$INV: Leaders often need to work with the existing culture of an organisation in order to effect change | Jan 2020

A few thoughts on the reinventing / reforming the Civil Service furore. Disclaimer: I have (had) considerable corporate experience but no civil service experience. 

Firstly, is there any new administration that has not wanted to reform or reinvent its machinery.

The situation is similar to a new CEO taking over a large corporate. He or she has a mandate to lead and a very obvious way to lead is to attempt to change a firm’s direction. 

This so ubiquitous in corporate land it would be amazing if a new CEO didn’t try and change things. Sometimes incorrectly, people would think a status quo leader was simply not doing their job. 

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with change, positive change that it…New blood, new experience, energy, intellectual acumen, a fresh look – all of these are good things. 

It’s also not surprising that change, especially radical change, is often resisted by senior incumbents. After all, these people have built careers and power networks on the basis of the institutions as it is today. Why should they want material change? 

The more interesting question is what the most effective way for new leader to affect change.

I begin with three assumptions:

I) Fundamental change takes considerable time

II) Large organisations are often unwilling to change (materially). And…

II) The new leadership tends to have much less idea of how the machinery actually works than the incumbents. 

Hiring lots of super bright people as intellectual and attitudinal change agents is a good thing. Why not? But it is much much more difficult to get these people to work effectively within the new organisation… 

…Whether they are embedded in existing groups (and hence automatic outsiders unless they have 1st class people skills) or bundled into a new centralised skunk works (but then lack of buy in / coordination with the groups responsible for the implementation. 

Like it or not you usually (caveat to come) have to work within the context of the existing people (their views etc), the existing organisational structure, and very very importantly the culture of the organisation. 

Let’s talk about culture. Companies (or civil services) aren’t states let alone people. They are companies. But they do tend to have some common attributes, one of the most important of which is culture. This is neither positive nor negative but it certainly ‘is’. 

And that culture is a mighty powerful thing that pervades all levels of an organisation in a way which is much more powerful than a new CEO’s dictat. And I’ll bet a very large sum of notional money the Civil Service has a very powerful culture. 

It’s almost axiomatic that you have to work within the context of the existing culture (by which I mean the parts that are considered good). 

Actions that are considered as materially contrary to the culture tend to be refused or if not refused entirely either subverted or implemented very badly. 

An important caveat. Occasionally institutions need urgent radical change because their existence is threatened. For example due to safety or risk issues. 

In these circumstances, contra culture radical change becomes a necessity and warrants material disruption. This, of course, is not the situation with the Civil Service. 

The best way to effect real, substantive change is to have a clear eyed, objective understanding of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses and map those against the new direction. 

Then get the existing leadership on side and work with them. Get their support. This is not an open ended commitment and there’s no reason not to disfavour those inclined against change. 

Then, crucially, settle on one major directional change – not three, not five. Just one. In corporate life, it could be risk reduction or revenue growth or profitability or cost efficiency. 

The bit that people often don’t get I that change is tough for all concerned and it requires vision, intellectual acumen and a great deal of emotional intelligence.


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