The Ratchet – An Approach to Business Change that Works when Others Won’t

by admin on January 22, 2010

The ‘Ratchet’ approach is a proven means of making progress in difficult change environments where only CARROTS are available and STICKS are unheard of!

What?  Unheard of you say!  A work environment with ALL carrot and NO stick……it can’t and won’t work, and it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist!

Well, if your sentiments are along the lines of the above we would certainly empathise with your views… many of us felt the same until we experienced it first-hand for ourselves!

In most private sector environments there is a healthy mix, some might say too healthy, of carrots and sticks.

An interesting, career-enhancing and well paid job is nicely offset by the risks of being passed over for promotions, demoted or side-lined, or even fired or made redundant for failing to perform.  Even in those countries where labour laws make firing people very difficult and/or expensive (e.g. many European Union countries) the less radical options of being passed over or side-lined is still a reasonably effective workplace sanction.

However, you will probably have tweaked to our qualification of ‘private sector’.  In many public sector environments this balance is decidedly less healthy.

In fact, in some environments, management is so politically correct, professionally inept and afraid of challenging the status quo lest they break something which (just about) works after a fashion that the stick is almost unheard except for cases of the most gross, obvious and willful types of misconduct.

After all, what practical sanctions are available to management in an environment where:

•    it is almost impossible to fire anyone;
•    pay and bonuses are negotiated on a ‘sector’ level and often awarded virtually irrespective of individual performance;
•    everyone knows they may have to work with one another for a very long time, and thus making enemies or rocking the boat is not a very attractive option.

This sort of environment tends to produce a workplace where:

•    anyone can say no……and via a sort of FUD (i.e. Fear, Uncertainly, and Doubt) ‘herd’ effect this ripples outward and causes others to also say no; and
•    no-one (i.e.  single individual) can say yes……even senior management cannot or will not make any semi-risky calls they may be accountable for later, nor do they wish to alienate staff and go against the assumed ‘wisdom of the crowd‘.

Further to the previous points one also has to consider that:

•    many or most of the management have been promoted to those positions based on time-served seniority and will have few if any professional qualifications or experience related to managerial roles;
•    many or most of management come from the same ranks as the staff, among whom they can often count many friends, family and other close associations;
•    many or most of the management normally share the same inflated sense of work / life balance entitlement as the people they are managing.

So, no prizes for guessing that any public sector management team with these characteristics will not be a seething cauldron of radical change agents!

For those of you who might be thinking that what is needed is a major clear-out.  Starting with cutting 30-50% of management.  We’d wholly agree…..but given the usual lack of political will at the elected politician level in terms of desire or ability to go against special interest lobbyists, tangle with unions, or back something that may well be a vote loser locally  (remember, some constituencies are very dependent on government employment), this would seem to be a non-starter for practical reasons.

Others of you might be saying that the solution is to bring in some private sector change agents, maybe from one of the large consultancies, and let them apply their methods to the problem.

Well, aside from the fact that most of these sorts of organisations already have their seats on the public sector gravy train… substantially staffed by former public sector types on improved salaries and whose advice is “don’t rock the boat”…..this sounds good in theory, but in practice mostly falls flat on its face.

The reasons for this failure are many but they can generally be summed up in spirit by the Oscar Wilde observation that “in a collision between a person of good reputation and an organisation of a poor one, the reputation of the organisation is normally preserved”.  More succinctly…..‘you can’t fight city hall’.

Sadly, the “don’t rock the boat” advice is generally sound (if you care about continuing to work there) in most public sector organisations apart from the very few who have, somehow, established a senior management team who truly understands the need for and fully backs necessary change.

In virtually all other public sector organisations (i.e. most of them) common private sector tactics such as parachuting the storm troopers of change (often sourced from some external, non-public sector based entity) into the target change environment is met with politeness and only the most passive resistance.

However, don’t be fooled or complacent, as over time this passive resistance is still usually deadly to the attacking assault force.  The public sector counter-attack, which owes more to guerrilla resistance than a toe-to-toe slug-fest, works something like this.

The public sector natives bend and stretch (they are good at this) to apparently meet the overt demands of the assaulting force, but actually do or change very little, if at all (they are also very good at this).

In the meantime that part of the public sector leadership (formal and informal) who did not approve of the changes proposed have begun a whispering campaign against said assault force along the time-honoured lines of ‘they don’t understand the unique needs of the public sector, it can’t work and they are sapping the morale of all our best people, endangering all their good works and may make their retention a serious problem’.

Note that these are all carefully crafted in terms of standard or stock future fears which sound plausible, and somewhere/someplace they will have proven legitimate, but can neither be proved or disproved immediately in the current instance.  However, the seeds of FUD have been sown all the same, which is the real goal of the exercise, accentuating the normal worries of the rank and file natives about what the change will mean for them.

