When Managers Fail: Getting Managers to Buy into Change

A common question that surfaces in the conversations on organisational development and technology adoption revolves around “how do we get our managers to buy into that change?” or “how do we get them to stop resisting?”.

To begin to address this, it is important to recognise that in our region, many persons see management as the endgame. That is the job position and title to which they aspire – and understandably so. Being in a position to instruct rather than take instructions while receiving a higher salary is never a bad thing. Add to that work that requires you to be out-of-office, having flexible hours and all the accompanying perks (corner office, preferred parking etc.) make it a very attractive proposition. And to many, achieving these demonstrate to us success and progress. And herein lies the problem.

Persons who have attained management positions – through whatever means – have attained a position and the accompanying benefits to which they aspired. That is, the dues have been paid, and now is the time when the striving stops, and these persons can enjoy the benefits of their previous striving. The focus of the manager generally changes from working to attain a position to that of working to maintain the position attained. This means working less, not working more. It means taking it easy, as opposed to taking on more work. Any change would have to be mandated from the top, to drive work, as opposed to voluntarily accepting more work coming up from the line. In this regard, management is seen as a position more that a profession.

Added to the dynamics of management as a position as opposed to a profession, there is the fact that many managers lack an appreciation of what technology can do and is doing to organisations’ performance, and a more fundamental lack of any understanding of technology at all. Knowing the manual systems from every angle over the years of sweat equity is comfortable, and adopting technology is disruptive – it would change the process as well as demand new learnings. Added to this the risks of potential failure – and the implications for the management tenure – means that the costs are just too high.

When the suggestion for technology uptake comes from a person lower in the hierarchy – who may understand the technical functions but not the management expectations (or worse yet may want the management position themselves), we have what can be considered the perfect storm of rejection. Cut to the typical response, “when you are in my position feel free to drive whatever changes you wish to propose. Until then, this is how its going to be.”

How then can a manager’s mindset and attitude be changed? It may seem impossible – moreso after repeated attempts. But here are some ways you can attempt to get managers to change their positions.

  1. Respect their position. As the saying goes, people at the top didn’t just fall from there. They are there for a reason. If you accept this, you would be able to appreciate there is some competence, reputation or capability that warrants that person in the position they are in.
  2. Know what the change is really about. Too often advocacy for change is directed towards worker convenience more than it is about performance or productivity. The closer the change can be located to underlying organisation’s performance or competitiveness, the easier the sell is to any manager. Typically, linkage to the strategic plan or other stated intent (such as, for example, shareholder value, brand perception and brand value, operational efficiency or increased responsiveness to customer responsiveness).
  3. Confidence of the manager has to be earned. If the manager thinks that everyone is out to get them, or is trying to cut them down or get their position, then there would understandably be trust issues involved. The same applies if the manager is insecure in his/her knowledge about technology. In either event, the manager would certainly listen to someone who s/he trusts to seek his/her best interest. If you are the one advocating change, then have you earned that trust or can you do so? If yes, then great. If not, find someone who can. Some persons resort to external help – consultants or other advocates, in order to do so. How it is done is not important, once the trust is established.
  4. Demonstrate value. As the saying goes, “tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember…” For a manager to accept that what you are proposing is going to be of benefit, its extremely useful to let the manager see what it is and how it works. A working demonstration or a case study can help to show explicitly what is involved and how value is derived from the change being proposed, and more importantly how to sell it upwards.
  5. Driven from multiple directions. In many instances, there are persons higher up the hierarchy who understand the need for change and are willing to support it. If there is such a person senior to the manager, then they can support by driving change down to the manager, and help ensure the manager engages the change initiative and gets with the program.
  6. Credit. This is generally the most contentious point. Unpopular opinion: ‘You can be more assured of seeing change happen if you give your manager the credit.’ Why? They would look good, and have others think it was their idea. And some may believe it. But the truth is, his/her superiors know where its at, and what managers are capable of. If ‘their’ idea is good and not characteristic of their contributions, then it must have been fed from someone, somewhere. And a simple request for more detail would tell if its fed internally or from the outside. So, you not only demonstrate you are capable of the ideas, but that you are also focused on the development of the organisation, not personal gain or glory. I personally have experienced situations – repeatedly – where I made my managers look good, virtually cannibalising my ideas, and it wasn’t long before they were working for me. In fact, one called me after I had moved on, and was seeking my assistance in their employment. What?! After I picked up my jaw off the floor, I kindly talking them into the focus they needed.
  7. Know what makes them tick. Some managers are all about leaving a lasting legacy as a development or change agent. Others are focused on short-term gain, and yet others on enjoying the trappings of position. This typically cross-threads with persons committed to a profession, and such (silly) things as standards and reputation. But beyond the conflict, knowing what makes your manager tick can be used to your advantage. How does your proposed change align with whatever makes the manager tick? Can you present the idea in a way that aligns with their priorities? If so, then you may well find they become your biggest champion and run with the idea – in some cases mobilising resources you never envisioned. This draws upon more leadership and communication skills, but totally worth it.

