Most organisations today have broadly 'got the message' that our workplaces and the fundamental nature of work has changed and changed forever. Executives now accept – reluctantly in some cases – that today's new economic landscape and working practices are not a temporary hiccup and that the "old normal" regime of management hierarchies are being consigned to history.
The signs of this are clear for everyone to see.
- staff working virtually, even when adjacent to each other in the office.
- spiralling adoption of new technologies – it's projected that, over the next five years, 97% of all jobs will involve using the internet in some form or another.
- a restless, logarithmically expanding talent pool that's increasingly willing to adopt an entrepreneurial career path.
- an ecologically-aware workforce that regards unnecessary travel as easily avoidable, irresponsible, and anti-social.
- unsustainably costly redundant office space.
Yet, the reality for most of us is that we work in reasonably 'adequate' offices – they may bore us to tears but they do not generally harm us. And most organisations do not have swathes of openly cringeable management practices, consequently the need to change is not always apparent on a day-day basis.
The challenge business leaders frequently face is how to balance changes in work practice while juggling ongoing 'business as usual' commitments - without embarking on 'change-for-change sake'. On one hand, they are actively exploring every opportunity to overcome corporate inertia and dismantle the barriers to transforming work. On the other hand, this shifting of the status quo puts intense pressure on middle management.
Much of the talk amongst middle managers these days is about dealing with the consequences of change. Many managers believe that dealing with change is something that they have always done.
But there is a difference between the day-to-day change we all are engaged in, and the more fundamental kind that changes all the rules of how we work. It is often difficult to recognise when the paradigm has shifted and all the old assumptions they have held have to be questioned.
Most managers have experienced the kind of change that follows the introduction of a new piece of equipment or a new accounting system, a quality programme or a reorganised department. They handle this kind of incremental change usually by relying on their own knowledge and experience supplemented by training, books, and common sense.
Dealing with the evolutionary changes of everyday business is a natural part of managing. Some people do it with success while others stumble through. But, what happens when existing knowledge and experience actually reinforces the problem? What happens when the circumstances are so changed that old assumptions about the talent market, the workplace, and the very way we work no longer make sense? When that happens, previous individual and organisational strengths now become hindrances.
Many of today's problems are beyond the capacity of individual middle managers, or small groups of managers, to resolve. The harder they try, the more difficult it becomes. They often stimulate the very resistance they say they are trying to overcome. Their own thinking has to change and that starts with some of the assumptions that underpin their approach to management.
Even in large change programmes, it is sometimes the case that the way the programme is managed only serves to make resistance worse.
The reality is that many of the old 'rules' of management that have changed.
For example, we used to think about work in terms of achieving discrete objectives within defined professional or technical jobs. Managers now need to think about identifying and satisfying customers' changing needs, where 'customers' can be our colleagues, peers, or increasingly those beyond the traditional organisational boundaries.
We used to owe loyalty to our department (and play politics to stay ahead of the game). Managers now need to put the needs of the whole business first if we are to survive.
The yardsticks of performance used to be our own professional standards. Now it's how well 'customers' across the spectrum, and other stakeholders are satisfied.
The emphasis is now on managing outcomes across department or even company boundaries and contributing to larger purposes. It is far more complex; work boundaries, the outcomes, and the process are not always clear – and most people have no experience or training in this rapidly evolving new landscape.
Continuous improvement used to be at the heart of operational improvement. The focus was on: faster, cheaper, simpler, better and it resulted in some noteworthy improvements. However, what's now being experienced across our workplaces goes way beyond the incremental change of continuous improvement. Some call it a paradigm shift; a fundamental change in assumptions about every aspect of work – the way it's carried out – with whom – when it's carried out – and where. Conventional individual responses are no longer adequate.
Sometimes, small groups of managers recognise the relentless march of changing work practices and try to transform the area under their control. However, all too often, managers that are less convinced, obstruct progress by redoubling their efforts to maintain the old habits, conventions, and status quo. Others use the stalemate to pursue different solutions or their own agenda.
The result is confusion and uncertainty, with a great deal of time and money poured into unproductive activity. Sometimes, it's dismissed as 'corporate politics' and ignored, but it is a form of paralysis brought on by an inability to respond coherently to profound changes taking place within and without the organisation.
For things to get better, the organisation as a whole must move in step – given the magnitude of change to the nature of work, there's no longer any place for isolated HR, real estate, or IT interventions.
Successful, enduring workplace and work practice change involves developing a critical mass across an organisation to a common realisation of what kind of change is needed and how it can be done collectively, and then supporting them in the process. It requires fresh thinking and an open mind to innovate new work futures.
As Ronald Laing succinctly said, "The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."