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An Interview with Tony Nicholls on his book Managing Change in Organizations

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Claire Newell talks to Principal Consultant Tony Nicholls about his brand new book, Managing Change in Organizations in this podcast episode.
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Claire Newell Marketing Manager talks to Principal Consultant Tony Nicholls about his brand new book, Managing Change in Organizations in this podcast episode. Tony talks us through why he wrote the book. What led him to feeling that it was needed and what you can expect to find in it. Including practical tips and examples of how to manage the people side of change.

You don't need to be a change manager to be managing change. Change is happening all the time in organisations, whether it's planned or unplanned. This book is written for managers, HR and OD professionals, and gives a practical guide to everything you need to know to support effective business transformation.

Get your copy of Managing Change in Organizations here.

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Transcript of the Managing Change in Organizations Podcast

Claire Newell 2:08
Right. So Mr. Tony Nichols, you've written a book.

Tony Nicholls 2:14
I have indeed, I have indeed.

Claire Newell 2:17
What's your book about? Why have you written it?

Tony Nicholls 2:19
I have written a book about management. And to go back to the beginning as to why this particular book? And what I wanted to write about. That was, really been in my head since I discovered this field of practice called organisation development.

Organisation development as a thing to do in organisations is quite well known. It's quite a common title that you see in people's job titles these days. And it's an activity that people do. They develop organisations.

But relatively few people know that there is actually a field of practice, called organisation development, and it's got theories and academics that work in it, and lots of books about it. And once I discovered that's sort of how I did management, and I did HR, then I explored it, and that is my field of practice now.

But what I noticed was that it wasn't well known, and it wasn't widely practised. And it had loads of good ideas and good models and tools and techniques that I think would be brilliant for wider management to pick up.

So that was the motivation for the book, how do I make this field of practice more accessible to the average manager who perhaps has never heard of organisation development? And how do I make it accessible in a way that they don't get full of gobbly gook and academic language and stuff like that? So that's, that's the motivation.

Claire Newell 3:44
Yeah. And that rings true for me. I've worked at corporates or small companies before I discovered Mayvin. And when I heard about this thing that's called organisation development. I was like, ah, that's, that's a name for that stuff that I have noticed. And it gave it a, you know, not a catch all term, but it gave it some sort of term that's the thing that describes these things that happen in companies.

Tony Nicholls 4:12
Yeah. Primarily, the field of organisation development speaks to what I see managers being accountable for every day, which is change. Managers roles, in my view, having been an operational manager for many years, and having worked with lots of operational managers, their role is primarily about managing change.

And that is both planned change. Change that we consider and plan and then do to the organisation. Organisation design or process change and things like that, but it's also what I call in the book, entropic change, but what I mean by that is that every system every every organism and or system, if left to its own devices will, will move towards disorder.

In organisations, people get sick. People create workarounds, machines break, people leave, people join, they need training. All of those things create entropy in the system, which means that if we don't do anything, if we don't manage it, it will become less efficient than it is now.

So managers are there to manage that and to manage planned change. And if we didn't have change of any kind, we wouldn't need managers, because the people at the coalface would just get on with their job. But of course, we have change, and therefore we need managers.

Claire Newell 5:34
So that's quite an interesting distinction that there's planned change. There might be change that is coming from above, or this this is how we want the organisation to change. However that might be.

Tony Nicholls 5:45

Claire Newell 5:45
But like you said, there's also change that just happens, because it does. Like you say people leave, people come. New people start, you know, or things outside your control. You know, macro micro factors, things will change.

Tony Nicholls 5:59
Yes. And I think one of the arguments I put across is that there's a. There's a myth that there's such a thing as business as usual. That organisations if left to their own devices wouldn't change. There's an argument to say that organisations are constantly changing.

And not all of that is planned. Because organisations are not things, they're not static, solid objects. They are actually just simply collections of individuals that come together to work towards a common cause. And those individuals form relationships. They have subjective feelings and emotions. And they make sense of things in their own unique ways through their own filters.

And therefore, the sense we make of the world and therefore the work that we need to do changes and shifts, the context changes, political systems change, economic systems change. Objectives, come down from the top, from from upon high, and we make sense of those objectives as managers. But we're always doing that individually and collectively in a way that means that the work that actually gets done.

