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Change management – probably not as good as a rest

Illustration: A group of people at a crossroads

Had enough of change and that arcane practice, change management? So has Chris Shepley

When I was at PINS, I used to be sent on a variety of management courses, organised usually in a smartish London hotel by whatever CLG was then called.

The dominant theme was ‘change management’, and the basic conceit seemed to be that it was necessary to change everything, preferably by employing very expensive people to do so. This applied equally to good or bad organisations, effective or ineffective, big, small, indifferent, public, private, fascist, socialist, or just being.

I recall in particular a talk given some time in the late 1990s. She exuded a heady mix of competence, efficiency, and expensive perfume. It was obvious that she found me very attractive, but I was used to that, and immune to her charms. That I recall so clearly the words she spoke is not because of her glitz but because of her management-consultancy-self-satirical intensity. “You must stand in the future and beckon your staff to join you.” (Really.)

I replied that in my particular case, the introduction of a basket of appropriately recalibrated systems to enhance holistic governance going forward meant that delivery of the coalface functions had now been robustly downsized to reflect resource prioritisation, and had transformatively systematised the disaggregated paradigm shift by fastidiously pulling cross-cutting improvement levers.

“Since the election all the talk has been of the need for certainty"

I think she may have misinterpreted this. Opinions differ as to the reason she chased me from the building. I think she pursued me with amorous intent. Others think she wanted to offer me a job with the firm; a majority think I was living in a fantasy world. I made it home unharmed.

But let’s think a bit about ‘change management’. Is it the case that constant change – breaking things and putting them back together, the need for incessant reassessment and reconstruction is an effective management tool? 

Here’s a comparison, I’m no expert on education (any more than most education ministers), but what I observe is that for about 30 years education has been subject to a torrent of change. New fads and foibles, new structures and systems, have tumbled over one another. Tests and targets, scrutiny and penalty have left teachers at the ends of their tethers, and pupils suffering from stress. Has there followed some great upsurge in achievement? Not so far as the evidence suggests, and we languish further down the international league tables than is comfortable. Ministers react by calling for still more change.

Similar trends have failed to create a health service in which we all have confidence, and in the business world our efforts are hardly stellar compared with other nations.

I’ve written before about the constant changes in planning. Up to about 2004 things were pretty consistent, but (particularly since 2010) we have found a level of confusion prevailing on all sides. Few ministers have displayed any restraint. 
Now, let me make it clear that I am not entirely opposed to change. There are some things I change every day, without fail. When I was at PINS there was plenty of change; inspectors at the time will recall that they didn’t always appreciate it, though I’m sure they accept now that I was right. We achieved this without a ‘Change Manager’, despite entreaties from various consultants to employ such a body. He or she would merely have been a focus for disputation. 

It is perhaps odd, in this context of constant turbulence that nice Mrs May seems to believe in stability – or so she said ad nauseam during her strong and stable campaign. Since then all the talk has been of the need for certainty. This column, with most of the planning and development industry, has been pleading for stability and certainty for a long time – beckoning the government to join us.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland