From bushfires to police work: 6 lessons for driving change in tricky moments

Ever felt the rush of making a change – a real change – within a huge and complex group of people? Label it cheesy if you have to, but for me there’s nothing quite like making a change that has tangible, positive impacts on people’s lives. 

This kind of change can take a lot of different forms – an adjustment to formal policy, how you engage with people, even how you talk about change itself. In my own career, I’ve seen it play out. That’s included everything from policing to emergency services to implementing domestic violence legislation.

Most of this happened in the public sector, which necessarily comes with extra scrutiny and, in some cases, extremely high stakes. But spending lots of time in that sector, and now working at mwah., means I’ve seen both sides of how to disrupt cultures and processes.

When it comes to making change and making change stick, this is what I’ve seen – the things that work.

1. Going outside the command-and-control hierarchy

Leaders, I’ve got some bad news: there’s a good chance you’re getting an overly rosy picture of your organisation’s culture. When that happens, leaders don’t realise there’s a problem until it’s already graduated to a capital-’p’ Problem.

I’ve seen this circumvented when leaders go out of their way to have conversations with people they wouldn’t normally chat to. Learning about different lived experiences of the culture, of how the organisation works are key – often a leader sees a snapshot in time, perhaps from when they were in that role, or that level. 

This isn’t just on leaders, though. Don’t be afraid to chat with someone two levels above you, because they’re probably thinking similar things about what needs to change. Sometimes all it takes is going, “I’m not sure if you have noticed this? Or have you seen this?” and asking if their experience is the same. 

2. Landing a sponsor – and offering to do the legwork

You’ve probably heard that change is more likely if there’s a sponsor, but I don’t think it can be stressed enough. Sponsors who are bought-in and keen – the higher up in the organisation, the better, because they’re the ones who can make decision-making much smoother.

But be ready to differentiate the initial conversation from garden-variety moaning. When I was working in the UK police, one of the best pieces of advice I was given was, “Don’t come to me with all the problems unless you’re including a couple options for solutions.”

Note, you don’t have to have all the answers to do this! These leaders are usually busy, so even a simple email that flags a problem can put something on their radar. You can then offer some potential solutions and ask if they’re comfortable for you to explore them. 

3. Challenging the status quo through empathy and curiosity

Challenging things in a way that isn’t confrontational is really, really key. And that’s particularly true when you’re talking about culture, because everyone owns culture. 

Each culture comes with its own traditions – little things, big things, but things that may have high value to the people who hold them close. So it’s important to identify those traditions and determine what you’ll want to keep, because those need to be respected through times of change. Sometimes even the smallest things have the highest value to employees, so how can you use those to support disruption or change, rather than undermine it? 

Picking out the human attachment from the actual practicalities requires a bit of delicacy, a bit of humility. It means asking questions without judgement and being truly curious about why things are done the way they’re done, especially if you’re a new person coming in to review something or make a change.

4. Mixing qualitative and quantitative investigations

Needing to make a change and measuring the effects of that change are two really different stages in this process. But they have one thing in common: only gathering one type of information is a big limitation. 

This is because change depends on 1) a deep, nuanced understanding of the problem, and 2) evidence to help you find a solution and get others on board. Data is a huge part of this – really look at the data that sits behind some things. 

Data and targets need to blend with qualitative info-gathering, though. KPIs are great, but there’s a difference in saying “Women now make up 50% of our workforce” and “All of the women in our workforce feel safe.” You can measure your widgets or output but, when it comes to measuring culture, there’s pieces around inclusion, safety and respect that can’t always be affixed to a strict KPI.

5. Presenting a united front

This one is pretty simple: if someone is bad-mouthing an agreed solution, it risks unhinging the process from the start. 

In one role, another project manager and I had very different views about which option to take. But there was an important understanding, which is that we can talk about everything, debate as much as we want, but we all sell the same decision. Lasting change is much more likely when everyone agrees on how to talk about it – even if they don’t agree with a certain avenue. 

It’s a tricky one, but it’s less tricky if this expectation is clarified from the start. 

6. Understanding change as a journey, not a destination

Culture change tends to be hardest in the first few years. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul – there is no magic overnight success. 

The slightly better news is that change is more of a continuous process anyway. And you can manage expectations – both others’ and your own – if you’re upfront about this process and the real value of the journey. 

Let’s take training around, say, diversity and inclusion. It’s not necessarily that someone automatically comes out of training a more inclusive person. Rather, are they more confident to talk about the topic? To speak up? To go away and work with their team on these issues? It’s about building up that confidence and capability rather than just ticking a box. 

When I’ve seen lasting change happen, it is repeated, constant, consistent messaging. It’s consistently setting expectations and leading by example. It’s not a flip of a switch, it’s an ongoing journey. 

Don’t just take my word for it

If you’re looking to change something about your culture or the way you work, give some of these a try. And don’t forget to keep human beings at the centre, always.