And how work actually gets done is different to how we think you might be getting done. Because it's, it's done through relationship. There's always workarounds, doesn't matter how digital the organisation, if there are human beings involved, there will be some way in which they are making it up as they go along. Because that's what we do.

So change is always happening, and managers are there to. In my opinion managers are there to notice that and to as much as possible, nudge that change in the right direction. And to notice, when it's going off piste, then, you know, things are becoming ineffective and inefficient. And to bring it back to efficiency and effectiveness, as well as to deliver planned change. We need to reorganise things. Okay.

So one of the premises I've put in the book is that if managers just sat there with their arms folded all the time, the organisation wouldn't continue as it is. It would start to become less efficient, and they would have to intervene. That's, that's the basic premise of management.

The other thing that this book is deliberately about is about management and not leadership. Although that's not technically true, because at the end of the book, I say, having written about management, what I've really done is also written about leadership, I've brought those two things together.

And I suggest we start to talk about leader managers, rather than leaders or managers. And the reason that I've been very deliberate, to say, let's put leadership over there for the moment is because I think we've had too much of a focus on leadership, it has become deified and it has become this like god like thing. That is for the senior people in the organisation to move towards not the lowly, middle and junior managers.

And now, you know, I regularly speak to managers who say, I'm not a leader, I'm not paid enough to be a leader or that's not my job. Whilst at the same time organisations are saying well, everybody's a leader, we're all leaders. Well, actually, in practice, they make it very difficult. Because hierarchies mean that leadership has become perceived to be a senior thing. And therefore, I think it's becoming exclusive rather than inclusive. So I'm sort of deliberately kicking it to the left and say, right, let's forget about leadership. Let's focus on management.

Claire Newell 9:22
Nice, that distinction between leaders and managers. The risk of that is if you think, well, like the leaders are up on high, they make the decisions. And then the people that are on the coalface, you know, customer facing managing the staff, the middle managers. The danger is they could lose their autonomy and go oh, that's not my decision to make or that's not up to me. That's up to so and so. And I think that's why you said the focus on management and actually how they. You know, how you manage people. And yeah, exactly those relationships. Yeah, on the shop floor that's.

Tony Nicholls 9:53
It's in the heart of the business relationship. So, couple of things. Having moved into consultancy over the last decade or so. Having worked with some top teams, what I began to notice there was that when they were faced with challenges in their organisations. Inefficiency, ineffectiveness, cultural challenges, I saw them step up as leaders, and often make the problems worse.

Because it wasn't their leadership, that was the problem. They were actually pretty good leaders. They were clear in their communications, they were good at setting direction, they were quite engaging and motivational people. What was the problems lay in their management practice. So when challengers appeared, they would often step into a micromanagement position. They would start to micromanage the business, they will start to create unnecessary activity which distracted managers from doing.

From solving those problems. So for me, it's when it's when leaders step back from being leaders and reflect on their management practice and make shifts in their management practice. That accountability, trickles down the organisation and empowers those managers. So I really put the emphasis on let's let's put leadership to one side, and let's focus on management practice.

Claire Newell 11:14
And that's where I use the term deskside manner. So instead of bedside manner, you know, deskside manner, and, being approachable. And those relationships, just as we see it as important in the world of medicine. Why isn't it important in, you know, a corporate organisation or any organisation?

Tony Nicholls 11:32
Yeah. And if we reimagine the organisation. Not as a machine with lots of cogs in, but as a messy, relational place. That the effectiveness of organisations is primarily determined by the strength and level of trust. The strength of relationships and levels of trust in the organisation. Then you can quite quickly see that the manager's primary focus should be those relationships.

So very much I talk about managers having, as you say, a good deskside manner. Similar to the way that we would expect doctors and nurses to have a good bedside manner. Because we know that most people leave organisations because of their manager. And if they've got a bad manager, that's how they tend to leave. And it isn't just about being nice. It's about genuinely caring for the relationship that you're in with your direct reports and your peers. And looking to nurture those relationships.

And approaching those relationships in a way that you are genuinely open to the idea that you're going to learn something from the next conversation you have. With anybody you meet in the organisation. Not that you have the right answer. And all you need to do is influence the other person to your way of thinking, and that's the job done.

