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Don’t Like Change

If you have read my previous blog entries you will be very aware of my lack of respect for the process of management in general and most managers in particular. In fact I have been discussing this with my colleague Fred (not his real name) again and he has made some interesting observations which certainly have some resonance for me, specifically on the topic of change management. Here are some of his more astute comments…

When he debates (I get the impression these “debates” are often more like arguments) with the management team at his place of work an accusation often made against him is that he can’t cope with change. In fact this seems to be a very common criticism of anyone who is hesitant to endorse a new way of doing things. I’m sure that in some cases it is true, because many people really don’t like change, but I think more often this is just an excuse used to try to justify new policies and procedures which really don’t have a lot of merit.

In Fred’s case for example it seems counterintuitive that he would reject change when he works in an area (computing) where constant change is the norm. Where else is it necessary to be so open to change or be left behind? So the simple accusation that he doesn’t like change in general is ridiculous. In fact what he doesn’t like is change for the worse, or change for no good reason, or change without consultation.

But the problem with most conversations between a manager and a worker is that the manager doesn’t have to justify anything they do. Generally they initially go with the old justification of “you just don’t like change” and if that fails there’s always the classic follow up of “you could always work somewhere else”.

How would the manager feel if they had a complaint about a staff member’s work and the only response they got was “you just don’t like the new way I do things” or “you could always manage someone else”. They would find that unacceptable wouldn’t they? Yet they think the staff member should accept it when they use exactly equivalent statements. If anyone doesn’t have a good way to justify their conclusions then maybe they should re-examine them.

I guess every organisation does need some ultimate way to make decisions and enforce necessary change but if that is going to happen I think it’s really important that the change be open to criticism and should be able to be defended. Most people’s experience with change in bureaucratic organisations (and that is basically every organisation) is that it is forced on staff against their will, is unsupported with any real proof that it is necessary or advantageous, and is never properly evaluated later to see if it has been successful.

So let’s look at some of the changes Fred has had to endure in recent years to get an idea of why he might be resistant to them…

His salary in real terms has gone down, allegedly because funding is decreasing, but at the same time there is always plenty of money for managers and bureaucrats. Is this the sort of change anyone should be happy with? I can imagine being unhappy but accepting of sacrifice of that sort if it was applied fairly and gross waste wasn’t obvious elsewhere, but when it’s just a cynical ploy like this why should anyone accept it?

Fred has worked at the same organisation for many years and has noticed a lot of change over that time. In general the change has been in the direction of a huge increase in administration and loss of independence. A significant part of his time is now spent filling in time sheets, completing charging forms, attending meaningless meetings, and other activities which aren’t really part of his job. Interestingly the people who forced the cost recovery system on the technical staff are never required to work that way themselves, maybe because they do nothing so would never charge out any time! Is forcing a skilled professional into doing a lot of meaningless administrivia the sort of change which he should be happy about? I don’t think so.

When Fred started work at his organisation his professional skills were quite trusted. It was assumed (quite rightly) that he knew how to solve the problems he encountered and could consult with colleagues where necessary. But over they years his work has been forced into more of a “template”. Now he has to follow policies formulated by people who have no clues at all about the real issues he encounters. Is trusting a bureaucrats opinion instead of a professionals the sort of change he should be happy with? Who would be?

I’m sure Fred’s situation isn’t unique and, as I said earlier, I can identify with why he is frustrated with the types of changes that have been inflicted on him.

Finally, to emphasise my point, imagine the following imaginary situation…

Manager: Hello Fred, I’ve asked for this meeting so we can discuss the new corporate direction and policy framework the management has been working on.

Fred: (extremely worried about what nonsense is about to ensue) Err, OK, what are these changes?

Manager: Well we have decided the professional staff should be paid more and we are going to fund that by reducing the number of administrators in our organisation. Also, we trust your professional skills so you can use our policies as a guideline but bypass them where that will get a better outcome for the client. And we also are throwing out the cost recovery system, the inefficient user pays mechanism, and we will have an administrator to do any of the remaining paper work for you.

Fred: That sounds fair, I am happy to fully cooperate with the new direction.

Manager: Excellent, I had heard you don’t like change but clearly that’s not true.

Fred: Not like change? Where would you get that idea?

But that wouldn’t happen, would it. Because change is almost never positive. It’s always the opposite of what this manager was proposing. But Fred lives in the real world where change is (almost) always bad. It’s not the change which is the problem, it’s the type of change.

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