Phil Jones

NLP Change Management | Phil Jones
NLP Change Management Phil Jones

Michael : I’m really pleased to have this chance to talk to you about your thoughts on change management, but maybe for our listeners you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.

Phil : Ok, My name is Phil Jones my company is Excitant, and I help management teams in the area of strategy and performance management. Some people would called that balance score cards, some people would call it making strategy happen, I call it helping management teams get their heads together and their acts together so they can make things happen.

Michael : And what would you call a change project, and what would you call a transformational change project?

Phil : That’s an interesting one. I think your question is hinting at the difference between – Something that’s more of an incremental change and something that’s transformational, in the sense that it’s a significant step change. I’d like to get rid of the word change in this conversation. If we framed it as an improvement project, I think it would be quite different, because people have different contexts about the word change versus improvement. And I’m puzzled by, why in the lexicon of management conversations we talk about change projects when we really mean projects to improve things.

Michael : Let me rephrase the question then. What sort of difference is there between a large, but basically, ongoing improvement project or an improvement project that literally does change the way in which the majority of people work, and act and behave?

Phil : I think there’s possibly three categories here. There’s a new chief executive who arrives and goes this is no longer good enough, we have to be different. Which is the classic transformational, re-engineering project.

If you’re working in a part of an organisation, quite often a director or a senior director doing incremental improvements all of the time. There’s another one which I think is quite interesting, which is creating a culture of change, culture of improvement, where people are actively seeking to bring about change and improvements themselves, rather than it being directed from the outside. And I think that’s an important emphasis.

Michael : If you were advising the CEO and you can choose whatever one of those scenarios that you’ve talked about. What sort of things would you suggest that he kept his eyes on? What are the key aspects that from your point of few, that you would advise him to think about, in the planning stage?

Phil : I’d like to start with am error here Mike and there’s this awful phrase that goes around that people don’t like change. I think it’s complete and utter baloney and I’m being polite at this point as you may have noticed.

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t change their underpants, change their shirt, eats something different, occasionally change their car, talk to different people and do other things. People do change, they like variety.

If you stuck someone in a immersion tank so they are sensually deprived and pumped white noise into their ears, that would be called torture.

People don’t like change when it’s outside their control, they’re not involved in it, and it’s imposed on them. People do like to be involved in change, when they understand why it’s going about, it’s going on, and can influence it and feel a part of it. And I think this whole thing about people do not like change is an excuse used by people who fail to understand how a change works to blame those who have been changed instead of the change agents themselves.

I’m being controversial here, but I think that it’s a deliberate attempt to push the blame onto someone else where as a matter of fact there are a lot of people out there who are really good at helping organisations change, and improve, and to say that people just don’t like change is just an excuse. So that would be my first thing.

I think the second point to the sponsor is to be explicit about the mechanisms of change you are using. This was as bit of an eye opener for me, as several years ago I was working on a performance management project which morphed itself into a help us form our strategy project which morphed into a the chief exec said to me can you sort my management team out please. And it was very much about joining up the organisation. It was extremely successful while I was there, and the chief executive wrote at the end and went: you have done an absolutely brilliant job for us, this is entirely up to us to make sure that this is successful now.

Two years later, it wasn’t, and they’d reverted. And I kicked myself immensely over this and one of the realisations that I came to was that the mechanisms of change they were using were implicit in the process rather than explicit.

Therefore, be absolutely clear about what mechanisms of change you’re trying to use because then you can pass them across to other people. In this particular circumstance, somebody else came in, the chief executive had taken their eye off the ball, but understood that everything was going on, and this other person changed everything, and threw away everything that we’d done in the past.

I give that as an example of where things have gone wrong, because I think that it’s an interesting one that one of the mechanisms of change there was in creating a compelling understanding of strategy in peoples head, that was visual, kinestetic, auditory, logical it wasn’t just about power, it was about logic, and it was about social norms changing. And we probably weren’t explicit about it, even though those were the methods we were using.

Michael : Can you just give an example of what being more explicit would have meant?

Phil : Ok, let me take an example. The classic way that change often happens is that somebody comes along with a big stick and says you’re going to make this happen otherwise I’ll sack you. And that works for a while, but when a person who is threatening the sacking goes away, it bounces back. And the other mechanism is, and I’m using a fairly simple model here, I think illustrates it logic. If you show people what the future will be like, and what could happen if things stay the same, there’s a compelling logic in there that says surely this is better, therefore I really ought to do it. And if necessary, we will set fire to your platform so you have to jump. The other metaphor that goes along there is are you on the bus? it’s a similar sort of thing – The bus is leaving, are you joining us?