These are ways you can help to sell change upwards and get your managers to buy into the vision of what you see for the organisation. The point is there are multiple angles and approaches you can explore. And they work… most of the time. Sometimes the obstacle is too great, the idea too transient, the manager too dead-set on work avoidance, or themselves lacking confidence on the persons they report to. In such cases, you may have to work through a different organisation, or work a different idea. But it should be after you are thoroughly satisfied that you have tried all angles available.

In parting, here’s an interesting thought to consider. While many persons see management as the endgame – the position to which they aspire – those who see the management as a profession, and therefore a different game, requiring different skills – end up the most celebrated of management icons. Lou Gerstner, Jack Welsh, Ram Charran, Larry Bossidy, Henry Ford and so on… when they assumed management roles was typically when they faced the most challenging role of their careers. That was when the work started, not ended. Until you share a similar crossroads, everything you experience and experiment with are tools for the journey to a more demanding, and rewarding, future. Happy changing!

Faheem Mohammed is the Managing Director of and leads the management and leadership portfolios. He can be contacted at


4IR, Augmented Workforce and the Individual

Over the past few weeks I have had a lot of students demonstrate excellent synthesis of current and emerging technologies, and its contextualization in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) label that describes our transitional environment. While I am really happy for this, hands down the greatest concern seems to be that of job loss and structural unemployment that can result from automation and AI-driven processes. This concern is not just relatable, but has been around for some time (an extension of the English Luddites of the early 19th century comes to mind).

Whilst we know the nature of the organisation and the nature of work itself is being transformed daily by the diffusion of technologies that are cascading into our operating environment (in particular robotics, cognitive augmentation and deep learning), there is the lingering sentiment that investment in technology is a zero-sum option – it will come at the expense of people. And this has been demonstrated in some facets of the workplace and wider society – many manual and administrative positions have been automated and staff made redundant in the recent local past; the PC era of the 80’s triggered the resulting flattening and widening of organsational structures (at the expense of middle management), even the Turing tests and our very ability to discern human from machine responses.

I think it is important to note as well the rise of knowledge workers and the subsequent emphasis on the augmented workforce are indications that the zero-sum option is not the only one, or even if it is in some sectors, it is still some ways away. Or at least, there is a humanistic approach to ensuring the integration of more technology into people-intensive workflows. Today there are a lot of conversations around rethinking talent and the human aspects of work that will remain essentially ‘human’, of companies’ abilities to reskill, retool and redeploy talent, and do this quickly. But more fundamentally, there is a need for us to consider, at the firm and at the individual level, the role of technology to us, and our strategies for engaging same.

At the firm level, the consideration is not just on the implications on staffing, but also on competitiveness and the ability to respond to changing market dynamics. For this all stakeholders need to be on board – driven by relationships based on mutual respect and trust – a core role of leadership, essentially. At the individual level, I have seen some students express fear of technology and its impact on their career moving forward. The other side of the coin is of course there is a bright future for not only those who are digitally empowered to contribute to organizational efforts, but moreso those who would create that jobs that technology would be doing. It takes some reorientation, but it comes back to a fundamental question – do you think it’s worth the effort?


The Future of Management in a Tech-Intensive World

Going by definitions, which are necessary but really aren’t that popular, we know management to be a job function or task set that is responsible for planning, coordinating, enabling and control of activities within the organisation. Mintzberg saw it as a cluster or roles that have to be assumed. All allude to a science of effort – at least in theory. Management has not yet been recognised as a profession in many of our jursidictions.

