Lessons on Change

Written by Bruce Holland


Bruce Holland doesn't see the change process as "changing" you or "fixing" you; it is more about reminding you of who you are, and drawing out the greatness that already exists inside the organisation. With the possible exception of a few "trace-elements" he expects to find all the knowledge, skills and experience needed within.

Bruce knows this sounds contradictory: how can you change people without changing them? In his experience you can't change people all that much, but you can bring out the best in them. He believes we all have a good dog and a bad dog in us fighting for supremacy and the one that wins will be the one we choose to feed. The idea of a good dog and a bad dog comes from a wonderful story: A grandfather was talking to his grandson about becoming a man. "Sometimes," said the grandfather, "I feel as though there are two dogs fighting inside me for supremacy. One dog is vicious, angry and vengeful. He is full of hate and wants to hurt. The other dog is loving and faithful, happy and grateful. He is full of joy and wants to help." "Wow!" said the grandson. "Which dog will win?" The grandfather looked at his grandson and said, "The one I choose to feed." Change processes need to feed the good dog. This means doing a number of small things on a continuing basis that make a BIG difference, including the stories we choose to tell and the rituals we choose to adopt; how leaders choose to spend their time and what they focus on. The trick is to get the virtuous cycle started. You need to deliberately feed the good dog until positive thoughts become a habit.

Bruce doesn't see change as a series of steps; it's much more joined-up than that. He sees great culture and service delivery as a natural byproduct of a high-performing organisation. Indeed, you can't create it in a low-performing organisation; however, when the organisation is working well, it becomes an "emergent property." Systems thinking and complexity science shows that like all emergent properties, great culture and service delivery are the natural way of being, and they will emerge automatically at the level of the whole system once the organisation achieves the required level of interconnectivity, increased communication, deeper relationships and improved trust. Only when it is working internally to high standards of great culture and service delivery will this be experienced by the customer.

Establishing great culture and service delivery has more in common with gardening than engineering. It is not something that you can build from a blueprint, like a house, by specifying and assembling a series of materials and actions. It is far more subtle than that. Like all emergent properties great culture and service delivery can be encouraged, led and given visibility; but it can't be commanded or pushed into being.

The main things you need in gardening are:

  1. Good gardeners. This means all staff (and especially managers) thinking appropriately with the right skills;
  2. Appropriate tools. This means IT, communication systems, processes;
  3. Well-prepared soil. This means building trust, connection, relationships and communication;
  4. The best seeds. There will be three types of people: those who want it to happen, those who will let it happen, those who will try to stop it happening; the trick is to identify passion and move with the energy;
  5. Green fingers. The consulting skills are both magic and logic, including left and right-brained approaches, having the right experience, an attitude of trust and belief in people and having high expectations, facilitating more rather than telling;
  6. Tending the young, tender plants. This means listening more than telling, questions more than answers, and encouragement more than criticism;
  7. Thinning and pruning. This is be about allowing space, allowing time, removing barriers and bottlenecks to progress;
  8. Tending and nurturing. It will take constant attention, including telling stories, amplifying wins and quickly cutting off the unsuccessful;
  9. Harvesting. This includes quick wins, picking low-hanging fruit and celebrating wins. It involves working with people, pulling not pushing, asking provoking questions, moving with the energy and sidestepping bottlenecks and barriers.

The garden analogy works to a point, it will also require a grand Vision and supporting technology. The vision we will help you achieve will be bigger than anyone on their own can achieve. Virtual Group has gained a reputation for liberating energy in this area, moving people from seeing themselves with a "job" to having a "calling". The example we like to quote is the work Bruce Holland did with the Porirua grave-diggers. Their starting point for service delivery was "digging holes and burying people." However, magic happened when they started to see themselves as "central to the way people remember their loved-ones." The energy of your people will depend on how they see themselves and what they are trying to do.


