I was recently invited onto the BiZZdesign Enterprise Architecture Podcast to discuss the journey of organizational change at the Royal Bank of Scotland, an initiative in which I’ve played an active role – and still do, in fact. I think it was a good talk and I encourage you to give it a listen if you can spare a few minutes.
We didn’t touch on technical aspects at the time and I don’t plan on doing it now either. Actually quite the opposite of that. If there is one fascinating aspect that came out of the experience, it’s realizing just how important people and the approach being used are during these large-scale change programs.
A people-centric view of organizational change
How you put together a working group and also how you build rapport with stakeholders makes a huge difference in the final outcome. So I’d like to just share a few thoughts on the topic of organizational change as seen through the lens of the human element. Not technology; not process; and not methodology. But rather people, and how good people (aka capable, motivated professionals) working as a team can turn around even a huge organization. Now, granted, there are various factors at play if you’re trying to deliver large-scale business transformation but, in this instance, I would like to focus on what I feel is the most important part of the change equation.
1. A person is all it takes
So how do people tilt the balance? At the start of a transformation scenario, a driven stakeholder can start the avalanche of change all by themselves if they are in a high enough position. If leadership is passive and the company is on auto-pilot, nothing is done to address future challenges and the business resembles a rudderless ship. However, an executive that is bought into the future of the company and takes an active interest in creating a path towards lasting success can kickstart a change initiative where previously there had been no interest or desire for such a thing. In other words – no will to change, no change.
For instance, here at RBS we’ve undergone a significant transformation over the past few years, which is still ongoing and in the process of maturing. As one of the big four banking groups in the UK, our organization deals with an intricate landscape of regulation; it maintains a huge IT estate to support its global business; and generally speaking it deals with a level of organizational complexity that is hard to overestimate. Now, when the organization decided to turn things around it wasn’t so much the timing of external factors (we’d had our share of IT downtime incidents in the past, so there was a case to be made for organizational change long before it actually happened). It was a matter of will finally coalescing and providing the impetus to kickstart this entire process.
But the spark doesn’t necessarily have to come from the top. Ideally you want it to, as that would make everything smoother and quicker, but it’s not an essential prerequisite. A determined enterprise architect or portfolio manager can just as well be the one to cascade disruption within the company. For instance, they may leverage personal connections to make decision makers/budget holders aware of the value of leveraging architectural insights to enhance strategic decision making. Or, if they lack the personal ties, they could simply pursue these key stakeholders so relentlessly that in the end they’d have no choice but to sit down together, which would provide the opportunity to drive into their psyche the benefits waiting to be unlocked.
So the journey begins with someone saying, ‘Let’s do better’. Then it continues mostly thanks to the initiator’s determination, who is generally required to defend the idea and coax people into
considering it. At this critical first stage, change really does reside entirely with the individual so the higher the quality of the individual, the better returns in the long run.
2. Team up with other believers
Once there is some traction and the project has at least a modicum of executive sponsorship, it’s important to put together the right team for the job. Naturally, it is possible that you have all the pieces already in place, but usually this sort of endeavor requires some fresh input. Here it’s worth noting that rounding up a team isn’t only a matter of sourcing the right sounding CVs. In fact, I’ll argue invisible traits are perhaps even more crucial. Namely, a like-mindedness when it comes to effecting change, which means they too would be determined to be a part of something great and would pursue this ideal resolutely; and solid personal chemistry to encourage efficient collaboration among team members.
These characteristics mean that everyone who’s participating in the transformation project is a good spokesperson for the initiative and can onboard other folks in their own turn with every interaction they have. At this stage, opportunities for showcasing what’s being preached are precious and should therefore be snatched up. If the team identifies a stakeholder or project that can benefit from the transformation team’s input, no time should be wasted in ensuring they get that help. That’s because no win is too small. Having good evangelists who can then also back up the theory with useful work deliverables will ensure the program enjoys a constant stream of victories. These will then be the fuel that keeps the ball rolling. After all, a change program isn’t much good if it doesn’t actually bring about changes.
3. Leverage the social web
At a mature stage in the life of the transformation program things look different. You have a team of people that have the inclination, skills and knowledge to execute on their mandate; you have deployed a tool to design and implement coordinated change; and you’ve registered enough victories that your work is now generally regarded as a net contributor to the organization’s direction. Well, even at this stage where processes and tools might seem like the likeliest candidates for enabling further improvements, I’d argue people still hold the highest potential for effecting positive change.
First, they hold the key to engraining those gains into the DNA of the organization, ensuring it survives and thrives long into the future (therefore, a net plus for the business). What does this mean? Well, if they’re diligent about their job, they will create processes that embed the newly-founded practice into the daily operations of the enterprise. So, for example, they might mandate that every new technology project that is put forward must clear the EA team’s checklist etc.
Then they will also formulate an agenda that sets out a long-term mandate for the team within the reality of the organization. This digs deep roots into the culture and operations of the company, ensuring it gets to leverage the great insights being delivered by the transformation team. Again, as a quick example, the team spearheading change might look at what’s been achieved so far and say, ‘Now that we’ve breathed new life into our business architecture practice, how about we now move on to taking proper ownership of our IT estate and optimize our technology portfolio?’. And so on, always keeping an eye on the future and planning on the next challenge to overcome.
Additionally – and importantly – they will establish a clear replacement strategy that ensures the practice and the vision upon which it was founded are independent of any one stakeholder. That way, when the Head of Innovation, or the Director of Enterprise Architecture, or whoever it may be that was a driving force leaves, business goes on as usual without missing a beat. And lastly, they’ll nurture
the vision, make sure it grows within everyone. Ultimately, processes will only get you so far. And they’ll always be in need of a retouch once enough time has passed. A highly-motivated stakeholder with a genuine desire to deliver amazing work, though… well, that’ll safeguard the change program forever.
Driving organizational change in an organization is the product of several elements coming together harmoniously. Yet by far the most important catalyst for transformation are people. Good people – whether we’re talking about a subject matter expert, a senior executive with their eyes on the prize, or simply someone determined to make a positive contribution in their area of practice – are worth their weight in gold. Definitely a much better success predictor for an initiative than any other variable, at any rate.
As such, I believe that all organizations, if they’re serious about implementing change, should start by carefully assessing whether their change agents are genuinely a good fit for the job at hand. And then, once they have put together their team, they should give them every means to succeed, and commit fearlessly to an agreed upon vision. The bottom line is that with a core of capable, driven people any obstacle can be overcome – irrespective of what stage of your transformation program you’re in.
Good people will make it happen. They’ll bring in the platform that’s needed to deliver change; they will rethink faulty processes; they’ll ask more of themselves and their team; and they won’t take no for an answer if that’s impeding progress. Good people will find a way. And that’s the heart of the matter when it comes to delivering organizational change.