Change: harnessing the slinky?


By Tom Irvine

Change and getting the best from your slinky. Anthony Forster – the VC of the University of Essex, TMPer and LF Board member – presented to a group of HR directors, OD directors and staff development managers at a recent LF event that was discussing the skills of ‘change capability’. I thought that blogging a little of the session would be an opportunity to share some of the insights from the day.

The event was part of the LF’s consultation process on how we are developing a range of services to support the change agenda. Mark Pegg and I have been out and about meeting with vice-chancellors, registrars, DVCs, PVCs, as well as senior colleagues from the HR, OD and staff development community. What came though really clearly to me from these consultations was the need for the LF to be offering support to senior leaders and their teams in the area of ‘change’.

Anthony’s presentation was a frank and powerful personal story about how he has led change at Essex, where he is coming to the end of his first year as VC. One of the most enlightening comparisons he drew out for his audience was the way that a change project was like a slinky – one of those loose springs that cascades its way down a flight of stairs. Anthony talked about the ‘potential energy’ stored in the slinky and how this was like a major change project – with all of the energy just waiting to be tapped into. Then he described how the slinky set off on its journey – with the project being led by the top of the slinky and with the coils following. He mused about the direction in which it set off – and whether or not this was the right way forward – but that the energy unleashed ensured that it would continue in its direction of travel.

Anthony talked about the power of evidence in leading a change project – the need to ensure that the slinky didn’t just head off in some random and unstoppable way – but that it harnessed the evidence of the need for change as a way of unleashing the energy at his university to achieve great things for the student.

We’ve been talking at the LF about how we can respond to the feedback we’ve had from our consultations – ways in which we can support senior leaders as they lead change in their institutions. What came through really clearly to me was the comment from senior leaders about the support that is required to major change initiatives. I caught up with a really interesting blog from the Harvard Business Review called “Change Management Needs to Change” by Ron Ashkenas. One of the things that jumped off the page for me was the following comment:

“The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped. In fact, instead of strengthening managers’ ability to manage change, we’ve instead allowed managers to outsource change management to HR specialists and consultants instead of taking accountability themselves — an approach that often doesn’t work.”

Our response to this challenge will be to offer support to senior leaders to help them develop these skills – so that they can become more self-sufficient and skilled at leading change. We’re calling these people ‘change advisers’ – people who can advise and support senior leaders – but not to carry out the change for them. Our change advisers will focus on helping the leader develop the skills of change management and to support their learning and its application to real life change projects.

Do get in touch if you would like to talk about our new strand of support to change management – I’m more than happy to meet up with you to talk issues through. Make change by harnessing your slinky!

Tom Irvine is director of Consultancy at the Leadership Foundation