My experience of management is having lots of people come into my room. When I reached senior management levels, lots of managers came into my room, trying to persuade me to their way of thinking. Which is okay, when their way of thinking is the right way of thinking. But often, there are other ways of thinking about things.

And I might have my ideas and my ideas might not be right, either. But between us, we could figure out a good way forward. And that requires both of us to be open to the other person's ideas. And that requires us to be what I call in the book be in relationship. As opposed to either of us working on relationship.

So working on relationship for me is about influencing other people to my way of view, my point of view. Being in relationship is about genuinely noticing the kind of relationship we have. And being open to being influenced by each other and actually us both coming up with a third way. Which is different to how we both came into the room thinking about it. So that for me is is a critical shift in management practice I'm advocating.

Claire Newell 12:26
Nice and that that sort of feeds in because in the book, you go through everyday practices. And you know, I think what you call it - was that the basics of management? Yeah, do you want to take us through that what those are.

Tony Nicholls 14:16
Yeah, so I've got some basic everyday practices, I call them that because one of the other things I think. A consequence of focusing on leadership so much of last few decades, is that management practice, management tools. The tools we need to help change and support change and do our jobs are falling behind.

They haven't had the attention that I think they need. And this is where the field of organisation development comes in for me. Because I think it has some more contemporary tools and models that will help managers in their jobs as we find ourselves at the moment. Because we are in more complex organisations in more complex ecosystems, with more disruptive change, and more uncertain futures.

They're all, you know, nobody can argue against any of those. It's always been the case that uncertainty has been a factor of life. But I think it's even more prevalent at the moment in terms of levels of uncertainty. So I wanted to revisit the tools of management, and take what the field of organisation looks at and talks about and and sort of put that into the, into the field for managers to have a look at and talk about that.

Yeah, so I've got everyday practices, the first of those is, is for managers, just to notice more. Now imagine that you've just got to a new, you've got on a train, and you've got to a new town, you've never been to before and about to go to a meeting. What it's like walking from the train station to that new meeting that new building?

It's, you're on full alert, you're having to log you having to check every sign. You are having to check every corner, to check your phone, and your Google Maps and everything. You're on high alert, you're noticing your environment. And you're looking for risks as you as you as you cross roads and things like that.

On the way back from the meeting, to the train station, you'll. You don't need to do as much because you're now familiar with the territory. So you stop, you notice less. And it is the same in management practice, we join an organisation we start doing our job and few months in, we start noticing things that for me, are really important that we continue to notice.

Like, what kind of a relationship do I have with this person? What's going on in the room today that makes us less effective than we were yesterday, when we came together? Who's speaking more than the others? Whose voice is always heard and whose voices are quiet? Why am I feeling anxious about this particular decision? What's going on? How can I? How can I air that such that we start to have a better conversation.

So for me, noticing. And being much more aware of our own presence and our own feelings and our own sense of what's going on around us as well as noticing what's going on for others is probably the core management practice. I'd like to advocate. We move away, we move off being on automatic pilot, basically. And we are constantly noticing. So managers may know of this practice, through people like Sean who talks about reflection on practice and reflection in practice.

So reflection on practices after the event, having a review and saying oh, how did that meeting go? Or how was that process? Or how did we deliver that project? How well did we what did we learn? Reflecting in practice is a practice I see very rarely in organisations and in managers, which is managers noticing in the moment, in the middle of a conversation in the middle of a decision making process, what's going on for them.

How they're feeling, how they're showing up, how other people are showing up. Whether or not people who are working on relationship and trying to influence or whether they're genuinely wanting to inquire into new ways of doing things. So there's that noticing things is is a key thing for me. It's a state of mind more than anything.

Claire Newell 18:13
And that feeds into what you're saying earlier about the kind of, but no such thing as well, that the workaround, you know, you sort of said that companies might have a process or procedure of how things should be done that they've written on a bit of laminated paper that that's, that's that's how we do things. But what you quite often find is that, you know, humans find a way and they find workarounds. And that could be a risk, because they're not doing it the way they should be. And that's that's creating a risk for the company. Or it might be that they've found a better way. And actually, that's right. And so again, I'm noticing is that you're noticing what's actually happening rather than what you should or, you know, what you should be happening or what could happen?

