1971 Coca Cola advert

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony) is a song famously used by Coca Cola for its “Hilltop” television commercial, first broadcast in 1971. More recently, the song, and a tribute to the commercial, was featured as the ending to the popular television series Madmen in 2015.

Last week I spoke at a corporate away day for a government agency FutureGov are working closely with at the moment. It was a good event — engaged and diverse audience from across the organisation mixed with a digital team.

I was invited because of my experience working on transformation programmes at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

Whenever I’m asked to speak about this I always try to focus on people and on culture. This is my lasting impression from almost 4 years at DWP. Most progress is the result of ‘collective, small, actions’, or, how much the individuals in your organisation take collective responsibility for shaping and changing how it works.

I’ve written before about collective, small, actions as culture. DWP Digital have also continued to talk about this as building a digital delivery culture.

Why your change or transformation programme will fail

Many transformation or change programmes fail because the people in these organisations don’t feel or see any positive change.

When working in central government, I presented and spoke at many corporate and team events. I heard feedback from frustrated colleagues bored of hearing about ‘change’. For many long term civil servants ‘digital’ transformation was the latest change programme they had been through or were having to hear about. Whether ‘lean’, ‘agile’, ‘tech-driven’ or ‘digital’, change programmes had come and gone for them.

A new set of leadership often brought about a new change programme. There would always be away days, the free lunches and the latest branding, messaging and shiny presentations. But people rarely felt or owned the proposed changes in a way that would lead to any significant change. Things would often revert back to business as usual and the way they had always worked.

The key message is:

Transformation needs to be real. People need to see, feel, and own it for themselves.

Change programmes tend to be big on words and good on intentions. This struck me after a seminar session a year or so ago. We ran a short retrospective and someone described their experience of change in the organisation as being like “the coke advert where they all join hands and sing”. He then explained that he now had a difficult day job to get back to, there was no reason to believe the hype, but thanks for the free lunch.*

For people who have spent years in large organisations, corporates, or government agencies and departments there have been no shortage of attempts to deliver change.

In any organisation that pre-dates the internet there will have been false starts. Things will have happened that feel like broken promises, made to people in the name of ‘transformation’. The intention to make things better, cheaper, simpler or faster (all the words from most ‘digital’ vision statements). Change driven by technology, and digital with all it’s potential, has failed to transform people’s individual jobs and their opportunities. Maybe for the few, but not for the many (at least so far).

Doing change programmes differently

So some thoughts on how we unpick this, or what we can do differently.

Start small, with people

As I’ve talked about, to have any chance of delivering meaningful business or service transformation this has to be something that people can see first hand and be part of. It can’t only be something that they hear about.

No one wants to ‘experience’ a new brand(ing) of their working environment and how they’re expected to work. In contrast, people do want opportunities to grow and contribute to the organisations they’ve often spent many years working for. People have adaptable skills that can help deliver change, given the right support. All too often we focus on skills people don’t have rather than the skills they do when trying to manage change. What’s missing is the need to change and develop new mindsets. Again, the small individual things we do, and how we shape these behaviours together–collective, small, actions.

The challenge for people is to “start small because you are small”. Especially if you work in an organisation of size and complexity. Small is okay.

By starting with the people inside your organisation, you start to become more people focussed. If you want to deliver products and services that are user or customer-centric then this is a good place to start. How you build your own culture will influence how you think about designing for and interacting with people external to your organisation.

Find more ways to deliver change together

The strategy is delivery works. So get people directly involved with doing change rather than telling them about change.

People have to be able to see and feel progress if digital is going to mean anything to them. They have to get involved. This means hack days, design sprints, and applying new ways of working and thinking across the organisation, whether it’s designing services or HR processes.

Build and support strong communities

Change requires momentum, which comes from groups of individuals committed to making it happen. You have to find these people and support them. The way to do this is to build strong communities around them. If you make these communities open, diverse and accessible then others will want to be part of what they see happening.

People want to be part of a good thing and movements for positive change. Look at something like One Team Gov as a great example of a movement that has started to shift attitudes and create momentum across the public sector and beyond.

Make change about more than words

This is about avoiding change and transformation becoming a marketing exercise. Don’t focus all your efforts on telling people how wonderful change will be (the ‘teaching the world’ to sing scenario). Instead, find ways for them to feel the benefits and own this change for themselves.

In doing this, it’s important that leaders also set out a useful and useable vision for the organisation. The place we’re all working towards, and something that everyone can understand and get hold of.

This is where communication does matter, but it’s not a brand exercise. Communicating the purpose and progress of an organisation is better served by working in the open. The words we use to describe change and what we’re working towards are important and a brand positioning of new ideas is not enough on its own to unpick complex organisations and services in any meaningful way.

Unfortunately, many change processes are all too often reduced to a marketing or branding exercise. Like Coca Cola, promoting a better world and global peace in return for us all drinking more sugar water. We eventually realise what we’re being mis-sold, even when it looks and sounds good.

Measure your progress

Organisations aren’t always very good at measuring the impact of change. This can be because they’re not clear about what they’re working towards or the metrics that matter to them, or why. This is why I worry about a culture of public sector awards. They’re an example of branding and talking about change versus delivering meaningful change that people in organisations can see and feel for themselves.

Simpler, clearer, faster change programmes

Looking across the public sector in 2018 we need less marketing of change and more delivery of change.

Most digital delivery that I’ve worked on has not delivered organisation-level change in government. We’ve delivered simpler, clearer, faster services, but this has to go further to be sustainable across all future services in places like DWP and elsewhere.

I now work for a consultancy and we like to think that we’re different from most consultancies (caveat). But digital and tech consultancies share the blame for promoting the false promises of many change and transformation programmes.

As we all get better at this there should be much less talking and much more doing. Better and improved services delivered by government and local government as the result of change programmes, and not despite the transformation and organisational change initiatives happening in the background (which is what can happen in reality). Less transformation strategies (including ‘digital strategies’) and more progress towards lasting change.

At FutureGov, we want to help get this right, get in touch if you think we can help or want to share stories about your own change and transformation programmes.

*there’s no such thing as a free lunch


Teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony (or, why your transformation programme will fail) was originally published in FutureGov on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Original source – FutureGov

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