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The speed of implementing change depends on the "culture foundations" we’re building on.

Before civil engineers construct a new building, they analyse the ground they’re building it on. Sand, silt, clay, and rock all require different foundations upon which the building will stand.

It’s no different with change initiatives at work. Global post-merger integration, cross-functional collaboration, re-structuring initiatives… we have to adapt our change initiative to the organisational ground we are building it on.

So how do you become a civil engineer of change? Four fundamental points to help you decide are:

#1 What’s the nature of the change?
It helps to think of this as being on a scale of simple to complex.

A simple change is immediate and easy. Asking people to work an extra shift on Saturday to get a customer order out on time is hardly a seismic change. Nor is deciding with your partner whether to go out for dinner or to the cinema.

A complex change would be permanently changing the shift patterns (e.g. going from three 8-hour shifts to two 12-hour shifts) is a long-term, fundamental and a more pivotal change. Pivotal because of its knock-on effect for people’s family lives, childcare, social activities, etc. A lot more planning and adaptation needs to take place. It’s a bigger ask.

#2 What pressure will the change put on people? Who will feel it the most? How and when in the process will those emotions be felt?
As a general rule, the more we expand the “boundaries of our psychological self”, the harder it is to change. I’ll happily live in a new country because I made that move twice: to Spain and Germany. Living and working in a new country doesn’t stretch my boundaries much. On the other hand, ask me to sail across the Atlantic on a yacht and there’d be some nervous questions first. I’m not an experienced ocean sailor and such a change would push me to my psychological limits.

Then there’s the issues of frequency and size. If we a push people beyond their limits with a high frequency, we shouldn’t be surprised when they push back or suffer from stress, burnout and other illnesses. Put a huge change onto people (who are not used it) and the size creates a shock for them which can make them freeze or runaway from the changes we want.

#3 How strong are your organisation’s foundations?
In Germany, RWE and E.ON had been hugely successful, profitable organisations until 2011. Then when the Energiewende hit, both were forced into a root-and-branch transformation on a scale that neither company had ever experienced. When an organisation is in this situation, we strongly advise against a change strategy of only telling people what to do because – however well you communicate it – the organisational DNA largely lacks any experience of this change.

In RWE’s and E.ON’s cases, their entrepreneurial foundations were too shallow, so the change process had to be rolled out differently. In the next few years, automation in the workplace will challenge the culture strength of many companies and indeustries.

#4 What resources have you got to invest in this change?
We all have grand plans. We’re all over-optimistic. Aspiration and optimism are useful ingredients, but it's vital to add realism in with them. Realistic decisions about resource factors are essential. How many people will we put on this change? How much time have they got? To what extent have we got the personal energy for change? How much money will we invest? All of these questions (and many sub-questions) are best discussed up front.

In short, we can engineer the speed of implementation by first considering the foundations we are building on.

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