Features: March 26th, 2010

By Charles Boulton

Efficiency savings on current ways of working will not delver the scale of savings that budget cuts demand from the public sector. The only way forward is transformational change. Managing change on this scale is challenging and success depends on understanding what is going on in the minds of the people involved. The author explains the part that the ‘unwritten rules’ play in the change process and how recognising them can help to limit resistance.

Budgetary pressures coupled with an ever-present desire to improve services have meant that many public sector organisations are embarking on major change programmes. These programmes can be seen across councils, with managers trying to balance residents’ calls for better service, central government initiatives and the backdrop of long-term funding cuts. Similarly, the NHS seeks ever-higher levels of service, a greater portfolio of treatments and is facing ever-increasing pressure on budgets.

The change programmes currently being undertaken across the public sector need to be transformational in order to achieve the level of improvements necessary, especially given the predicted long-term decline in funding. Even more, these transformations need to be happen quickly – it is clear that the need for change will be ongoing.

The challenge of transformational change

Change is always difficult and transformational change even harder. The magnitude of change that is now being demanded in the UK public sector will require its people to reconsider their approach to customers, to colleagues, to processes and to resourcing. The changes will go right to the very drivers of behaviour and in most cases there will be changes that impact upon the core of staff’s choice of job and profession. Such changes are risky for managers and staff, especially when the drivers of staff behaviour are invisible or only partially understood. It is often a case of management making a change only to encounter a totally unexpected outcome.

Even when an organisation can identify behaviours that are endemic but unhelpful, they often find themselves wondering how these behaviour patterns arise in a staff with the best of intentions. On the other hand, there are some organisations that pride themselves on succeeding, despite organisational hurdles – those that “succeed despite themselves”. In either case, it can seem like an insurmountable task to change the underlying motivators that drive counter-productive behaviours, while maintaining the other, positive behaviours that underpin success and make the organisation a success.

The power of unwritten rules

The answer is to understand the “unwritten rules of the game”. They exist within every organisation, and can unearth the causes of these unhelpful or counter-productive behaviours. “Unwritten rules” are the expression of what everybody in the organisation knows but is usually undiscussable. It could be where the power lies, what really matters, what or who can be safely ignored, or which deadlines are critical.

These unwritten rules operate in conjunction with the organisation’s written rules and policies and lead to unexpected side effects. Sometimes the side effects can be very helpful, and enable the organisation to run smoothly and deliver good results, or they can be blocks that seemingly appear from nowhere and resist change and resolution. The unwritten rules describe the dominant drivers of behaviour and it is critical to understand them in order to achieve the sorts of transformational changes needed to keep today’s public sector organisations thriving in a changing environment.

Once the unwritten rules are understood, managers can work to understand what is triggering them and begin to see the systemic ways in which these unwanted side effects (such as resistance to change) emerge. Only then is it possible to embark on a major change programme with greater confidence that it will not face internal resistance to change.

Once the unwritten rules are out on the open, management can focus their proposed changes on those few trigger points that are causing resistance amongst staff, while retaining the behaviours that have traditionally helped the organisation to deliver excellent services to its residents. This will make the transformation both faster and more predictable.

When key middle managers in the organisation can see the impact of their actions and how it translates into their teams’ behaviour, leading a series of sometimes painful, but always necessary, organisational changes will become more focused on the issues that matter. Furthermore, with an understanding of the organisation’s underlying dynamics it is easier to manage change as it happens and to monitor and to discuss change over time. The shared language of the unwritten rules engages the staff and gives them the tools to positively contribute to improving service delivery for the residents they serve.

Case study

West Sussex County Council is in the middle of a profound transformation programme designed to improve services to customers while reducing its cost base in response to real-terms reductions in central government funding and pressures on public spending.

The change programme is being undertaken through a ‘Fundamental Service Review’ to explore opportunities to improve each and every service provided to the residents of West Sussex. It will also overhaul the services and the processes by which they are delivered.

As part of this, West Sussex County Council asked Arthur D. Little to identify the ‘unwritten rules of the game’ within the council.

Two sets of targeted interviews were conducted with the council’s middle management to identify the unwritten rules and provided a diagnosis of the side-effects, both positive and the negative. The findings were then discussed and analysed by the council team responsible for the Review and shared with the middle management to enable people to discuss the implications.

Arthur D. Little explained the interplay between the drivers of behaviour and how they lead to the symptomatic outcomes within the organisation. By understanding this interplay, it became possible for West Sussex County Council staff to see their impact on the situation and for management to see where relatively minor changes would have the most significant effects.

The change management approach is now targeted on the critical elements at the core of the unwritten rules – and these high leverage changes have led to rapid and well-directed outcomes with less risk of disrupting the core values that underpin the Council’s success to date.

West Sussex County Council is continuing its Fundamental Service Review, now with a clear roadmap that makes it easier to see how to build on the staff’s commitment to make a difference for the people of West Sussex, how to pursue innovation in the transformation through the people involved in it and how to manage the change more effectively with those people.

Charles Boulton is an Associate at Arthur D. Little.