The directive approach to change

“the other sort of change programme”


Traditional change programs are consultative

Traditionally we have a “communication and engagement” element to every change programme. The vocabulary we use is that of involvement and consultation.  This is the “consultative” approach to change. It is usually considered essential, effective and morally right. After all, it is respectful to involve the people who are affected by the change, and they are very likely to know how to do it right.

The elements of a consultative approach to change are:

– propose and communicate
– involve and engage
– take action
– get feedback
– repeat

The assumption is that when people are actively engaged in the change process, the right solution will emerge, and people will do the right thing. So if we aspire to get people to recycle the drinks cans, we advertise, inform, provide facilities, encourage, explain and reward. People listen, contribute and understand. They give feedback, ask questions, and provide suggestions about where to put the boxes.  This method is applied on a large scale in some change projects: much effort is put into communicating with people and engaging them in the process. This is the consultative approach to change, and it works well.

In tough times, in some circumstances, a directive approach is better

I came across an alternative in a recent client. Times are tough. In any case, the consultative approach does not suit all company cultures. Nor is it the right approach for certain sorts of change. So in an autocratic, hierarchical culture, for an urgent change, driven by experts, the other sort of change programme is needed. This has three elements:

– Decide
– Instruct
– Enforce

The leaders decide. They instruct everyone else. The instructions are backed up by enforcement. In the case I saw, the enforcement was ably provided by Business Assurance, backed up by a senior executive.

This approach has its problems. But so does every other approach. It’s a question of choosing which set of problems you want. A particular problem with this approach is that you have to take a decision. Not all companies have the ability to get clear decisions. It is also difficult to get decisions translated into instructions which can be communicated.

There is an even tougher approach

To avoid the latter problem,  there’s an even tougher methodology. This has just the two elements:

– Decide
– Enforce

Although that seems unnecessarily brutal, it is the way many changes happen in everyday life. Smoking on the London Underground was stopped from one day to the next. There was a decision. There was enforcement. The change happened. A few people were caught, the fines were large enough to cause stories to circulate. People conformed. And equally, I’m sure there was consultation at some level: of underground staff, for example. But most of us, the travelling public, were not consulted atall.

Done well, this is effective in business too. Like stopping smoking on the Underground, its effectiveness depends on fair, visible, and widespread enforcement.

Here’s how it works. To change how we do planning, Business Assurance are going to review all plans against the new process, across each department, one by one, in the coming months, starting in October. In three months, they will have checked everyone’s plans. Not everyone will conform to the new standard. In fact, most people won’t. For this first quarter, sub-standard plans will get a “let”. Enforcement will start in January. So if your plan fails in the review in November, you are highly motivated to get on the training course, make sure you understand the new template, and get your planning process re-organised in time for the next round of Business Assurance assessments. You will be on the new system, for certain, in Quarter One.

This method isn’t for every change and it isn’t for every company. The guys in Business Assurance have to be clear, strong, and ready to be disliked. There will be a lot of complaints. There will be a deluge of requests for training. We have to be decisive enough to apply discipline in quarter two, and make sure real enforcement occurs and stories circulate.

However for certain circumstances “the directive approach to change” is worth considering. Times are tough, and people know it.

Is it worth considering for your change program?

Is this too brutal – or does it represent reality as you know it?

Picture shows the Arms-bearer of Tiglath-pileser III, Assyrian, about 728 BC, From Nimrud, Central Palace. (British Museum)

Categories: Communicating Change, The process of business change

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