From a practical viewpoint, it is even less structured, since we see management as a position within organsiations, not a profession or specific skill set – with good reason; being a position, anyone sitting in that coveted spot (the corner office?) is a manager, regardless of whether that individual has any of the required abilities to [plan, coordinate, enable and control] or not. In fact, I have seen in some instances the only real skill being brought to the management position is complete compliance with those higher up the ladder. No room for planning etc. here – you have one job, and that is to tow the line.

Notwithstanding, the role or task-set spans the the entire gamut of planning through control, and manifests within organisation indifferent layers across the various functional and location divisions – straddling in each the layers of supervisory, management and executive positions. These we have heard in the context of operational, tactical and strategic level issues, in ascending degrees of importance respectively (if we go by the accompanying remuneration as a guide).

In terms of management roles today into tomorrow, we are seeing more and more the diffusion of intelligence technologies playing a supporting and in a growing number of instances an ‘advisory’ role to managers’ job functions and task-requirements. Our enterprise-wide applications are able to share information in a process that renders time and location irrelevant. The emergence of drone and robotic automation processes within operational functions is encroaching on large segments of supervisory roles. Programmed flags or notifications against established performance standards are rendering reporting and human intervention in the process of supervision comparatively expensive, inefficient and to a large extent unnecessary. It is driving firms to be flatter and leaner in their operating structures today. And that was only the beginning.

Looking ahead, the advent of Big Data, Analytics, Business Intelligence or any other term used to refer to data-intensive artificial intelligence, is poised to only amplify this trend, and distill the diffusion of technology further upwards through the layers of management-oriented positions. That software can on one part compile, collate and articulate data from various divisions in incomparable time is profound, and on the other part personalise and customise communication to various individuals – again in real time – on demand, is equally important to note. The supporting infrastructural developments – cloud and mobile computing in particular – are poised to deliver this intelligence to central decision makers as required. In fact, automated reporting posits a degree of consistency that is rarely emulated by human beings.

The computer-based learning systems – typically algorithms today – are moving into the space of assessing data, making decisions, executing automated functions based on the decisions, providing further detail and information access to persons using the system, and recording (and reporting) on performance and exceptions.
So how can this work in the management arena? In a pool of 5000 job applicants, a software can filter academic qualifications and performance, past experience, social media activities and other data streams to short-list candidates. It can provide online, remote simulations to prospective candidates and rank them accordingly. It can drive the orientation and training components to which candidates are exposed. With a pool of historical data on performance of different persons on a variety of tasks, an algorithm can select the best persons for the performance of a particular job based on their past experiences and performance on related tasks. Work schedules, performance registers and quota management are all automated computerised systems with which the candidate can interact and report. Meetings are already virtual, and the supporting documentation and ‘tangibles’ are accessible synchronously or asynchronously by anyone with approved access (Access is automatically assigned by employee rank and job description).

Financial, information access and even facility resources can be allocated (or booked) automatically on job assignment per candidate. Their performances are tracked by a system against milestones and comparative benchmarks. Bonuses, penalties and issuing of payments can be automatically configured and channel resources to the supporting structures (perhaps an employee’s bank account or company-issued credit card). At any (every?) point throughout execution the response expectations and projections based on the established plans and objectives (and environmental conditions) can be evaluated and adjusted – with the resulting changes communicated to the affected staff on their mobile devices.

All this to say that there are many management-centric functions which are being supported (or driven) by technology today. Which would be good news for larger organisations seeking to become more agile and responsive to market dynamics. It is also expected to be welcomed by entrepreneur-led and small and growing enterprises, if Greiner’s challenges throughout his Life Cycle Model is anything to go by. Firms facing severe shortage of skilled labour, or economies with an ageing workforce would also stand to benefit from this trend.
However, the shift is expected to be gradual from all indications. And it is currently difficult to see it as a replacement entirely – what with issues of diversity, capta, intuition and creativity still being core human tasks within management (or any) job functions. Yet from considering the tasks associated with management functions and the deployment of technology, the relationship seems set to become only more intertwined.

I wonder if IBM’s Watson would agree?



