When people talk about change management, they often focus on large issues, like strategy, vision, and culture. All of these are important to setting the goals for the change management programme. Yet, what is often overlooked is the mechanics of the change. What is often overlooked is what middle managers and frontline workers have to do to make the change happen.
In most organisations, the leaders set a vision, goals, and an action plan. They communicate those plans, check the work, and follow-up on progress at regular intervals. To deliver the work, middle managers have to translate that vision into reality against the competing priorities. The middle manager constantly has to balance the demands from the senior officers with delivering the daily work. In this task, they may translate the vision into an unintended outcome.
The middle managers though face a brick wall, which is the existing culture. The senior managers have set the goal, which is either to tear down the wall (a complete change) or rearrange the bricks (modify the culture). The middle manager will see the wall, as an opportunity and an obstacle. Yet, what most senior managers do not see or realize is what that requires.
When the middle manager approaches the wall, they realize that it has wallpaper. They know they will have to strip the wallpaper to get to the plasterboard that supports the paper and covers the bricks. Once they have removed the paper, they can get to the plasterboard and then to the brick. In a light culture change, the wallpaper will be changed. In a more advanced culture change, the plasterboard and the paper need to be removed. In a full culture change, the wall needs to be removed. In some cases, the middle managers start tearing at the wall only to discover that there is no plasterboard. The only thing in place was wallpaper that looked like bricks.
Now what they need to do is tear down the paper and build the brick wall. However, they realize that the culture was only papering over the issues. Instead of having solid systems and processes, that only needed to be re-arranged, they need to build the wall. They thought they could use the previous culture (the brick wall) and use it to build the new wall. Instead, they find that the bricks have to be built. The culture has to be built from the start, which requires more work than they realized. The work is not just removing the previous culture; it is also creating the new one brick by brick.
The lesson here is that to change a culture, you need to be aware that remedial steps may be needed. How much remedial work will depend on the original culture. If it is robust, then you may only need to rearrange a few bricks or add some wallpaper. If the culture is dysfunctional or only works on appearances, then you may only have wallpaper that looks like bricks. In that case, you will have to make the bricks before you can make the wall.