The Politics of Change from transformation to revolution by John Pateman

The Politics of Change: from transformation to revolution


By John Pateman

The ability to manage change is a core competence in many public sector job descriptions these days, certainly at middle and senior manager levels. A whole industry has developed around Change Management and top consultants and gurus can command huge sums to attend their seminars and courses. There is also a vast array of change management text books ranging from the heavily academic to the more popular ‘do it yourself’ variety. Any student of change management will tell you that there are fads and new waves of ideas which come and go with confusing rapidity. One moment we are told that ‘small is beautiful’ and the next minute we are advised that ‘bigger is better’. Anyone who follows any of these gurus does so at the peril of having to completely reverse their strategy when the next big idea comes along. Change management can be a risky and fickle business.

My approach to change management is not based on business gurus, although I do have an MBA and I have read an awful lot of relevant textbooks. While I have some time for people like Charles Handy Peter Senge (who I particularly like), I look to the worlds of history and politics to find my true change champions. My role models are those people who have not merely re-engineered a business or restructured a company, but who have changed whole countries and the course of world history. An analysis of the strategies, structures, systems and cultures employed by these transformational leaders can give us tools and techniques for making changes within our library services. These are people who not only achieved that very difficult task of starting a Revolution, but also managed to maintain the momentum of that Revolution and sustain it over a long period of time. They are the experts in initiating, embedding and sustaining change and continuous improvement. This then, is your guide to organisational change, according to Chairman Mao..

Chairman Mao led the great Chinese Revolution of 1949. Before this date China was a vast, poor, divided country run by war lords and bandits. In less than a generation Mao transformed this backward feudal country of millions into a world super power. Today the Chinese economy is the envy of the world. Economic growth is running at record levels and China has overtaken the UK as the world’s fourth largest economy. The benefits of this extraordinary economic growth have gone to the people, whose living standards have increased exponentially in relative terms. State management of the commanding heights of the economy has ensured that China’s wealth remains the property of the Chinese people. How was this transformation achieved and what can we learn from it in terms of changing our library services? The starting point of the Chinese Revolution was that everything had to change – there was no point in just changing one part of society and not changing the rest. The same applies to public libraries who must take a holistic approach to change by adopting new strategies, structures, systems and cultures if they are to be transformed, modernised and able to meet the diverse needs of their communities.

Let a hundred flowers bloom

Before the Revolution China did not have a national strategy for development and growth. Each region of China did its own thing in its own way and the whole country did not pull together to achieve common objectives. The same can be said of some library services. Mao’s solution to this was to launch a campaign in 1956 under the slogan ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend’. In other words, Mao invited the Chinese people to discuss and put forward ideas for the national development of China. This was a massive brainstorming exercise where any ideas could be suggested, no matter how big, how small or how implausible. All ideas were valid and accepted. This not only created a national debate but opened the flood gates for ordinary Chinese people to have their say – something which they had been denied for literally thousands of years. The Hundred Flowers Movement was designed to mobilise the people for a program of rapid industrialisation. This would require the co-operation and contribution of the entire population – academics, managerial and technical experts, peasants and farmers.

Developing a new strategy for public library services requires a similar approach – a mechanism which allows all sections of the workforce to debate the future direction and priorities of the service. In Lincolnshire we achieved this by setting up Strategy Development Groups (SDGs). There were three of these, one each for the strategic objectives of Inclusion, Learning and Regeneration. These objectives were based on the Framework for the Future key themes of Books and Learning, E-Government and Community Cohesion. Staff were asked to volunteer to join a SDG and contribute to the debate of what Inclusion, Learning and Regeneration actually mean for Lincolnshire Libraries and the communities which they serve. Other Council services and partners were asked to join in this debate. The outcome was an integrated strategy for the development of Lincolnshire Libraries. This was used to inform the next stages of the transformation process: structures, systems and culture.

The process of letting one hundred flowers bloom had the effect of ‘unfreezing’ Chinese society which had been frozen in the grip of feudalism for so long. At the end of the debate it was necessary to ‘refreeze’ society around the new set of common objectives which had emerged from the discussion process. These objectives were summarised in Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ – this was his strategy for the development of socialism in China. Every member of Chinese society had a copy of this ‘Little Red Book’ and studied it to understand it. It produced a common language and platform which enabled everyone in China to communicate with each other on the new agreed goals. I have found the ‘Little Red Book’ more enlightening, inspiring and educative than any management text book. Chairman Mao reminds us, for example, that once we have decided our strategy and policies, we must be focused on delivering our objectives, and not be sidetracked or distracted:

‘Our Party has laid down the general line and general policy of the Chinese revolution as well as various specific lines for work and more specific policies. However, while many comrades remember our Party’s specific lines for work and specific policies, they often forget its general line and general policy. If we actually forget the Party’s general line and general policy, then we shall be blind, half baked, muddle headed revolutionaries, and when we carry out a specific line for work and a specific policy, we shall lose our bearings and vacillate now to the left and now to the right, and the work will suffer.’