The third thing is about a social norm. And I suspect that in this particular example that one of the things in creating a joined up organisation, so we weren’t trying to reorganise, we were trying to connect up all the parts of the organisation together who serve individual customers so from the customers perspective it was more complete as opposed to being in silos, the classic situation.

When they first did this at a directors level, it was a bit of a shock to them. Because they’d always worked in silos, and done their own piece, as opposed to taking joint responsibility in this. When we did it at the next level down, we found a collection of middle managers who’d never spoken to each other.

They used different language, they used different cultural norms, they lived in different buildings, they behaved differently, they had different attitudes towards the customers. It was quite dramatic. And initially this caused all sorts of problems. Pulling plastic political correctness cards out in some case. Actually that was the key. It was a city council. The people who were cleaning the street were having as much influence on things as those who were working in drug rehabilitation teams, as those who were planning the environment, designing it, or giving planning permissions and changing it.

It was about the whole picture working together, and they were quite different departments so we were establishing a set of cultural norms where they together took joint responsibility for things.

Michael : Yes definitely. Carrying on with that what other reasons do you think that improvement projects don’t bring in the results that people hope for?

Phil : There’s a number of things here. There’s often more than one reason why they fail. I think it’s about being explicit. it’s very easy when you’ve disappeared as a management team into a huddle for six months or whatever, to go Right! Now it’s all logical! Just do it. And a friend of mine I once worked with said you know it’s very easy to end up half way up the pitch with the ball in rugby but none of your team-mates are there the opposition are. At the point you get murdered and loose the ball. And some management teams get in that position. They go through the logic, and they don’t allow the rest of the organisation to pace the same change, and I come back to the management behaviours as well. If you don’t go for the underlying cultural norms, behaviours, practices, values, but treat it at the superficial level you’ll never get anywhere.

I was chatting to a guy who was doing business process re-engineering for document flow, and I thought great! It will be much more effective in the use of the document. But frankly, if people don’t believe in it, and don’t care about it, then it won’t happen.

You contrast that with a call centre I came across where the chief executive. They were handing off all over the place. Their objective was to just get of the phone and give the problem to somebody else. And the chief executive made it absolutely clear, he said – Look! I want you to imagine that your grandmother is on the end of that phone. Now, I want you to resolve it, for her, as if she was there. If you’ve overstepped the mark, we’ll sort that out afterwards. But the key is you take the responsibility, and you have the authority to do it and make it happen and nobody will jump on you for making a judgement that’s wrong.
That’s called learning.

And I thought that was a massively significant example of changing a set of cultural norms. You have to back it up with a lot of other things as well. Like, making sure you didn’t jump on people when they overstepped it, and finding lots of examples where things have gone well.

So they went down in their numbers of staff by about 30%, and quality improved in terms of hand-offs and everything massively and customer satisfaction doubled if not further.
So they used less people, they did it more efficiently, they were a lower cost, and higher quality, and the quality of customer satisfaction. Simply because they were give free reign to use their intelligence.

Another example somebody was saying that the classic call centre thing is lets outsource it and find the cheapest people who can do it. Where as I’ve worked on call centre design for people where we’ve used graduates, and the reason we’re using graduates is because they are much more intelligent, flexible – give them authority, give them responsibility and they’ll be three times as productive as someone of half the salary.

So you’re gaining by 50%. And I think that these sort of things, if they get missed in a change project, if the behavioural pieces aren’t reinforced by the management team explicitly backing up what they mean, then it can all go awry. You’re just looking at half the problem. At most.

Michael : What do you think the role is of a good agent or consultant that you put in there to help with a project over the time it’s running? What do you think they can add, and where do you think they’re responsibilities start and end?

Phil : I’m going to split change leader from change agent. Change leader to my mind is the chief executive that says you’re going to do it this way and I’m going to give you the space to do it. The change agent should stay out of the way. It’s an interesting one, because I have a view in consultancy, I will never present my client strategy in dealing with their own people, it’s for them to do that, it’s not my strategy it’s their’s.

So the good agent facilitates the leader getting their message across. And I think the trick here is that the leader has to be both an exempler and a set direction, but also give people permission to let them change for themselves because the potential is that they can find something far far better. And the agents of change are there to help that happen, and in this case I’m using agents of change in sort as sort of facilitators on the side, I think there is a better role, which is having every middle-manager as an agent of change than having peers as agents of change.

If you pick of five or six people, in lets take, the call centre situation, find the five or six real influencers, Ravens as they get called in the tipping point, give those agents a chance to advocate and they’ll say – Well actually I’ve tried this, and boy, doesn’t it half work! Lets try and have a go. That sort of thing makes a big difference.