Tony Nicholls 18:56
Yeah, so I think I think a lot of the current what we call classical management models and tools, would have us believe that change happens in certain ways. And organisations operate in certain ways. And I think we can really question those and not throw them out. They're not wrong, but they're just not right either. The way organisations work is much more nuanced and in the relationships, and it's less about process and more about relationship, in my opinion.

So yes, we need to follow a process and there are processes that are important that we follow. I've seen it in working in financial services, particularly in contact centres, and they're hugely process oriented, because they have to be effective and efficient to get through the volume of calls with the minimum number of people on the phones.

When you get into the detail, you absolutely always see that each individual agent will have their own way of doing each thing, some of its inefficient, some of its efficient. But either way, the way that the system, the way that the process works and the way that customers get their services delivered is never how it's written on paper. And that, for me is an important point to note for managers to really take into account to accept that they're never never fully in control of how the organisation actually does it's work.

And that's quite a fundamental shift from what I think classical management tools will suggest is that you can be in control of everything, then then the noticing for me is sort of a mindset piece, okay. I suggest a second daily practice, which takes that noticing and ritualize it to some degree. So how do we how do we get this idea that noticing is it is useful to the wider audience?

And I suggest that could be done through check-ins. So we're checking in process. So having introduced this to I don't know, dozens and dozens of teams over the years, I start to see how the beginning of meetings if you just take a few minutes to check in with each other, to switch on the noticing sort of radar as it were, how are we today? How are we with each other? How are we working today? And how might we get the best out of today's conversation? That's a really useful process. This is a really useful discipline to bring into organisations, it gets people into relationship, and helps shift them away from wanting to always influence others to their way of thinking.

Claire Newell 21:32
Yeah, and I think that the check in why it's almost like a mini introduction to the field of OD Organisation Development. I think so for a lot of us, when we were new to this field, joined Mayvin, the check in is the first thing that stands out.

And it's it's sort of a taster a bit of a feel for the ethos, and for me, it was the idea that, you know, a bunch of people, you know, that work in that company come and sit in a room to have a meeting. And it's not just straight on to the agenda, point one of the agenda, let's get cracking it's, you know, it's, it's a second to breathe to arrive and just sort of say, Okay, well, you know, how are you arriving?

What's going on with you, and connecting as human beings before the work. Recognising that we're not all just, you know, robots or cogs in a machine, that we're bringing a human element into that room and into the company. So I'm just taking that, that small type of time out to yeah, to meet as human beings and then go okay, and then now let's look at the work. Yeah. And yeah, that's almost like a micro version of the bigger picture.

Tony Nicholls 22:41
It's sort of yeah, encapsulates sort of one of one of the key concepts within OD organisation development and what I think should be management practice, which is consider the human being in the room, as well as the task and consider the relationships. So Ready introduces a model whereby he suggests that we should be spending 30% of our time. Split equally between reflecting on the task processes, how are we doing the work? And our relationship processes.

So 15% on task processes and 15%, on relationship processes, if you imagine that, that's over a day a week, spent not doing the work, but actually reflecting on how we're doing the work and how we are with each other. When you think of it that way, it's like, impossible. No organisation is going to allow managers to spend that much time.

But actually, I argue in the book that some organisations do it because it isn't about discrete chunks of time that you, you put aside, it's, it's how you are with each other all the time, you're always checking in with each other.

You're constantly going how was that for you? How was that meeting? Do you think we could do it better? And what are we noticing about our relationship that came up? You know, that felt a bit of a sticky conversation? Let's just unpick that for a moment. What was what was going on there? Okay, right. All right. That's interesting, that's useful, or that was a really good conversation, what went well? And how did why did it go well?

So I think there's something about it, this mindset of noticing. And this habit of checking in, can quite easily move you quite well towards Ready's idea that you're spending more time. Much more of your time reflecting on the processes in both for the task and for your relationships. Which really oils, the machine to bring in a metaphor that I don't like but actually is a useful metaphor. It's the oil that keeps the cogs moving as it works.