Virtual Group has 20 years of experience changing large organisations. Although many models and frameworks have influenced us, we have found that each change strategy is different and cannot be neatly fitted into any one model. The model we will end up recommending for you will be designed specifically for you. It will be "glove-fitting."

Models and frameworks that have most influenced our thinking include:

  1. Systems thinking: Systems thinking shows that we are far more connected than most managers understand; this means we need to focus at least as much on the space between people as on the people themselves (because the space is full of meaning including trust, communication, expectations and intention); it also shows that what we do to one person affects everyone; and small things can have a major impact (butterfly affect). We have found that the old method of trying to separate the various steps of a change process doesn't work well. They are based on engineering assumptions rather than systems thinking. Our process will be "nonlinear" and "emergent." We will work to establish an organisation that "breathes", has appropriate positive feedback loops and cuts off vicious cycles. Therefore, right from the start (examination) we will work to involve people to build trust and connections needed at the end (implementation). The following authors have been particularly influential in our thinking: Margaret Wheatley ("A Simpler Way" and "Leadership and the New Science") and Peter Senge ("The Fifth Discipline").

  2. Complexity Science: Bruce Holland believes strategy and change are unnecessarily complicated because they are not viewed as emergent processes. Our ideal organisation is more like a set of closely linked networks than separated silos. It has porous boundaries that encourage communication flows like osmosis and extensive feedback as shown in the opposite chart. Authors who have influenced us include Michael Waldrop ("Complexity - the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos") and Shaun Mc Niff ("Trust The Process").

  3. End to end Processes: We encourage organisations to look at Student Service as an end-to-end process with as few pass-offs (to different process owners) as possible. Our thinking in this regard has been influenced by our work in process simplification and authors such as Michael Hammer.

  4. Value Proposition: We work with managers to agree on the appropriate Value Proposition for your organisation. Bruce Holland agrees with Fred Wierseman ("The Discipline of Market Leaders") that organisations cannot be everything to all people; to be successful it has to become world-class in one of three possible value propositions: 1. Operational Excellence, 2. Product Leadership, 3. Customer Intimacy.

  5. Herrmann's Brain Dominance Index (HBDI): Service providers often assume that the way they like to be treated is the way everyone likes to be treated. Great service providers know that people are different from each other; if you treat everyone like you'd like, you will satisfy about a quarter of them and turnoff three-quarters. HBDI helps staff understand how customers think and what they want and need. They can then deliver service that exactly matches each customer's needs. Bruce Holland is the only authorised private user of HBDI in Wellington.

  6. Alignment (Brand, Culture and Service delivery): We work with managers to agree on the appropriate Culture, Brand, Service delivery settings for your organisation. There is no such thing as one best culture (or Brand, or Service delivery); the best one depends on your Value Proposition. We have a strategic framework to achieve this. Also we will work with you to achieve alignment in nine key dimensions. The aim of any good strategy is to first set the Value Proposition and then to ensure that all the other nine dimensions are aligned so that they are pulling in the same direction. If any of the dimensions are not aligned they will become barriers to achieving the strategy. See Alignment chart.

Process design principles

Our design principles include:

  1. Senior management support: We would not attempt change without senior management support.

  2. Role modeling behaviours: Managers must role model the changes required otherwise others will not make the change. In our experience several managers may need coaching in how to role model appropriate behaviours; it's usually not because they don't want to behave appropriately, it's because they don't know how to.

  3. Leadership development: We put extra effort into managers (workshops, discussion groups, World-cafe meetings, action learning groups), because in our experience, once managers are on-board the front line are easy. Middle managers are particularly important because they have daily opportunities to support or resist the strategy and without their active support the strategy will fail. We may recommend selected managers attend several of our half-day leadership development modules.

  4. Ownership throughout: Ownership of the people who will be asked to implement the strategy is critical. We'd prefer to have a 90% strategy that is 100% owned, than a 100% strategy that lacks ownership. To achieve ownership, we will involve every person in deciding what will be done. With deep ownership and understanding at the start you won't need as much effort in communicating the strategy or implementing it, thus, significantly reducing the overall time of the strategy.