Michael : I very much like the idea – if there is an external change agent, his job is to coach people, but not to do the stuff himself.

Phil : Yes I think that’s fairly important. There’s this whole thing about, do you as a consultant do things for client, or do you help your client do things better?

And my view is that you should help your client do things better. Otherwise you end up going back there again and again and doing the same thing for them and that’s unethical is not the right word but it’s not good consultancy and it’s not good for the client.

What you’re doing is you’re not building their underlying capability to bring about change. And that’s the way I feel a good agent of change, both internally and externally should work.

Michael : Ok, before I get you to give your contact details is there anything else that you’d like to add about what you think is important about improvement projects?

Phil : I would say do research. As a result of that little moment of light that I had, I started researching models of change, and I thought, I came across maybe four, five six, and I got to twelve and I thought Wow! There are a lot of these! When I reached thirty seven, I stopped, and I think that in itself is interesting, that there are a large number of models of change that go on out there.

Some of them are models of how change from the outside appears to have happened. And some of them are about things that have caused change to come about. And people confuse them.

I mean, your classic one is, unfreeze/refreeze. Or unfreeze-change-refreeze. The question is, what’s causing them to unfreeze? What’s causing them to change? And would you actually want them to refreeze? And wouldn’t you like them to be more like putty? Or mercury? You look at the models, and looks at the metaphors in there and in many ways they’re useful, but in many ways they’re misleading.

So my advise to anyone in this area doing stuff is to be explicit about their change models, which is what I said at the start. But also to have a really deep understanding of the different types of change models out there because some of them are actually metaphorical and some of them are superficial.

Many of them are about the underlying pieces that go on it in there but be aware that you are dealing with people and that the underlying assumption is that people do like change. If you start on that premise, if you’re seeing them not like it it’s you’re problem not theirs. Because you’re not putting it across properly. And I think that positions things very, very differently.
Michael : you’ve talked about you’ve looked at lots of models of change, now I know it’s all context-dependant, but do you have any favourites or anyone’s that you definitely think it’s worth people looking at?

Phil : Well if anyone wants to contact me afterwards, I do have a paper on this. I mean I actually wrote up, I can’t remember how many it is now, thirty seven or something models of change. I think a useful one is just to think about: are you using power? Are you using logic? Or are you using social peer pressure? and it’s quite an old one, but it’s an important influence.

Another one I find very valuable indeed is framing. As we’ve done in this conversation, you’ve talked about transformational change, and I’ve talked about helping to create teams that are willing to try and improve for themselves. And we’ve done that through a series of framing statements. And I think framing a problem is really, really powerful.

I think one final thing is that you can paint a vision until the cows come home. But – and I’ve got two thoughts that I just need to clarify here sometimes you need to let people vent. Because there’s a reason why it’s like it is and giving time for venting and letting the frustrations out is all so important, and if you fail to acknowledge that you’ll have a problem.

Let me just give you one last story. I’ve done the triathlon, and I’ve been to the world championships, done ironman and all these sorts of things and people go wow, that’s fantastic and I go no it’s not because I only had to persuade myself that those were ridiculous things that I could achieve.

If you believe that you can accomplish anything that you believe, then the issue becomes, how ridiculous a thing can you convince yourself to believe in? So if you said to yourself Oh, I’d love to double my salary and make half a million pounds or whatever next year. Are you limiting yourself by only actually thinking of half a million could it be ten million? So if you don’t believe that you could make ten million, then there’s no point in even considering it. So it’s about belief in ambition but that’s the analogy from sport, but in a way it falls down because the management challenge is actually to convince other people that this ridiculous thing is actually achievable.

So to me it’s a two-step thing, this vision-piece. Can I get people to think of ambition that is beyond where they’re thinking at the moment to help them realise that that is achievable? And then how ridiculous a vision can we collectively convince them of? And that I think is the interesting piece.

Michael : Ok, before I ask for your contact details is there any final point that you would like to make on the topic?

Phil : I think it is about framing. I think the more people that people realise that it’s about how they’re behaving it’s a feedback thing.

Michael : Ok, excellent. And you contact details?

Phil : Phil Jones, I can be contacted on email is, my office number is 08704207978 and my mobile number is 07711711123 and If anyone wants to chat with me or have a look on my website they’re very welcome to there’s a book coming out at the beginning or next year called – Communicating Strategy – whith is specifically about change as well, and that’s a good read.

Michael : Excellent. Thank you very much.

Back to NLP Change Management

See more on NLP Planning on our NLP Techniques website.