The process takes time and change has to happen at a pace that works for everyone.
Milestones are important but it’s difficult to impose a timeline on something which is ever-evolving. After three years, we still have so much we haven’t ‘achieved’, and we expect that as we continue to change, so will our goals.
Three years into our journey towards decentralisation, we’re in a position to evaluate our progress. This continues to be an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience, and we can see it starting to bear fruit for us. But when we look back to those first few steps, it’s clear we’ve deviated significantly from our original timeline. To put it bluntly, we thought we’d be done by now.
Under ordinary circumstances, to be at this point of a project after three years, with no end in sight, would be alarming (and likely the precursor to some performance management). We’ve missed a lot of the milestones we set for ourselves at the beginning. We’ve invested in misaligned partnerships and explored numerous dead ends. There have been times when it felt like we were wandering in the dark.
But this is not because the process itself has been a failure. Our change management has certainly not always been perfect. But the larger problem was that we were attempting to apply traditional linear thinking and standards to a non-linear process. These are two different languages. We were imposing deadlines on something which needed to evolve in its own unique way. Implementing new systems within a timeframe was important, but the real progress (and the real work) was qualitative in nature. Each of us was changing who we are at work, and that’s a journey that can’t be measured against a timeline.
We realised we needed to rethink our metrics. The way we were measuring our success was a poor reflection of our actual progress. Just as we had to let go of our traditional priorities, we had to let go of quantitative milestones as our markers of success. We re-examined our approach and we now take a much broader perspective on how to measure what we are achieving.
A key part of this has been understanding that there are two sides to the changes we’re making. New systems and mechanisms are only one side of the work; the other is building the culture and capabilities in our people to work effectively in new ways. We realised that these cultural building blocks – including trust, psychological safety and the capacity to grow – were a much more accurate reflection of our progress. We know now that the investment in change and the investment in culture always need to be considered together. Without taking time to create the right cultural conditions, new systems will collapse or be rejected.
We’ve also realised that time is a critical ingredient of the change. It’s important to allow for periods of rest, to permit us to ‘bed down’ the changes we’ve made to date. Particularly during busy periods, there are times when we take a hiatus on our own transformational journey. This gives us a chance to put our new systems to the test and ensure we’re building the right capabilities in our team. These periods allow us to see what works and what doesn’t, before we commit to further changes. Rushing this process for the sake of ‘getting it done’ would apply needless pressure. Worse, it would consume resources and energy which could be better directed towards building the capabilities of our people. That important personal change – the inner journey – needs to be supported for greater organisational change to move forward.
We’re still on our journey. We haven’t ‘arrived’ and likely never will – we know now that’s not really how it works. But our focus in managing the change has shifted in a much more productive direction. For other organisations taking those first steps, we would recommend that you don’t expect your transition to move on a predictable trajectory through milestones. Your rate of progress will depend on the nature of your organisation, your culture and the capabilities of your people, in all their diversity. Nobody can be left behind, or the whole system will falter. Everybody needs to be supported and nourished in their growth – and growth takes time. Instead of racing the clock, give time to the process. Recognise that the quality of the change, not the pace, is the most important thing.
Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.