Friday, August 20, 2010

New Broom, Soft Bristles?

Everyone knows the concept of a ‘new broom’ going in to an organisation and making sweeping changes to how things are done.
For some this starts with a refreshed vision/mission and roles on to new company values, some rebranding, followed by changes to the way the business operates (systems and I.T etc). For other’s it can just be that the new boss does things differently and people get used to the changes over time; the vision, mission and values are still on the walls but gradually fade, gather dust and fall off, while the new boss introduces methods, approaches and systems that they prefer and have delivered for them in the past.

Whether you’ve been part of the ‘Industrial Strength Hoover’ approach or the ‘Urban Decay’ methods of bringing changes to a business (and if you have definitions somewhere in between please share) then you will know that the arrival of a new boss or the leaving of a new boss can be an interesting time for employees.

In recent years I have noted that it is almost impossible for a new CEO/GM/MD to do anything other than adopt a new broom philosophy. In addition it is noticeable that there is an expectation that the sweeping starts very soon after their arrival. This creates some interesting changes scenarios for the business.
Firstly the business often goes in to hiatus when it is clear that a new boss is arriving. This hiatus continues until the new boss announces what they intend to do. The hiatus seems to occur because people ‘just know’ that changes will happen with a new boss, so initiatives that take a lot of effort are ‘delayed’ and changes that were part way through are put on hold. People hunker down and do the basics.
As a change agent this is an interesting time to observe the culture as it is an indication of what is culturally embedded but it is often a ‘lowest common denominator’ impression. At this point the new boss comes in and sees that lowest common denominator and rapidly comes to the conclusion that old vision/mission and values are not working (rapidly because that is the expectation these days) and low and behold they see that a new broom is needed.
If the new manager then acts soon after their arrival and takes the ‘industrial strength hoover’ approach then many good things are swept away and lost. This is sometimes because the manager had not seen them in action because of the hiatus and sometimes because thats what happens with an industrial strength hoover. When this happens people at least know where they stand (big announcements are part of the industrial strength hoover) but often those that have been there a while suffer the ‘we’ve done this before’ feeling as similar things come out in the new vision/ mission values.
If the new manager adopts an urban decay approach people have to be light on their feet and swift to learn what is acceptable and expected. Hiatus is swapped for confusion and concern as people try to work out what bits of the old are acceptable and which aren’t.

There are many other impacts on an organisation as a result of management change, but the real question is ‘how do you reduce the negative and maximise the positive?’

I believe that new leaders need time to observe and learn about their organisation. There are many conversations required before people stop treating them like a new boss and really speak their mind. The new manager has a lot of testing (and often indirect) questions to ask over a number of weeks to find out what parts of the vision are working, whether the organisation is functioning in line with that vision and whether departments/ divisions and teams are aligned, playing their part , etc. They need to stand outside and observe the culture in action and see what is positive about it and what isn’t. They need to assess the capability and fit of their people, the systems, processes and ways of working. They need to signal to the organisation that they are looking and learning and that they want everything to continue as it was before they arrived and that includes initiatives and change programmes.
They need to manage the tension between the board’s desire for swift and immediate action and the need to find out what the right actions are. They cannot take forever to decide but nor can they decide in their first few weeks.

They need to be a new broom with soft bristles.