After a time, when nothing much has changed apart from the FUD levels continuing their natural ascent unchecked, the folks who commissioned the storm troopers in the first instance begin to conclude that the ‘occupation’ may not be going so swimmingly…..and as it CANNOT (for reasons of belief as well as expediency) be their fault it must be down to the ineffectiveness of the storm trooper’s own methods and/or their parent organisation.

Shortly following the above conclusion the assault troops are speedily (and quietly) withdrawn, the attack on the sensibilities of the public agency in question recedes (the nay-sayers having apparently been proved correct) and calm returns to the land of public sector.  Importantly, nothing much has changed.  Nor is anything much likely to change in an environment where most significant natural change happens in time frames closer to geological-time than real-time!

So, the question which begs answering is whether any effective change can be accomplished in a typical public sector environment that has not either been subjected to massive external pressures (e.g. large budget cuts) or been lucky enough to have found itself run by senior management who are also clued-up change agents?

Well, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, the answer is yes…..courtesy of the ‘Ratchet’ approach.  We don’t pretend it is pretty or efficient compared to common private sector methods, but it works.  And it does have the advantage of being an approach that generates a major degree of management and staff buy-in as part of the bargain!

The downside?  Simple, it is that it takes a relatively large amount of time to get to an outcome that would have normally been achieved much more rapidly in other environments.  However, when the things that work in other environments can no longer be counted on to work, the Ratchet approach will still usually deliver.

In fact, some would argue that the Ratchet approach will work and be superior in all environments, given that it by definition places user involvement and buy-in at the top of its agenda.  Indeed, we would be among those who agree that the Ratchet approach could work in almost any environment.  But we also recognise that its superiority in terms of wide consultation with stakeholders at the cost of greater elapsed time is not a price that all are willing…..or need… pay.

By now you are probably being to get a picture of what the Ratchet approach is…..and it is not rocket science!

The bottom line in environments with ALL carrot and NO stick is that things only happen by consensus and agreement.  Therefore, to make any significant change happen, you need to understand the prevailing sensibilities of the organisation, spell out what needs to be done and why in those terms, and then ask for the help of representatives of all the effected stakeholders.

How is this different from what normally passes for stakeholder consultation in private sector environments?  Well, for a start, you actually have to do it!

Not only do you have to do it, but you have to listen, take note, recognise concerns and take on-board (i.e. really take on-board, not just pay lip service) suggestions about the proposed changes……and if you don’t like what this means for your requirements specification, timeline or budget… have to influence and negotiate.

Strong-arming, bullying, dropping the names of senior executives or running ahead and making key decisions by yourself is counter-productive and will commonly only earn you the right to be ignored…..often in the politest possible way…..but will still result in zero (or negative) progress for you all the same!

We would note that in our experience the ‘sharp’ practices listed above, although it is unpopular in some circles to admit it, are still widely used common tactics in the rough and tumble world of much of the private sector.  They are not very sophisticated or pleasant, but in some environments they work both effectively and efficiently.

And in environments where bottom-line results count more than almost anything else they are often a large part of what passes for change management……we’ll tell you what to do and you do it!  Thus the public sector can be a real shock to the systems of some ‘experienced’ change managers who have experience of only the private sector!!

No, the Ratchet approach is truly widely consultational in nature, which is why it works when other approaches do not.  It also works because many public sector staff, although often terribly inefficient with their use of resources, are highly motivated to do what-ever public ‘good works’ their agency is engaged in.

So a chance to air their ideas, hopes and concerns in terms of improvements to their delivery (however mis-guided these can occasionally be) is generally welcome and very appealing to them.  This process also has the added benefit to the change agent of being able to truly engage with the stakeholders and thereby gain and build trust and consensus amongst them.

No doubt it is now also clear to the reader why the Ratchet approach is deemed both time consuming and inefficient by some, or even by many!

Although by this point we have done a lot of important scene setting we have still not explained the detail of the Ratchet approach itself or why it is so-named.

The Ratchet approach is so called because it acts as, well…..a ratchet.  In practical terms this is similar in some ways to the concept of rolling wave planning, but in this case as applied to virtually the whole project delivery process.

After initial scoping and other up-front organising activities the Ratchet approach, not surprisingly, includes doing a thorough job of stakeholder mapping.  Starting with all the potentially effected entities in the organisation, and including those not directly affected but who will have a view all the same (e.g. QA & compliance entities), you build a map of the stakeholder universe at all levels from management to shopfloor.

From this universe you must then identify those individuals in the map who the others will trust to represent their concerns and interests.  These individuals will typically be at levels such as steering group / governance board, programme / project management, core working groups / teams and specialist / ad-hoc contributors drawn in as needed.  Obviously you need to identify these individuals as befits the priorities, needs, context and realities of your own environment.

Once you have identified this pool of ‘representative’ stakeholders (i.e. for practical reasons you usually can’t have and wouldn’t want a group composed of all possible stakeholders), and have gained wide agreement to it, you can begin the actual work of solution design.

