In this episode Liam Sherlock give listeners what he describes as “the journeyman’s guide to change management”.
Based in Ireland, Liam has over twenty years of international experience leading successful IT and business change initiatives internationally as well as being practicing business and life coach and accredited APMG training for change management. That’s not all – Liam is also the Ireland co-lead and co-founder of the Change Management Institute in Ireland.
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Transcript from Episode 106: “The Journeyman’s Guide to Change Management”
Tell us a little about how you got into the field of change management?
My academic career started in WIT and in computers, so I did a bachelor of science down there and then found myself in testing, of all places, software testing. Back when it wasn’t really cool to be in testing. Basically, I spent a few years software testing and up through the ranks and started to manage teams, I guess, teams of testers and invariably found myself at the cold phase between IT and business, on big programs, IT programs, change programs.
And so, it does seem to be a pattern of behavior where I ended up on this cold phase between business and IT. I kind of saw it first-hand, some of the challenges I guess, especially with the business and what they face when there wasn’t change management before. To be fair I didn’t even know what the change management is back then. It wasn’t a term that was being bandied about too much.
I really started to see, you know, how forgotten sometimes the people that were having the IT, the big IT system or a number of IT systems. That was kind of how I got involved in the change management in the first place. From there, I found myself with the lovely lady from the UK, Melanie Franklin, on the training course that she was delivering that subsequently, I became a trainer for. That kind of joined a lot of the dots for me, my life as a tester, my life in operations here, and business and IT colliding, I guess.
From your time in software testing and the challenges that you met across the different areas of the business where sometimes we forget that we are all on the same side of the table, how you managed that change and were you in a position to do it at that time?
I guess it depends on which project or program or change initiatives that we were on, but especially when I was kind of a little bit more senior and I had a team around me. I guess I was also privy to some information that why we were doing these things in the first place. So when you’re equipped with that kind of information, you are in a position where you can, where you can really impact what’s going on.
One that sticks to mind, a big program with a telecoms provider and I was very much privy to why they were doing that at all in the first place. It was in reaction to where their industry was going and so I was definitely able to help and I suppose, break down some of those barriers that were there between business and IT, you know, the traditional way of delivering these big IT programs in particular is, kind of, work away in the background, gather some requirements, take it away, then disappear off into behind the black corner, and come back with the solution at the end.
Then give that to the business and say “There you go.” That program I was on was a little bit more inclusive, the business was more involved because it was fundamentally changing how they were working. It was fundamentally changing actually the organization itself and what they were offering in terms of the services and products. It really was a game changer for them. That was a fantastic experience that I had.
Maybe I didn’t see it like that at the time because it was challenging but it certainly was a fantastic opportunity and something that really made me realize power of good communication, the power of, you know, breaking down some of those silos and power of actually active sponsorship and we had a really good sponsorship team there to help guide us as they went. So, all of those things, really.
Why is it so important to connect with people when it comes to these large transformation programs?
I’m going to probably state the obvious here and anytime I bring this up, it’s interesting people’s reaction to when I mention communication being such a key thing. It’s all about bringing people with us and communication is so important in doing that. And not running it like it’s an advertising campaign, running it like so that communication is a two-way thing. So that when we get people’s opinions, when people offer their opinions, we very often can take that as negative or the feedback is in some way trying to stop the whole thing.
Actually, the feedback is only telling us something and it’s usually important information. If we get a group of people in the business and they’re pushing back, there’s a reason that the pushing back. The communication has to be two-way, we have to encourage two-way. And also I guess there’s probably a reflection of a kind of the way we work nowadays in general with the emails and stuff like that. Email is a very poor or can be a very poor method or a channel of communication because it’s very often one-way.
Sometimes we lose the value of a conversation, so that’s why we encourage more face-to-face conversations when we’re talking about communication, in change or in general. You know, I have 3 kids myself, and I know the way one-to-one conversations with them, the power that is in them if you are coaching kids as I do, the power of the one-to-one conversation, you can see it.
Communication for me has to be two-way, you have to take on board the feedback that you’re getting when you receive information back from people. Sometimes, it might be easy because we have deadlines, you have timelines to meet, and sometimes can be tricky to listen to all that feedback. It is kind of, moving from telling people to asking people. It sounds very modern, I guess, but we are moving towards a business way of working that is not about telling people anymore, we’re not just in the business of just making widgets or whatever.
Generally speaking, you know, we have to adapt and change as we go in terms of how we deliver our services, how we produce products. So, we have to trust the people that we have hired in our organization. It is kind of coming from the idea that our leaders know everything. Nobody knows everything. We are trying to use and leverage the people around you and getting their feedback, getting their opinions, especially if they are the front-line employees.
The front-line employees know more about the business then a lot of us do and that anyone does in a boardroom or on an executive team. We really need to listen to people on the ground and I think it is important. It’s interesting, I know I’m doing a lot of talk, so I am probably not taking my own advice as a coach, but, you know, the power of asking good questions is really important, both in coaching and when you’re leading change. You mentioned it at the start of the podcast around active listening.
Active listening can be a difficult thing to do. It’s funny when I was going through the coaching course that I did, it was interesting that each of us was presented with a story and it was read aloud and then we were asked questions on it. And my interpretation of that story versus person sitting beside me’s version of that story sometimes differed. And then you get into all sorts of things like different biases and assumptions being brought in there. It’s really interesting how people collect information and what people actually hear as opposed to what was said.
When you have all of that in place, you still have to cross a barrier of the perception. How do you think you can do that? How can you address those perceptions that people have when they are often negative when the change comes to the door?
