Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - the change merchants

My last post, Times of transition, attracted comments on one paragraph in particular. I have amended that paragraph to improve clarity. I want to take the amended paragraph for today's brief muse. I wrote:

It's odd, but generally those who push hardest for change are those who feel most secure in their own general life. This holds for most commentators, senior managers and policy advisers. Alternatively, those pushing for revolutionary change at the other end of the spectrum are often very insecure and wish for a new life, wish to overthrow the system. Both wish to force change on others.

There is a constant stream of stories in the Australian media that centre in some way on change and the need for change. This isn't new, of course, but the thread is ever present.

At national and state levels, we talk about competition, about productivity improvement, about raising standards. We package changes and call them, say, the education revolution. At firm level, CEOs from Qantas's Joyce to the ANZ bank's Smith announce restructuring and job cuts. In the case of the ANZ, the latest cuts follow the ''One ANZ'' program. Announced on December 5, 2008, this was designed to cut costs and restructure the bank in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Change is interesting and attracts reporting. A stable PM attracts no attention. The possibility of a change in PM does. Progressive incremental modifications up or down to head count attract no attention. Larger numbers do, especially when packaged as a project or program with a specific title. Stability is boring, change interesting.

Change is inevitable and necessary. Individuals, organisations and governments are constantly adjusting to changing circumstances.

What is new over the last forty years is the focus on change as a good thing. Change has been reified, tuned from an abstract but continuing process into discrete things that have a tangible and concrete presence. The very word "change" has acquired a new and palpable presence. 

Change always involves costs. These costs are always individual because specific individuals are affected. However, they can also affect groups including organisations and communities.

At present, for example, I know of two major NSW Government agencies that have gone into a kind of paralysis because of changes announced by the O'Farrell Government.

At personal level, individuals are worried about job security. They are also struggling to get their jobs done because the situation is so fluid and uncertain, because they can't get the resources they need to actually do their jobs.

The costs of change are up-front, the benefits come later. In a world of constant change, costs multiply while benefits can be constantly pushed into the future. Further, at a purely personal level, those who bear the costs of change often do not share in the subsequent benefits. There is a fundamental asymmetry in the process.

If you look at those who advocate the type of changes and change processes that I am talking about, you will see that they have a degree of security that in some ways isolates them from the specific change process or processes they are advocating or implementing. Individuals must bear pain in the interests of the nation or organisation, but they are generally not the same individuals as those advocating the change. There is a price to be paid, but it's not my price.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that ANZ CEO Smith as an example is not conscious that his decisions have human effects. However, I would suggest that Mr Smith is isolated from the practical, individual, effects. His pay, his standing with his Board, the achievement of the performance indicators built into his contract, all isolate him. He gains from others' loss.

To a degree, this goes with management responsibilities. If you are a manager at whatever level, you have a job to do. This may include firing people, something that I have done but never found especially pleasant.

However, I would argue that there is a balance question. We need to recognise that different interest are involved, that things are not clear cut, that there are winners and losers.

I would also argue that an imbalance has occurred, that in our obsession with reform, with achievement, with change, we have lost sight of the need for balance. I would also suggest that part of the reason for that lies in the relative security of the the change merchants, their isolation from the results of their advocacy and actions.                 


Evan said...

I do agree. I also think that it is only later that some costs emerge. E.g. the demoralising effect of retrenchments on those not sacked.

Anonymous said...


Just in relation to your example of ANZ CEO Mike Smith, you say "they have a degree of security that in some ways isolates them from the specific change process or processes they are advocating or implementing", but I'd suggest his own business future is very much bound up in the success or failure of his planning.

This is not to deny the attraction of your observation, but just to add that it is not a one way street - unless of course you are suggesting that all change is successful, and I'd assume you are not.


Evan said...

Anon, the ranks of the banking CEO's weren't devastated after the GFC. As the government now effectively guarantees their business it all amounts to a sinecure (or the next best thing) I think.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you could be right Evan - they're a bit like public servants in that way, wouldn't you think?

As to devastated, I expect the good ones were that, as well as mortified, lost for words, and suffered a goodish dose of chagrin into the bargain.

Not my definition of a sinecure, however.


Rummuser said...

Doing anything for the sake of doing anything is unfortunately the norm now a days, and changing for the sake of changing is one of the many. I suspect that the motive for such behaviour is the fear of being perceived as not doing something. It is particularly so, when one has to write regular reports or stand to account. Balance? That is for retired old codgers like me who are challenged every day to do something. Anything!

Jim Belshaw said...

I am breaking my responses up.

Evan, the morale effects are important. Even when the insecurity recedes for those remaining, and assuming it does, a higher degree of disengagement remains.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, I agree that Mr Smith's business future is bound up in the success or failure of his planning and actions. However, I would argue that we are not comparing like with like.

Mr Smith has a far greater financial cushion than the ordinary staffer. Further, he is in a role that gives him far greater control.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, I agree with kvd that sinecure is the wrong word, although I see the point you are making. And, kvd, I strongly disagree with your aside on public servants.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, change for the sake of change captures it. I would put it this way. In the desire to do something new, we have lost sight of the importance of managing what is.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I'm pleased you disagreed with my slight on public servants; I was merely trying to state something equally outrageous in response to Evan's 'government guarantee of business' remark.

Staying with Mr Smith of the ANZ as base example, I'd say citing his 'greater cushion, greater control' denies the fact that he may judge his own worth in exactly the same way as any worker bee: that he does the best he can, and is dissatisfied when he does not achieve it. your comment seems to suggest that failure is easier if you've got a large pile of loot to console yourself with. I don't see it that way.

By the way, I'm no great fan of his present push into Asia, and think in 20 years' time this will possibly be seen as an error.

The point is that he is employed to increase or at least maintain bank profitability; if he were rewarded based upon increased staffing numbers, or bank branches, well I can sort of guess what different outcomes might then be 'achieved'.

It is the business aim you should be targeting, not the side effects of those policies.

ps written in rush, woork to do. Repent at leisure...

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. I accept that Mr Smith may judge himself, may experience satisfaction or dissatisfaction, in the same way as any worker bee. But that to my mind is beside the point I was making. Mr Smith does not bear the costs of his policies, although he may be affected by their success or failure.

The Asia push is an interesting one, worthy of a different discussion.