This is where the rolling wave effect is relevant in that rather than the usual approach of having a design team who goes away, develops a fairly complete design, and then comes back and presents it to various stakeholders for their input, you have to take a greater number of smaller ‘baby steps’ to accomplish the same thing.  Importantly, each baby step must be accompanied by gaining the input and approval of each level of the representative stakeholder hierarchy.

In practice this might look like sketching out a fairly generic top-level design, talking it though the representative stakeholder hierarchy to gain their inputs and modifications…..resolving any controversies or confusions at that level, and amending the design as needed before moving on.

Once the generic top-level design is widely accepted, you would then design the next level of detail and go through the same process……continuing the iteration of this loop (normally quite a number of times) until you are at a sufficiently detailed level to have arrived at the ‘business solution’ design.

JUST TO BE CLEAR.  We do not pretend to have ‘invented’ the highly iterative design style the Ratchet approach represents.  We instead see it as borrowing the concept from other environments (usually technical, e.g. software development) where it is widely used and applying it to the business design environment where for many reasons, both real and imagined, it is not so commonplace and certainly not commonly done at the ‘baby step’ level we are advocating here!

Note that this HIGHLY iterative process usually (although occasionally you may need to, depending on the stakeholder sentiments) does not need to extend so robustly into the technical design area as most of the representative stakeholders by this stage will be comfortable with what is being proposed and its implications for them.  Normally most of them would rather not be involved in the techie stuff until it gets to the user acceptance stage…..where they will be keen to see whether what they are expecting is what is being delivered (woe betide you if it is not)!

It should be obvious by now why this style of working is called the Ratchet approach as it gains agreement and buy-in to proposed changes in small ‘baby steps’, and then like a mechanical ratchet, locks them in as a given for the design work of the next iteration.

As all stakeholders will have been ‘virtually’ consulted via the representative pool of stakeholders actually participating……and who are formally charged with communicating with their counterparts who are not……everyone has had a way to have their inputs considered as part of each iteration step.

In these circumstances most people will honour their agreement to the changes being proposed…..and in any event it is hard to go back on this sort of agreement, once made, given you would be seen to be doing so to and by your own peers.

Also, in addition to being consultational in nature, the Ratchet approach is educational as well.  This is because by moving in small increments the process allows people the chance to think about and reflect on their choices and inputs as the design evolves.  They are usually then in a position to understand its implications more fully for themselves.

This may sound a minor point, but it is something which is not really possible as part of a typical ‘waterfall’ style requirements gathering process.  Such a process, which is still quite common practice, will usually happen in a well defined window at the beginning of the design stage…..and is often then locked down in terms of project plans, budgets and supporting contracts…..making user changes difficult, costly and not to be encouraged.

All of this in turn generally scares and annoys the users, making them irritable and less than cooperative….which might just about be manageable in environments where users can be TOLD where they stand.  BUT, it is a definite non-starter in environments where they CAN NOT and WILL NOT be told!

Obviously, a Ratchet approach style of working carries with it implications for the style of project engagement.

For a start you can no longer count on a definitive, neatly defined and relatively short ‘block’ of time for the design stage.  Nor can you contract for support (e.g. consultants) on that basis.

In fact, until you have a widely accepted business design, although you can do rough estimates, you can’t really tie down budgets or contract for support with any great degree of accuracy or confidence.  The best approach in this circumstance is to accept that all work will be time and materials based until the business design has been accepted, after which more normal project disciplines can be resumed!

And no, the Ratchet approach is not without its own risks and difficulties.

For a start you must always try to minimise the ‘wish-list’ effect whereby everyone wants to get their pet own pet items onto the agenda and the resulting bloated design is neither deliverable or fit-for-purpose.

Also, this is not an environment in which ‘slam-dunk’ artists or requirements capture drones from the private sector will thrive.

The interactions are often collegiate in nature and anyone without the requisite patience, empathy and content knowledge to participate in this will usually soon be clocked as such and often be effectively excommunicated by the stakeholders.

For all those who are by now (with some justification) huffing and puffing about how unreasonable and irrational this all seems all we can do is agree with your sentiments.  But we must also point out that this approach really does work in circumstances when many or most others will fail.

So although we can’t recommend it as a preferred approach, we do put it forward as a fallback approach to consider in cases where nothing else seems to be working.

And if the Ratchet approach seems impossibly slow to you, carrying with it a huge risk of being outpaced by events, remember we are only suggesting its use in environments where by definition almost everything but the most seismic of events (unfortunately) happens in a kind of slow motion anyway.  So like it or not, different rules and sensibilities apply!

And on a final note……yes, the Ratchet approach has a high cost in terms of time and money.  But on the other hand it will normally deliver an outcome when many more commercially acceptable approaches would fall flat on their faces.  And usually attaining something is better than achieving nothing (other than perhaps stakeholder ill will) when the money is going to be spent anyway!

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