The Great Leap Forward

Having agreed a strategy, Mao’s next task was to restructure Chinese society to enable that strategy to be delivered. Mao’s vehicle for achieving this was The Great Leap Forward of 1958. Mao recognised that the way that society and the economy were structured would not enable sudden and sustained economic growth. Great Leap policies affected every aspect of economic life. The overriding objective was to substitute China’s plentiful labour for scarce capital in an all out assault on the backward economy. All peasants were reorganised into huge People’s Communes, super co-operatives each with many thousands of members. The communes practised extremely egalitarian policies and the massive labour forces were directed to carry out huge projects. Local self sufficiency was promoted and many new rural industries were set up. The Great Leap was also associated with a bias against experts or specialists. To be ‘red’ was better than to be ‘expert’. The effects of the Great Leap were closely monitored and fed back into the process to inform further changes.

The parallels here for library services are that, having developed new strategies, we need to create new staffing and service structures to deliver those strategies. This requires wholesale change and not just tinkering with structures and job descriptions. The workforce needs to be transformed so that it can focus on the new priorities of Inclusion, Learning and Regeneration. In Lincolnshire we developed a new staffing structure which flowed naturally from our new strategy. We fine tuned the structure and tested it at a series of staff road shows. The feedback from these road shows was used to further improve the structure. The outcome was a staffing structure which was fit for purpose with new job titles, person specifications and competencies. A greater emphasis was put on outreach work. There were less ‘specialist’ or ‘expert’ posts and more generic posts. The previous hierarchy was replaced by a flatter structure with fewer levels of management and more power devolved to the front line. Silo based working was replaced by matrix management, enabling staff across the service to be pulled together into working groups and teams. Performance measures and success criteria were developed to measure progress.

The Chinese Revolution was not a smooth process and was interrupted by Bigger Picture developments, particularly the geo politics relating to China’s relations with the United States and the Soviet Union. Similarly, the process of staff restructuring in Lincolnshire has been stalled while the Big Picture with regard to an organisational review of the County Council is carried out. This has given us time to look at the changes which we need to make to our service structure (for example, opening hours) and to our systems and procedures (such as proof of address and self issue). We are also continuing our process of workforce development, to prepare staff for change, and benchmarking of performance with other library services. These are all necessary steps as part of the revolutionary or transformation process. And they all contribute to the biggest challenge of all – culture change.

The Cultural Revolution

Chairman Mao recognised that a new strategy, structures and systems were necessary if China was to be transformed from a backward feudal society into a modern competitive economy. He also recognised that without fundamental cultural change, nothing would truly change in China. His mechanism for achieving this change was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which started in 1965. Mao was concerned that efforts had been made to reverse the agreed policies of the Revolution. He was aware of resistance to change from middle and senior managers. There was a retreat from collectivisation in agriculture and the reintroduction of material incentives. Education and medicine were increasingly elitist in their development. Literature and the arts were controlled by intellectuals. All these issues would be struggled over in the Cultural Revolution. The longest and fiercest of the great movements that Mao had set in motion since the founding of the People’s Republic, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to change hearts and minds, attitudes and behaviour, beliefs and values, or what Mao called the ‘four olds’ – old thought, old culture, old customs and old habits.

Culture change is also the biggest challenge facing attempts to transform public libraries. New strategies can be developed in weeks, and new structures in months – but developing new cultures can take years. Cultures of comfort build up in most organisations and it can take some time and effort to change these. The approach we are using in Lincolnshire involves a combination of workforce development, service planning and performance management. The very act of involving staff in the development of new strategies and structures helps to change the culture. Staff are engaged in the change process and feel that their views are important and will have a say in the future shape and direction of the service. To reinforce this approach we have invested heavily in workforce development and change management training, including a highly successful course, ‘Step into your power’, run by Harriet Karsh. Service planning has been realigned to meet the new service objectives and performance management is used to demonstrate the contributions that individuals and teams can make to service and corporate objectives. We have been assisted in this by the development of new corporate objectives (LEADS) and values (PERFORMS). We are also keen to align our efforts with Local Area Agreement shared priorities and Every Child Matters outcomes.

Resistance to change is inevitable and should be managed. Change Champions (similar to China’s Red Guards) can lead the way in challenging old thought, old culture, old customs and old habits. As most cultures are based on language, a new common language is required as well. There should be less talk of Lending, Reference and Children’s libraries and more talk of Inclusion, Learning and Regeneration activities, for example. Cultural change takes time and you need to stay with it for the long haul, as Chairman Mao did. There are no short cuts to cultural change. If change is not embedded things will very quickly go back to how they were. The culture of comfort will reassert itself. For change to be sustained it needs leaders and managers who are both persistent and consistent. There are basically two types of change managers or transformational leaders – those, like Che Guevara, who are very good at starting revolutions, but who then become restless and go on to start new revolutions elsewhere; and those, like Fidel Castro, who take on the even more challenging role of keeping a revolution going over a sustained period of time. What kind of change manager are you – a Che or a Fidel?

Chairman Mao led the Chinese Revolution from 1949 until his death in 1976. This Revolution modernised the economy and made the country a power to be reckoned with. It also brought enormous improvements to the lives of many, raising life expectancy, and standards of living, and of health and education. Similar achievements are possible if we can transform our public libraries into needs based services. As Mao said, ‘Our duty is to hold ourselves responsible to the people. Every word, every act and every policy must conform to the people’s interests, and if mistakes occur, they must be corrected – that is what being responsible to the people means.’

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