Tech Leaders and Business Strategy – An Ambiguous Relationship

Within this past decade the spotlight has shone brightly on technology and its contributions to industry and society – revealing both positive and negative propensities in its development and deployment. Greater surgical precision a la robotics is countered by cyber-espionage and privacy apertures at international levels. Alongside these is the consumerization of technology – exacerbated by the Internet of Everything, as it were. The economy was not exempt, as the expectations arising from focused investment in national infrastructure and human capital is tempered by ‘the rise of the machine age’ – at the leading edge being lights out manufacturing and the accompanying jobless growth.

In this context it comes as no surprise that Steve Case, co-founder of AOL cum entrepreneur at the 2015 SXSW alluded to the third Internet age – which he predicts would serve to ‘accelerate disruption across all industries’ – driven in part by (r)evolution in capital and social landscapes – which will force companies to ‘adapt or die’. Dramatic? Maybe. Excessive? Well, in the casino of competitiveness, would you be willing to bet your firm on it?

 We cannot dispute the fact that the technology today is ‘disrupting market leadership’ as Porter said. Nor can we argue against its contributions on the emergence of new businesses and business processes, alongside expanding opportunities which we fully expect to be reflected in the top and bottom line values. As Marakas and O’Brien put it, ‘technology is no longer an afterthought in forming business strategy, but the actual cause and driver’. The expectations are that information systems and technology deployed within and throughout an organisation is expected to contribute to efficient business operations; enterprise-wide collaboration and more effective decision-making; and in tandem aid in no small way to make the firm more customer-driven, responsive, and generally deliver customer value centred on quality more than price or location.

Herein lays the pretty paradox. Firms are waking up to what is becoming more possible through technology, and are investing more in an attempt to realise these possibilities. Not so the function that is charged with harnessing this resource and unleashing it upon the competitive landscape. Remarkably under-resourced (after all, IT investments already account for a large share of the budget), the IT department has to get by as operations support – a caddy, if you will – and in many cases report to a cost-containment executive, charged with keep the lights on while the core business makes rain. It should come as no surprise then that projects are over scope, often fail to deliver, layers of applications sit idly by as real-time technology supports inefficient processes, and somehow training sessions on solution roll-out become exploratory discussions on workflows, with users – initially being propelled by waves of change – find themselves in a whirlpool of wonderment and despair.

This context is exacerbated by the imposition of more layers of isolation by the IT department – a help desk, a ticketing system and remote administration all serve to spur on the queries as to whether humans work in the department at all. We hear of arguments that IT does not understand the business, and counter arguments that it’s the line that has to drive change, all of which makes for entertaining meetings and underwhelming results.

To overcome this hurdle, as George Colony (CEO of Forrester Research) put it, ‘the CIO has to be a great teacher’. This extends to not only signalling to the line the current and emerging possibilities, but also digest the business strategy and craft a response that fully leverages available or applicable technology. To be clear, this goes beyond keeping the lights on. As Steve Olive (CIO of Raytheon Defence) says, ‘consistently reliable and excellent IT service should be a given. What businesses need and IT should be providing are innovative solutions to business challenges.’

What this requires is firstly effective management capability by our IT leadership. The ability to assess, plan and execute in line with business goals and objectives would serve to eliminate the cost-containment filter that tempers possible IT development. It requires a core management focus that is applied to technology as a resource. But this is not an easy feat, moving from graduates who are essentially information engineers, more adept with the mechanics of information management and technology engagement than its business applications. Consider the view that undergraduates from Computer Science departments, or practitioners with professional certifications harbour a thorough understanding of the operational continuity of the function predominantly – those who were able to make that transition demonstrate a much more broad-based exposure than core IT operations.

The second tier of development is the evolution of core IT management to the strategic level, wherein it not only maps the resource to business strategy as a whole and at the various functional executing agents, but is able to craft offensive and defensive business strategy that directly engages competitive rivalry and levers of competitiveness to propel the organisation forward. Armed with new products, aimed at new markets, and bound by data-driven decisions and a learning organisation, this level of contribution realises value-driven results within, throughout and beyond the boundaries of the firm and extending to suppliers, customers and partners. The net effect is an organisation fully-equipped today to redefine market leadership tomorrow, driven by IT Leadership 2.0.

Steve Case (SXSW 2015) predicts the Internet’s third age wherein entire sectors would undergo radical innovation due to technology diffusion and disruption. We agree. We are already working to create it.

March 2015