Blog Article

Charles Dickens: change management guru?

Posted by Stephen Welch

Stephen Welch

I gave a speech recently to a group of financial directors at the UK Government Department of Business Innovation and Skills, and the brief around change management got me thinking about Charles Dickens. Let me explain why.

Did you know Charles Dickens, 19th century author, is actually a 21st century guru of change management? Well it turns out that his books – and at least their titles – can teach us a lot about how to manage change.

His book titles are useful reminders for us as key themes. Let’s start with:

“Hard Times”

This is easy, and perfectly describes the economy and government cutbacks. I’ve chosen this book because it’s got an easy-to-remember, catchy and relevant title.  But I could equally have pulled out a quote from David Copperfield instead.  In fact there’s a great quote from Micawber, playing, I guess, the role of a financial director:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Misery? To be clear Dickens is talking about misery being caused by an annual deficit of… sixpence, or, if we decimalise, 2.5p. So if an annual deficit of 2.5p ($0.04; €0.03) is enough to cause misery, it is no surprise that an annual government deficit of billions is going to have an impact, on government programmes, on government suppliers, and on the economy as a whole.

Because in all the changes in the private and public sector, it is no surprise that people can feel a sense of loss. A sense of loss for the old ways. And it is this sense of loss that leaders need to repair if people are to deliver in a different way.

And this is where the nature of leadership is changing, to help their teams navigate both change and hard times. But, during these hard times, we are also experiencing another theme:

“Great Expectations”

Expectations of customers are up, as are those of stakeholders and employees.  Meanwhile, the resources to deliver those expectations? Down.

The result of all this is that we are seeing a new approach to leadership; and we are seeing it not only in government but also in the private sector.  Plus we at Hay Group have done some research into the future of leadership and what it means to successfully work in a partnership, federation, matrix or business ecosystem, where multiple agencies or organisations have to come together to serve the customer in an integrated way.

This new approach has three key themes:

  1. Collaboration. Partnership. How to be effective and enabled in a federated model. This is sometimes known as Beauty and the beast; and you can read about it in more detail here . How do two organisations, initially suspicious of each other, overcome their initial views and work together to make a cohesive partnership? There are many ways of doing this but two key words are determined and inclusive: determination to be successful and constantly involving others and communicating to get others onside.
  2. Leading change. How do you lead change to manage great expectations during hard times? In our experience there are three things for leaders to focus on. First: clarity. Being really clear and communicative, and consistent about change. Not giving mixed messages. Second: know-how. Having the skills and the ‘toolkit’ to effect successful change.  It is a shame that so many leaders fail at change when the skills are easily taught: Hay Group is not the only company that develops change management toolkits for its clients. Third: managing emotions. This is about acknowledging people and emotions and knowing that they will go through a series of emotions (often involving a sense of loss), and therefore it is important to consider people and culture as much as process and costs. But it is also about using the power of emotions to help make connections.
  3.  Deliver customer value. Because of partnership working, matrix organisations or business ecosystems, it is harder for leaders to define both who is their customer and what is the value delivered. This takes time and effort. Time and effort to identify and navigate to the value, and time and effort to align various people around the shared purpose of that value creation. So we have navigation and shared purpose.

To help us navigate these themes, let’s remind ourselves of a third book by Dickens:

“Our Mutual Friend”

If you’re not aware of the plot, there is a great deal in it about people creating the conditions for others to be successful… which sums up modern leadership .

But Dickens can also be our mutual friend by providing us a reminder of the seven things leaders need to do to manage change in Hard Times; those mentioned in bold above. As a reminder they are:

  • determination
  • inclusive
  • clarity
  • know-how
  • emotions
  • navigation
  • shared purpose.

By Stephen Welch, director.


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  1. Andrew Speer

    Andrew Speer

    May 23, 2013 at 10:55 am

    I really think Stephen is right on point with this article – keep up the good work.

  2. Stephen Welch

    Stephen Welch

    July 23, 2013 at 11:47 am

    @Andrew – thanks for the positive feedback. See you next time I am in Dubai. Stephen

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