  5. Involve the whole person: Many strategy processes rely too much on logic. The 14 inches from the head to the heart can be a long journey. We deliberately work to engage the heart and establish feelings of trust and security which is where 85% of the requirement should be put. People do not resist change; they only resist being changed; therefore, it's important to involve people as equals otherwise they will become political and stuff it up for you.

  6. Keep the process simple: We start simple and build ownership before sophistication. No one likes change so we will focus on the Vision not the change process. People can be easily sucked in to a process but they can't be pushed. We remove jargon and make it real.

  7. Positive psychology: The process we recommend will be focused on strengths, not weaknesses. Wherever possible we will identify what is working and try to amplify it. The aim will be to make each person feel stronger because big people look for the best in others while small people look for weaknesses in others and make them feel smaller too. In many ways we see ourselves in the learning business. We see our job as facilitating rather than advising; challenging people, influencing and exposing them to new ideas rather than teaching. We find people learn best from peers who share the same daily experiences. We encourage participants tell each other stories and share experiences. We expect your staff to be highly skilled and experienced in their own right. People do not take well to being told what to do. Our aim will be to set up a process that involves them in deep conversations about "what service leadership looks like," ask them for examples from their own experience of service quality, and ask them how they felt when they gave great service, then, they will sell themselves and be far more willing to support the new strategy. In the process, connections will be made, conversations will become more meaningful, and trust will be built.

Lesson from the BNZ

My views on empowerment have been strongly influenced by the four years I was Group Strategic Planning Manager at Bank of New Zealand. I joined the bank in 1988 when it was on its knees. The New Zealand Public had just been asked to contribute $380 million to save the Bank from bankruptcy. The Managing Director took his top team away for a four-day strategic planning workshop to try and find solutions to the problem.

His opening statement was: "It's not my Bank. It's our Bank, and if we gonna make it work will have to do it together!" At the end of the four days the only really important decision we made was the understanding that "It's not our Bank. It's our Bank and if we gonna make it work will have to do it together!".

The next four years in conjunction with Booz Allen I helped manage the empowerment process which involved 6500 staff in 300+ workshops. The process was designed to make sure everyone touched it.

The improvements had to be seen to be believed. In the four years the bank went from being almost bankrupt to being first to second in nearly every key measurement of success and was sold to National Australia Bank for $1.5b in 1992.

Lessons since BNZ

  1. Don't attempt it without the senior management support
  2. Put most of the effort into managers, they will be the problem. Front line are like ducks to water.
  3. Involve people in deciding what will be done, then you won't need as much effort in communicating it or implementing it.
  4. Involve people as equals otherwise they will become political and stuff it up for you.
  5. Start simple and build ownership before sophistication.
  6. Align key supporting processes including: 1. Performance management, 2. Feedback. 3. Rewards, 4. Recruitment and retention.
  7. Put most effort into unconscious aspects - heart, emotions, feelings, trust, security. The head will follow but it will not lead the way.
  8. People do not resist change, they only resist being changed.
  9. Those things that get recorded and rewarded tend to be the things that get achieved
  10. Focus on behaviour more than results
  11. The power is not in the nodes, it is in the connections. Therefore we should spend far more time focused on relationships & less time building structures.
  12. Ease off the rule books and focus on providing meaning, freeing people, establish three big values.
  13. Complex systems have evolved from the bottom up, not the top down. Change processes need to be designed in the same way.
  14. Grow by chunking. Big bang, top down change processes won't work.
  15. There are many futures. Look for what works rather than optimisation. The best option is to keep as many options open as possible. Forget elegance; if it works, it's beautiful
  16. Maximise the fringes. Healthy fringes speed adaptation, increase resilience, and are almost always the source of innovations.
  17. Honour your errors. Lesson: It's not only okay to make mistakes, it's essential!
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