What A Shoulder Injury Taught Me About Business Change
I’ve recently been going through physiotherapy treatment on my shoulder after a minor (but painful) injury. I’ve never had physiotherapy before, and so I had certain (entirely wrong) assumptions about what would happen. I assumed that a quick but potentially painful treatment would be ‘done to me’. I had visions of the physio grabbing my shoulder, cracking it back into place, me briefly wincing and then me happily going on with my life…
As anyone who has gone through physio will tell you, this isn’t generally how things work. In fact, recovery has involved months of varied exercises and stretches to build up particular muscles and regain movement. I mentioned my misconception to my physio; “Yes” she said “That’s a common misconception. Physio is not something we can do to you, a lot of the improvement is down to the efforts of the patient”.
Business Change Needs Wide-Ranging Engagement & Effort
It strikes me that there is a broad similarity here with business change. There might sometimes be a perception that change can be “done to” or “imposed upon” a particular team or business area. There might be the (highly flawed) view that a new IT system can be rolled out with little interaction or engagement with those that are actually using it, and once the system is rolled out the ‘job is done’. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If the right people aren’t involved or represented, it’s very likely that key requirements will have been missed. Even if the system is functionally fantastic, without buy-in it might still be rejected. We’ve probably all got systems and processes that we just hate because we weren’t consulted when they were created. Employee expense submission processes are rarely popular, for example…
This highlights a dangerous myth: the “one and done” view of change. The “deploy and forget” approach. Few people would deliberately do this of course… but when times are hard and deadlines slip, it’s tempting to reduce the engagement (as engagement inevitably leads to varying perspectives and opinions being uncovered). Far easier to steamroll ahead with the assumed solution.
Yet much as physiotherapy relies on the efforts of the patient, successful business change is often predicated on the buy-in, engagement and efforts of a whole range of key stakeholders. It might sometimes be seen as inconvenient when different stakeholders have different (sometimes conflicting) views, but surface them early and this can be addressed. If the views aren’t surfaced, then the conflict will bubble away… and one (or both) groups will slowly simmer until something explodes, usually at the least convenient of times!
Incremental Delivery Helps (When Appropriate)
Just as physiotherapy relies on repetition and building of muscles/range, there’s a similarity with business change. In some situations it’ll be far more desirable to deliver change incrementally, in small manageable chunks. Not only does this de-risk the delivery, it also gives people the chance to get used to things more gradually. Using the metaphor of physiotherapy, it’s a gradual change over a period of time. It also allows feedback to be sought along the way, so that the course can be changed if things aren’t on track. Much as a physio would change the exercise regime if things aren’t working.
It’s also important to keep the outcomes firmly in mind. Much as I now have phrases like “external rotation”, “shoulder abduction” and others firmly imprinted on my brain (along with how to benchmark them), projects need to consider their outcomes too.
This is much more than just a tickbox ‘business case’ exercise. For change to be successful, it’s likely there will be outcomes at a strategic and tactical level. Yes, a key aim might be to ‘increase revenue’. However if it actually makes the lives of a whole bunch of internal users worse it’s likely to flop. Hence, ‘reducing frustration with the current process’ might be a key enabler for ‘increasing revenue’. Knowing this, and seeing how things progress as the changes are incrementally implemented will help.
Finally, it turns out that my estimate of how long my shoulder would take to recover was wildly inaccurate. However, as work started I could see the finish line more clearly. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there about estimation: with ‘rolling wave’ estimation being preferable over a single estimate that is given long before anything tangible is known!