Viewpoint: Making Space for Change

It goes without saying that large-scale change is complex and demanding, and takes up a major part of an organisation’s resources.  However, few organisations carry that level of ‘free’ capacity.

So how do you create the capacity to implement change successfully?

Identifying the real priorities

Of course, no organisation deliberately has people working on tasks which aren’t important to someone.  Often most, if not all, of the organisation’s capacity is already committed to a wide range of ‘priority’ tasks.

In many clients, we’ve found that prioritisation is actually driven not by strategic importance, but by urgency - or perceived urgency.  What typically seems to happen is:

making-space-12Step 1: The Urgent and Critical go in first - “we simply must get this done

Step 2: The Urgent, but less Critical, often get in next, because they have an advocate somewhere in the organisation - “I simply must get this done

Step 3: Any remaining capacity goes to less urgent items, and usually only small items make the cut - “we can just fit this in, it’s only small“. 

But strategically vital large-scale change will never be a small item… so it never makes it in.

We would argue that key question isn’t ‘is this task important?’ but ‘is this task vital to the organisation?

Even with this discipline, though, it is very difficult for traditional ‘Portfolio Management’ techniques to create a significant amount of capacity for change.  A more radical approach is needed…

Reshaping the Agenda: Rocks, Stones and Sand

This can be really effective.  It’s very simple - almost absurdly so - but it works.

Your ‘capacity’ is represented by the bucket.  There are three types of object to fit into the bucket:

  • ‘Rocks’, the strategically critical, typically large, change initiatives which are often the most important (not merely urgent) items on your organisation’s agenda.
  • ‘Stones’, usually smaller but still significant pieces of work which are necessary but not game-changing like the rocks.
  • ‘Sand’, the other initiatives which are on you organisation’s agenda but are neither genuinely mandatory nor strategically vital.

Round 1: What’s in the bucket today?

making-space-2All the initiatives your organisation is implementing go into one of the three categories: Rocks, Stones, or Sand.

All the activities currently being executed go into the bucket, leaving out the ones which are identified but not yet actually happening.

Typically, the piles of stones and sand will fill, and often overflow, the bucket.  Often, the rocks - the large-scale, strategically vital initiatives - will not get in at all, or at best only a few ‘early wins’ will make it.  The game-changing will have to wait!

We argue for a different way of thinking, based rigorously on importance….

Round 2: What should be in the bucket?

making-space-3Taking an empty the bucket, the essential rocks go in first - they are the most strategically important.  Then, the most important stones fit in around the rocks.  They probably won’t all go in, and there will be some difficult decisions about which do.  Finally, sand fills the remaining gaps. 

This is likely to give you a very different result from Round 1 - this time, based rigorously on strategic importance.

What is ‘capacity’?

Typically, the bucket is defined by ‘visible’ capacity, i.e. enough budget and enough people on the programme, but in fact they may not be the constraining factors - or at least, may not be the only ones.

Our 10 Critical Success Factors for change give a framework for thinking through what ‘capacity’ really means for your organisation.  For example:

  • Leadership: the time, authority and personal commitment to make change successful
  • Stakeholder: the information, motivation, time and conviction to engage effectively with change
  • Business Case and Funding: the financial resources, and priority, to obtain the enablers of change
  • Delivery Process: the processes and support to deliver - and equally vitally, to absorb - the change
  • Resources: the people, with the time, skills and support, both to deliver and to take on the change
  • Blueprint & Roadmap: a goal, and steps towards it, which reflect the organisation’s capacity for change
  • Plan: the tasks - with enough effort - to build the target environment, put it in place and enable the organisation to operate it successfully

Very often at least one, and possibly most, of these aspects of capacity fall short of what’s needed.  Yet shaping and planning your initiative to address all these aspects is key to a successful outcome.

One other point: this perspective can also help you think about how to engage an integrator, i.e. to ‘buy in’ extra capacity.  While an integrator may be a good way to address many resource gaps, for example, they are much less able to provide business leadership, or give your front-line staff the capacity to absorb change.

Concluding Thoughts

Of course the Rocks-Stones-Sand approach is a simplification, and we’re not suggesting that you just stop everything and start again.  But we argue that this approach, starting from where you need to be rather than where you are, enables you to create and maintain the different aspects of capacity for large-scale change.

The success of this approach depends on keeping the initial exercise at a high level, and driving it from the overall priorities of the organisation.  An external facilitator, able to keep the level right and drive the process, can be very helpful.  We have helped many organisations through this - can we help yours?

This initial phase is only the start of the hard work.  Reshaping the on-the-ground change agenda to reflect the new priorities is a tough challenge - but the prize is huge.

Used well, though, this approach can step people back from day-to-day detail, helping them think about the different aspects of the challenge and come at the problem from a new angle.  It can be a powerful way of making space for large-scale change in your organisation.

For a fuller version of this paper, please click here.  (This opens a pdf file in a new window)

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