The more things change the more they stay the same 

Many employees would recognise this as a description of their organisation. They have survived numerous reorganisations, frequent changes of leadership, the adoption of different working practises , the imposition of new terms and conditions of employment , the introduction of the latest technology, the outsourcing of production and the bringing it back in-house and yet they feel nothing has really changed. All that happens is the changes occur with greater frequency. They do not feel any more empowered or more valued, they do not feel the organisation is less risk adverse or more receptive to innovation, they do not feel more secure or more positive about senior management. A true transformation of an organisation has to address all the issues not just the ones that are easiest to change. 


My first experience of managing change was when I was responsible for a group of large, 60 bed residential care homes for older people. I found that staff started putting residents to bed as early as 6 pm in order that all the residents were in bed before the night staff came on duty at 10 pm. They did this to help the night staff out because there was only 2 staff on at night. In return the night staff would start getting residents up and dressed at 5 in the morning in order that all the residents were up by the time the day shift came on at 8 am. Thus allowing all the residents to be down stairs in the dinning room for breakfast and the drugs round no latter than 9am.

This was just one example of how these residential care homes were being run for the convenience of staff rather than the needs of residents. Things had to change. I held a staff meeting for the whole staff group. I stated that residents  should be able to go to bed when they wanted and get up when they wanted irrespective of needing help to dress and wash. This meant breakfast should be available all morning ( cooked breakfast available to 10 am continental till lunch time). I challenged the staff not to agree that this was better for residents, who after all were all elderly and should be able to have a lie in if they wanted. 

I look back on this now and think how much easier it was to bring about changes in the way employees worked when you could demonstrate it would improve the service. In this case make a small  improvement in the quality of life of frail elderly people. In latter years when  managing change was about improving efficiency or cutting costs it was much harder to take employees with me. 

In bringing about changes in routines I wasn’t simply changing the time residents got up or went to bed I was taking the first steps in changing the culture. All too often organisation’s put most effort into changing the structures and routines, the working practices and then find the transformation has failed, not that things didn’t change but that they didn’t make the difference there were supposed to. 

Transforming an organisation is a lot more difficult than reorganising teams, reengineering processes , changing JD’s and terms and conditions of employment, introducing new technology or outsourcing production.

The transformation I was seeking in the residential care homes was to turn warehouses where elderly people waited to die into places where old age could be enjoyed rather than endured. To achieve this staff would have to  view residents as individuals , show them respect, allow them to retain their dignity and independence and exercise choice. I needed to change the way things were done round here, in other words change the culture.

Transforming an organisation as opposed to a group of residential care homes is a huge difference in scale and complexity but is never the less still about the people part of change and helping people make change stick. This help or management of change is essential because all too often change initiatives fail, not that change doesn’t happen but that it doesn’t deliver the expected and desired outcomes. The merger that doesn’t deliver the expected economies of scale, the outsourcing of production that doesn’t generate the hoped for cost savings, the new technology that fails to improve efficiency, the restructuring that disrupts and demoralises rather than streamlines and energises. 

A leader wishing to transform an organisation needs to take people with them  , inspire, over communicate , have a  clear set of values, develop trust, know when to change your mind , admit mistakes, listen to others but be decisive. It’s easier to communicate with employees when you can get the whole staff group in one room, when you can provide face to face contact on a regular bases, when you can talk about values as they apply to the specific work of a group of employees like those in the residential care home. When the organisation consists of thousands of employees, geographically dispersed and made up of teams providing a wide range of services then tailoring the message to different audiences, winning hearts and minds, demonstrating you are actively listening and getting employees to trust senior management is difficult. 

Many organisations post pandemic will find themselves in agreement that change must happen, the organisation must adapt to the new economic and business climate if it is to have a future. The leadership will be/ is under pressure to respond to the urgency of the situation. The temptation is to act fast, the circumstances justifying  dispensing with trying to sell unpopular changes. Instead change is impose on a reluctant and suspicious workforce. However two out of three change initiatives fail not due to a flawed strategy but a failure to change the culture in line with the strategy. The simple lesson is you can’t transform an organisation armed only with a good strategy. 

An organisation can change structures, processes and working practices, it can change JD’s and terms and conditions of employment but ultimately it’s the commitment of employees and the faith/trust they have in management/ leadership that makes the difference. 

Blair Mcpherson former Director, author and blogger 

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