Dignity and Involvement when Managing Change

In a column published in The New York Times on June 25th, 2008 and entitled “Taking Ownership of Iraq”  Tom Friedman wrote the following: “When someone else has to liberate you in your own home, that is humiliating — and humiliation, I believe, is the single-most underestimated force in international relations, especially in the Middle East. That also helps explain why Iraqis initially never took ownership of their governing institutions, like the Coalition Provisional Authority, or C.P.A. They never fought for it. It was handed to them. People have to fight and win their own freedom, and that’s what gives their institutions legitimacy.”

You’re smart, you got good grades at University, and you invested a lot of time and effort into building up the department.  The mandarins at the top have foisted a big change programme on your department as they think that things could be slicker and help save some money.  What’s your first emotion?  Anger maybe.  Why couldn’t they have asked you? You could have done something if you had known.  “I’m a good manager, I CAN sort this one out,” you scream.

The consultants sent in look sharp, sound polished, have all the lingo, and yep you could play bullshit bingo till the cows come home listening to them.  “What are their backgrounds?  “Do any of them have a Phd like me?  I don’t need their help.  Does my boss want me out?”  Maybe he does.

Resentment, fear, paranoia, anger and humiliation are just a few of the emotions people experience on the announcement of a new change project.  Over a decade ago, during my first exposure to a major enterprise-wide change programme, I encountered considerable resistance and hostility from my audience.  I was in charge of implementing a number of new ways of working in an Irish business that had recently been taken over by a much larger multinational.  It was as edifying as pulling teeth.

My clearest memory from this time were the words: “Well what you’re doing isn’t rocket science, in fact some of it makes sense, but we don’t like how you’ve gone about this.”  They resented the fact that a few young pups from Dublin had come down to Cork to tell them how to run their business.   Like the Iraqis being liberated by Uncle Sam my friends in Cork found it humiliating that they were subjected to but not actively involved in the process that would create their futures.

The following passage by Christopher Sands describes the US approach to belatedly involving Iraqis in finding a solution to the insurgency which crippled the country after the end of the first phase of the war in 2003.

“While the June, 2006, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual is a public document, reading it will provide you with only a limited sense of how to implement the strategy, which has been a trial-and-error process in Iraq. It begins with the development of trust with local people who are ready to defend themselves. Building on this motivation, U.S. forces help arm and organize local civilian defense units. These operate independently of U.S. forces at first, but receive tactical support and backup from the Americans when requested against their shared enemy, al-Qaeda.  The next phase is to embed the best of these locals with U.S. forces, where they apprentice and bond with American soldiers, further building trust that leads to better intelligence for U.S. forces. Graduates of the embedding process are organized into more formal defensive brigades that remain local, fighting for their homes and families.

The final step is the professionalization of these units through additional training and joint operations with U.S. forces in their own area, after which they can be incorporated into the national army chain of command. From these, a select few are recruited for training as Iraqi special-forces troops.  As the presence of local defensive units denies al-Qaeda access to population centers, the local allies of U.S. forces provide intelligence on gatherings or camps where al-Qaeda forces may be hiding or planning. U.S. and coalition forces then use heavy air and ground assaults against them. Giving local forces the ability to call in the heavy hammer of U.S. firepower boosts their confidence, and their belief that the war can be won.”

Consulting projects rarely achieve a meaningful level of collaboration with the communities that they are trying to change.  It’s one of the main reasons for a lack of sustainability after disengaging.  More often than not everything reverts to the way things were with the exception of relationships.  Some people’s careers are ruined in the process, as they suffer terrible retribution for “collaborating” with the consultants.

If you don’t actively engage with and involve the community they will not get over the embarrassment and humiliation of having to be bailed out in the first place.  Roll-out and mobilisaton plans must be designed with this in mind.  It’s essential that they are involved in the design and implementation and are allowed to share credit for the achievement of tangible results that make a real difference to the organisation.  Otherwise, expect a free for all, lots of unpleasantness, and given that you don’t marshall similar resources to the US army, an early exit.

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