Interview: Ian Plover
I recently met up with Ian Plover, a former Director of HR and Business Change.
During his corporate career, Ian has led a variety of change programmes and now uses his experience to support businesses and individuals as they run their own change programmes.
He applies a direct and open approach, engaging people at the very earliest opportunity and I was particularly interested in how this applies to dealing with the sensitive area of redundancies.
Why do you think that your approach is so successful?
“Firstly, it seems to me that a lot of rhetoric is spoken and written about change management, as though making it seem complicated somehow justifies fancy job titles, long timescales and high costs. The fact is that we all go through change on a regular basis in our lives and we deal with it, often without thinking about it.”
“I believe that achieving positive change is primarily about common sense and there is nothing complex about that. It’s just a case of recognising it and applying sound principles to make it last.”
“Well-meaning change often goes wrong as a result of a few simple things being overlooked because we are under pressure to deliver to time or budget. Redundancy programmes are a good example.”
“Emotions run particularly high and so we focus on the technical aspects of delivery, when what we really need to be doing is involving people in developing and influencing the solution.”
“Real change comes through people taking responsibility for their own future. There are usually two scenarios: Either employees feel bulldozed by management in order to get changes made quickly or management feels that employees are holding up the process.”
“The first is a result of pressure on managers to deliver and this is seen as taking control away from employees.”
“The second occurs as employees resist the change because they feel that they have no control over their futures.”
“Both scenarios lead to conflict and usually result in negativity, such as bad publicity, poor employee relations and demotivated employees, all of which have a lasting effect beyond the original programme.”
“My approach is to facilitate the sharing of potential problems at the earliest possible stage and, although this usually takes a leap of faith on both sides, it is possible to develop a level of mutual trust.”
“I believe that employees have a right to know if they are at risk and they should be given the opportunity to influence change rather than just respond to it. Openness and honest communication enables both management and employees to address the solution together and creates ownership.”
“Everyone in a company is affected in some way by redundancy, either directly as a redundant employee, as a manager responsible for making employees redundant, or as a professional who supports the process. Employees who are not directly at risk of redundancy are affected through losing colleagues, additional workload or fear that they will be next.”
“If the process is handled badly, without a clear need for change and meaningful consultation, employees perceive that they are being treated unfairly and a legacy of fear remains long after the last redundant employee has gone.”
“By involving all these people in the process at the first sign of problems, we give them personal responsibility and rather than creating an atmosphere of chaos, which is the usual fear, the response is one of support and ownership enabling a faster outcome, with fewer issues and swifter integration and acceptance by employees.”
So your key message is to be open and honest with everyone about potential changes at the very earliest opportunity, despite fears of demotivating employees or losing control. What else is important?
“Having clear priorities, a genuine need for change, having credible leadership and speaking in a language that people understand.”
“Good communication really is the bedrock of successful change but it must be honest, regular and two way. The truth can sometimes be a shock but I reiterate that real and lasting change comes through individuals taking personal responsibility for their own situations. Often there is a belief that a company owes employees a living, or an expectation that someone else will manage their future. Only through being honest can employees realise that they have total choice over how they respond to any situation.”
“Maintaining the focus on business targets is also important. It sounds obvious but the original commercial goals are frequently lost in the emotion surrounding redundancies. The way that people are treated is of course crucial to the outcome of any process of change, but not at the cost of time and money targets. Employees must accept some responsibility for achieving business targets and understand that without these there may not be a surviving company to remain with.”
“Redundancy programmes are usually well focussed on supporting the people who will be losing their jobs, but we often forget those employees who will be remaining with the business and who need to be motivated and supported to see a positive future - not just a reprise until the same thing happens to them. I do this by involving them in the creation of their own future, by involving them in the change process and by giving them a sense of ownership.”You have spoken so far about the early involvement of employees in the process and creating ownership. Surely it is the role of managers to manage.
“Change is not difficult to achieve, but positive and lasting change is.”
“Leadership and the role of managers is crucial to the success of any change programme but it is not their sole responsibility to achieve a positive outcome - this is a joint responsibility with employees.”
“Managers do however have responsibility for planning and facilitating programmes of change or redundancy and creating an environment that is conducive to meaningful consultation.”
“There are a few simple principles that I believe are fundamental. As a consultant, my role is not to apply them, but to instil ownership for them within the management of the business.”
“The head of the organisation and the management team must personally support the change, stand for the change, dedicate time and make a public commitment to making it happen. Quite simply, if the actions don’t match the words, leaders have no credibility.”
“There must be a clear and believable reason for change (danger or opportunity) that is widely communicated before even starting to talk about what, how and when. Employees should clearly see how change would affect both them and the company in the short and long term.”
“Most importantly, I believe that employees are entitled to the truth.”
“There must be a strong network of people who are willing to invest in change, to make it work, otherwise the resistance will exceed the support.”
“The desired outcome must be clear, legitimate, widely understood and measurable. For example a new vision would be meaningless without absolute clarity on what people would be expected to do differently in behavioural terms and how the change would benefit customers and other stakeholders.”
“Management and HR practices and systems must complement and reinforce the change and there must be confidence in the ability of managers and Human Resources to institutionalise the change.”
“Progress must be real and measured by setting benchmarks and indicators. These must be widely communicated and progress measured against the targets.”
“Learning in one part of the company should be shared throughout the organisation and actions contrary to the change plan should be swiftly and appropriately dealt with.”
Are you able to provide any examples of where you have successfully applied these principles?
“As an example, one client is an international supplier employing 360 people on a site that they have occupied for 175 years. Last year they ran into financial and operational problems and it became clear that only a radical change could ensure their survival.”
“The ultimate solution, reached through consultation and the full involvement of employees, resulted in relocation, a major outsourcing programme and redundancy of half of the workforce.”
“These principles were applied, with due regard to the long history and the culture of the business, ensuring a robust and pragmatic programme.”
“The process enabled the changes to be made to time, to budget, with full union support, without bad publicity and without any employment tribunals.”
So clearly this was a success, but as you said earlier it seems to be straightforward common sense and good principles. Why aren’t programmes always this successful?
“I think that there are three main reasons and these are what I take into account when designing any change programme.”
“Firstly, there is often a misguided belief that employees won’t be able to handle the truth, so keeping it from them or is doing them a favour. I believe that employees have the right to know if their futures are threatened. They will have to be told at some stage, so it is best to tell them as soon as possible and get them involved in the solution.”
“Secondly, is poor communication. By this I don’t simply mean briefings and newsletters. Good communication requires a system that enables questions to be raised and answered, everyone to be able to have a say and leaders listening.”
“Finally, is recognition that large programmes of change are not a part of the day job. They require time an attention to be dedicated to them. Even if the management team has been through redundancy programmes before, we should never underestimate the additional administration work required and the emotional strain of dealing with people who are losing their jobs.”
You have described a very formulaic approach to change. Does this mean that you should be able to predict success or failure of a process from the outset?
“Well obviously 100% certainty is never possible, but I do believe that projects don’t go wrong, they start wrong. However, while I am able to provide an external perspective on the viability and effectiveness of proposed changes, the ultimate responsibility lies with those within the business.”
“Although redundancy programmes are never pleasant, if they are approached properly and managed well they can be a key milestone in an organisation transforming itself.”