live in.

In the midst of change people will always look for signs of familiarity.  They will be drawn to things that remind them of old routines. They will seek out opportunities to renew old habits. They will look to find ways to “fit in”.

Change is fundamentally difficult and runs counter to basic human nature. We never change our bank accounts. We try to park in the same spot.  We choose to work with people we know.

However, there is no denying the pace of change. And the need to adapt.  Intellectually most experienced business people can see that and they can get excited about it: Bring on Fire TV!

While at the same time we will also quickly revert to what we know. That’s why so many changes fail. Whether you are a football manager who brings his own “back room” staff, or a call centre worker who carries around his own photos, you’re hanging on to what you know: your own normcore.

As a result, the fundamental issue in managing change can be as simple as knowing what needs to change and appreciating what does not.


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