Change management: tips for a successful MOG

By David Donaldson

Monday May 1, 2017

Changes Ahead , Road Warning Sign , 3d render

Change is difficult to manage, and it doesn’t come much bigger than the machinery of government rejig announced in Western Australia on Friday.

The public service must be flexible and adaptable despite the many challenges that come with major shifts, says WA Public Sector Commissioner Mal Wauchope. To do so requires leaders “who champion, embrace and manage change”, he states in a new change management guide released by the Public Sector Commission just in time for the MOG restructure.

Leaders must champion the change, but the agency should not be dependent on one individual to make it happen, as the assumption that there can be only one leader in an agency is incorrect.

The guide has been developed in consultation with a number of agencies and draws on contemporary literature and guides from other jurisdictions, as well as the extensive experience of chief executive officers. While it was written for WA, most of its advice could apply to any jurisdiction.

Six principles for successful change management

Every agency is different and managing change thus depends on the context, but there are a range of principles for managing successful structural change that tend to be broadly applicable.

A clearly defined rationale and vision of the change is understood. Ideally, the rationale would include a compelling case for change that inspires and motivates people to become involved. Once the need for change is agreed upon, the intent of the change should be carefully defined. It should deliver long-term benefits while also minimising any negative effect on employees.

If the vision is unclear or misunderstood, commitment is unlikely and change efforts are less likely to be successful. Too often, leaders make the mistake of believing that others understand the issues, feel the need to change, and see the new direction as clearly as they do. If people do not understand, they will question to what extent change is needed, whether the organisation is headed in the right direction, and whether they want to commit personally to making change happen.

Stakeholders are identified, appropriately consulted and informed. Once stakeholders are identified — this can include staff, other agencies, ministers, service providers and the public — the agency should engage them effectively and meaningfully. Stakeholders need to understand the reasons the change is happening and what benefits are expected. They also need to have an opportunity to express their views and contribute their own ideas. Experience shows that approaching change in an open and consultative manner assists in more effective implementation. However, it is important that stakeholders are made aware of any predetermined decisions and whether any elements of the change are non-negotiable.

The system and processes developed to achieve the change are transparent. Regardless of the extent of the change, stakeholders will need to know how the agency will move from where it is now to where it wants to be. This change process could be documented in a change management plan.

Collective and collaborative leadership is empowered. The role of leadership in any change management program cannot be underestimated and is repeatedly cited as a major contributor to success. Leaders must champion the change, but the agency should not be dependent on one individual to make it happen, as the assumption that there can be only one leader in an agency is incorrect.

Efforts must include strategies for identifying leaders throughout the agency and empowering those leaders to design and implement components of the change. At each layer of the organisation, the identified leaders must be equipped to execute their specific change component, and motivated to make it happen. These leaders should work collaboratively to ensure the overall effort is successful.

There is a dedicated focus on people. Failing to plan for the people aspects of change is likely to result in an unsuccessful change management program. The people approach should be fully integrated into design and decision making, both informing and enabling strategic direction and be based on a realistic assessment of the agency’s history, readiness, culture and capacity to change, and should include employee involvement.

The change is systematically reviewed and adapted. Often structural change is achieved but the question remains: Was it successful? Did the change in structure result in the desired change in performance, or deliver the outcome it was designed for? Team dynamics are also important: when implementing structural change it is possible for some areas of the agency to connect as a team quickly, while other areas need more time and effort to develop a working relationship. Therefore, it is necessary that team relationships are developed and continuously reviewed across the agency as well as within work groups.

The change process

There is no single model for enacting structural change, but there are some common interlocking process steps that should be followed.

“The process is not typically linear; the steps interlock and merge, allowing one step to begin prior to another being completed,” says the PSC guide. The steps comprise design, deliver, dialogue, do and evaluate:

The change process. Source: WA Public Sector Commission.

“Skipping these steps may create an illusion of a speedy transition but can lead to unintended consequences or an unsatisfactory outcome,” the commission says. “An appropriate balance needs to be found between consultation and communication, while providing certainty to employees about the future.”

Avoiding common pitfalls

There are a few common mistakes made when going through a change management process.

According to the Public Sector Commission, the common impediments to successful change are:

Lack of a governance structure. Establishing a separate change team comprising a range of people of varying seniority, all of whom bring expertise to the group and have sufficient influence in achieving the change, can help you avoid this problem.

Lack of role modelling by leaders. In some cases, managers can make demands that are inconsistent with the overall effort or insist that old ways of working continue. This may seriously undermine the change effort. If leaders and managers do not visibly role model the new ways of working, their commitment is questioned and cynicism can grow. For successful change, leaders need to become a symbol of the vision in practice.

Under-communication of the vision. The change vision may have been communicated at the start of a reform program and reinforced in regular updates, but for successful change management, the change vision also needs to be incorporated into routine discussions. This includes using all communication channels, newsletters, regular management meetings, staff briefings, webcasts and the like. Too often, the message  is transmitted but the agency rarely checks that it has been received and understood.

Declaring success too soon. The ultimate aim is for the change vision to become the normal way of operating. This can only be achieved by continual, almost relentless, reinforcement. The change process does not end when the new structure is in place and positions filled. In reality, filling the new positions is only one step towards achieving the vision.

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