There are lots of studies into this whole area in terms of neuroscience and behavioral economics and all that kind of stuff. I guess change management sometimes gets a bad reputation for being soft and fluffy and some of these new areas of study are really backing up that with actual research and facts. In terms of how do we overcome that, it’s really about, this is where I might lose some people, is talking about what kind of emotions people are going through, as well.
And there’s a lot of change management models and ideas and concepts, the talk about this emotional journey that people go on and I know it when I’m delivering the change management training that I do, I sometimes give this example of a man and woman, husband and wife moving house. Both of them have decided to move, the kids are grown up and gone to university. Both of them set out to the change journey, if you will, and at the same time the husband who may be for various reasons with a lot of travel and working is less emotionally attached to the house or whatever reasons, the husband moves straight from the initial idea and the concept of it straight into their acceptance and problem-solving in the sense that he is already looking for that new house and he already has a picture in his head what that new house looks like and what their new lifestyle will be like.
Whereas the poor wife goes down into the whole range of emotions and she goes into shock and anger and you know “Why are we selling the house, we have so many memories here?” And it takes her a while and comes out of that. So when we use that analogy, what people go through when change is happening, we can see that even people on the same team the change might not have the same impact. They can go through very different journeys, very different emotions. It may take one person that little bit longer to get through it and that’s I guess sometimes where we need patience and empathy and really listen to the people about what they are going through, asking the questions.
Sometimes in business, we don’t provide the supports that, even like a Gaelic football team would have. A top curling team or a football team, they are at the top of their game, they have nutritionist, physiotherapist, they even have mental coaches at this stage. They have tactics coaches. Sometimes in business, we don’t provide people with the support networks that we sometimes expect the elite athletes would have. We have lead business people, they should have similar support.
So that’s why I’m a real fan of the whole idea of coaching people through change and really providing a support network and multiple ways that they can get support, providing opportunities where they can get the support, providing opportunities where they can give their feedback and open themselves up to questions about how they are getting on. This stuff and be tricky and difficult and it’s not easy. It’s not complex in terms of models and that, that’s relatively straightforward, but actually going through it can be a challenge and chaotic.
Is it challenging sometimes getting the senior management team to engage in providing these supports and how do you overcome those challenges?
I think how we overcome those challenges is an ongoing process. I am not sure I have it all figured out but I definitely think that there is a challenge sometimes with bringing executive sponsors on the journey with us and we need them. The traditional idea of a sponsor is that it is the kind of somebody who is there at the beginning, someone who has a checkbook in their hands or at least provides the financial backing for the change initiative in the first place.
Once they launch the trumpets, they let it fly and off we go. They kind of disappear in the background, traditionally. That’s kind of not what we need anymore. What we need really now is somebody that is there to provide some of those support I was talking about earlier, to support their line managers, their middle managers in implementation of the changes, to give them the backing, not just in terms of financial or resource or whatever but also helping them out and maybe delivering some key messages throughout the program.
I spoke about that program I was involved in 10 or 12 years ago and it was really forward-thinking from the sponsors back then, that they were often frontline and center when we were delivering key messages to the big team we have assembled to deliver the change. That’s really important for me is that we get and we educate our executive sponsors to be front and center when change is being delivered like that, by making themselves available.
We have a lot more executive sponsors that are female now. Making sure that these people are available because they are busy people and realizing that they are a part of this journey, that they have to be part of it. If you take it back to kids, many kids look up to role models today all the time, whether it is a sporting role model of whatever it is. And in business, very often the executives in their business are seen as role models. So if we can get them in behind and visibly and actively supporting the change then, you know, people will think “we have to stick up our ears and listen to what’s going on, if these guys are saying it then it must be what’s happening.” You need to hear the message from several different people, but it’s very powerful when it comes from the executives and sponsors.
How can we react quickly and well to crises and what’s good about a crisis within an organization?
That is interesting. I did a talk at the PM Summit on the system’s thinking and I had a bullet point “crisis are welcome”. Even if you think about it yourself or anyone that has undergone significant personal change, sometimes journey happens when your back is against the wall. I’m thinking about my own professional career like a few years ago, I was in an operation. And first, I kicked it off by saying that wants to come out of the operational and roll, it was very emotional, like my story about moving out, because I knew everybody in the company and there was a lot of letting go of stuff that I knew.
It was letting go of maybe even some of the relationships that I had built as well in the company. It can be tricky but that’s sparked me off on the whole voyage of discovery. My energy levels rose and sometimes not in the right way, sometimes it was quite negative. But what you have to do is when you come across a crisis, you have to really take a step back and what crisis do is they force us to take a step back and really think about “What am I doing at all here, in the first place, what is the purpose that we’re trying to do here”, and you started to come out of your ways a little bit in day-to-day stuff.
That’s very often a challenge in change initiatives, we get buried in the issues and the challenges and the problems day-to-day. We tend to react to those day-to-day challenges and we slightly lose sight of why you were doing it at all in the first place. The crisis can make us examine why we are doing it at all in the first place. And now we are headed in the right direction. I just recently run another change initiative and it was good leadership on that program in terms of having the courage to turn the ship around a little bit in the middle.
And they wouldn’t have done that had they not come off across a bit of a crisis in the middle. It would not have been directed what they were doing and redirection can sometimes cost a bit in terms of money and resourcing and everything else and effort and energy that has been invested in the way you were doing it. And really taking the step back and having a look – is this the right thing or not. It can take a lot of courage when you are faced with a crisis to say “Hold on a second, this isn’t working, can we just pause for a minute, let’s have a look at it and let’s gather some feedback and get people together to break down some of those silos that may be performed” as they do because we’re people. Just step back, have a look and see “Do we need a little bit of a shift pivot here?”