Claire Newell 24:31
I think organisation development could be seen as a bit, a bit fluffy, a bit kind of hippie that, oh, let's let's all talk about our relationships. But it's important to recognise. The reason we're saying to do this is ultimately for the efficiency and success of the company. Because if your employees and managers are happy, then they'll stay and then you won't have to retrain someone or pay recruitment fees. And ultimately, the processes and the systems will work better, and you'll have better intelligence in the company. And you know, the whole, the whole thing will be more efficient and successful.

Tony Nicholls 25:10
All of those things and yeah, another sort of benefit to this is that organisations will be much more inclusive. Because you're paying attention to your relationships, to the people around you, immediately around you. You're thinking about who they are and how they're showing up and how your relationship is with them.

You're thinking about their welfare, you're thinking about their well being. Not as a task, because somebody has asked you to do it, because it's the latest thing that organisations are asking to do. But because you actually care about that. You genuinely believe that it's a useful thing to do, and the good thing to do and the right thing to do. To care about yourself, and the people around you, both your direct reports and your peers.

Not just because it will make the organisation more efficient or profitable. But because it's the right thing to do, and a good thing to do, and it makes you feel good. So there's something about it, just for the sake of it, let's create organisations that are more human centric. And I think managers are at the centre of that objective. And that goal, because they they have so many of the relationships across. You know, up down across the organisation. And managers too often are not asked to focus on relationships, they're asked to focus on task and delivering. And we need them to do both. I don't think it's one or the other. Let's do both.

Claire Newell 26:39
Yeah. So what are the main things that you think if someone goes out and buys this book? What are the main things do you think they're gonna gain from it? What are they gonna take away?

Tony Nicholls 26:49
Yeah. So I think the bulk of the book is really a mindset shift. And I would encourage people to read the book, rather than to dip into it, because it's got a flow to it. And a flow is, is saying, look, the way that we're taught to think about organisations isn't how organisations actually are. They're not machines. They're complex collections of individuals in relationship with each other. It's messy, and it's got a shadow side to it.

And change is difficult. It will always be difficult, so let's accept that. But there are things we can do that can help us with this. There are practices, our minds, and, you know, ways of seeing the world that will help us deal with and work better with our fellow human beings. So I think, primarily the book is about a mindset shift.

And then there are some takeaways towards the end around these practices that we've talked about in terms of noticing. What does that look like? What does it mean? And what are the benefits? Checking in? What's that all about? How does it work? What benefits can it bring? How can it go wrong? So checking in, there's also a third practice that we haven't talked about.

But we could do it on a different conversation, which was around navigating the complexity of organisations, there are tools that help you deal with the plethora, and the sort of data overload that we've got now, that helps you make sense of the world. Helps make sense of the organisation in the moment and make better decisions. So that's the third practice you'll take away.

And then I guess I talk about the future of organisations, and in particular, the future organisation and management development. So there's, there's a, quite a substantial chapter there about how should we go about developing our managers, both now and in the future. The kind of programmes that we can put them on that would help them with this mindset shift. And the development of the mindset and the practices that help them with dealing with complexity and uncertain futures.

Claire Newell 28:51
And it's worth saying that, through our development programmes at Mayvin. You know, some of the feedback and responses we've had from people. It always sounds a bit uncomfortable saying ourselves. But people are telling us this stuff is life changing, it changes there, their home life. Their work life, their work life balance, their career path.

Tony Nicholls 29:15
The impact they have in their job. And that was one of the motivators for writing the book was because when I first started with Mayvin, I joined the faculty that was working with the UK Civil Service and our development programmes there. And I started to notice that yes, these are, these are civil servants who have got sort of organisation development in their title, but actually they're managers.

They're all managers and they're coming in and they are developing their management capability and they're leaving the programme with a very different worldview, and a very different capability that's much more enabled in today's. Enabling in today's more complex, rapidly changing disrupted organisations, that's what I was noticing. And thought right, that's what I wanted to capture. And that's what I want to write about.

Claire Newell 30:02
Okay, great. Thank you.

Tony Nicholls 30:04
Thank you

Claire Newell 30:06
Thank you so much for listening to us today, and we hope to see you next time. Take care. Bye bye

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