Designing and Delivering Change Programs with People in Mind

Reflections on the 2015 Operational Excellence in Oil and Gas Conference in Calgary.

Last week’s IQPC conference in Calgary proved once again to be a valuable and well-attended forum for practitioners, change agents, leaders and service providers to share their perspectives and lessons learned from their respective operational excellence (OE) journeys. The entire oil and gas value stream was represented and it was particularly insightful to learn from leaders outside of the energy sector share their thoughts on engaging the wider organization on continuous improvement (CI) efforts.


There were interactive sessions where the audience was polled on their views regarding the current state of the oil and gas industry as well as on the challenges facing those leading improvement efforts in a low commodity price environment. A number of these sessions involved the use of a word cloud and one, in particular, stood out around the “one thing companies could do differently in their application of operational excellence”. The prominence of words like “communication”, “coach” and “engage” aligned well with many of the key messages from participants throughout the event and suggested that, on the whole, OE and CI efforts need to increase the degree to which people (as willful, knowledgeable, sentient, purpose-seeking stakeholders) are explicitly engaged in the design and delivery of programs.

"We need more facilitators and coaches", as opposed to having more change practitioners who are focused on tool-based approaches, commented one participant. Another senior leader echoed this sentiment when he said that his company found more benefit from a smaller group of skilled facilitators than from an “army of consultants’. This suggested a growing recognition among participants that, in order for the change to be sustainable, the onus for doing things differently and changing behaviour rests squarely on the shoulders of the people in the business and that those supporting the improvement effort need to take on a role that supports that responsibility.

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Others stressed the need to increase engagement both of leaders and front-line associates. "We need to make sure we use the language of the people we are engaging" was a message picked up more than a few times by presenters who shared their experiences of how they linked their change efforts to a meaningful "why", such as "return on investment", "cashflow from operations", realizing a "perfect (safe) day" or developing a "perfect process". What this implies is that our change management professionals may not be speaking a language that is common, let alone resonating, with the people they are trying to engage.

One of my favourite quotes was from a senior leader who said that many continuous improvement practitioners are "one ball jugglers", suggesting that the portfolio of skills and capabilities needs move beyond the deployment of a single toolset such as Lean Sigma. Another speaker built on this saying "in a way, I don’t care what tools you have! What I care about is whether you can engage my people and solve our problems!"

It is clear that, to use the theme of the conference, if an organization is to not merely survive but thrive in “turbulent times” it is critical to engage the wider organization in the change effort. How companies should go about doing that is something for which there is no easy answer.

On the one hand, there are approaches which heavy process manufacturing companies can use to build out a more “people-centric” approach to continuous improvement. The fields of Design (e.g., Design ThinkingService DesignUser Experience Design, etc.) and Anthropology (e.g., Business AnthropologyCorporate Ethnography, etc.) provide a rich set of approaches to innovation, stakeholder engagement and problem solving that are not often leveraged in continuous improvement efforts. On the other hand, the shift in culture required by upstream (and downstream) oil and gas operators in order to move away from “measuring and auditing our way into success” is huge! Simply ask a gathering of oil and gas industry leaders who their customers are and you will begin to see how significant the challenge is to build an engaging, service-oriented, customer-focused culture of excellence!

Reflecting on the content-filled discussions last week, I think that oil and gas improvement efforts have found themselves almost exclusively tapping into the rational side of organizations, via a preoccupation with tools and techniques (e.g., spreadsheets, statistics, matrices, audits, templates, etc.). There is, of course, an emotional side to organizations and this is where we find things like trust, vision, meaning, involvement and engagement. As has been suggested elsewhere, there isn’t necessarily a trade-off between the rational and emotional worlds. However, any improvement effort that seeks to increase the level of employee engagement, wants to successfully generate leadership and change agency at all levels of the organization and that wants to adapt their operation to meet the exigencies of the day will need to extend the skills and capabilities available to the organization beyond the “rational toolbox”.

Last week’s conference indicates that more than a few leaders want to do just that.

John Norcross

Though Canada is a long way from Antarctica, both places offer vast terrain for exploration. Inspired by the great 20th Century Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, Evolve Partners’ John Norcross leads the firm’s efforts to expand our presence in Canada’s exciting, and rapidly growing, energy industry.