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Counter-forces to change

There are always counter-forces to change.

I have followed the improvement initiative Smartare Värmdö with interest. The municipality of Värmdö was created to develop its operations and use modern technology to become more efficient and better. It has demonstrated success after success and was so successful in its efforts that in 2023 it was awarded the Digital Municipality of the Year award.

But as in physics, every force has a counterforce. If you drive improvement work forward, there is a natural counterforce behind you, who would like everything to stand still. And that’s just the way it is; if everything stood still, we wouldn’t be moving anywhere, and there would be no forward momentum or counterforce.

The only thing left in a business then, is the constant whining about things not working as they should. But as soon as someone tries to do something about it, the counterforce kicks in.

I draw conclusions based on a number of articles in the media about the Smarter Värmdö initiative, that there are counter-forces that have emerged, as usual. I have seen it so many times, where good forces want to develop and improve, they are met by those who want nothing to happen.

“Don’t come here and stir up dust. All the dust here makes us sick, but we don’t want anyone to touch anything, because then it will dust even more.” That’s right, we don’t like the way things are, but we don’t want to do anything about it, because we are worried about what will happen along the way. It feels hard and we need to get involved.

In addition, as an individual, I may lose out on the improvement that takes place for the business. It’s good for the whole, but bad for me personally, so stop and go, I don’t want to be part of this.

Semi-enjoying our constant whining

Or we are actually semi-happy, in our constant whining about things that don’t work. It still feels good to be able to complain about managers, citizens and other departments at every coffee break. That’s where we feel at home, in our common lament. It is a community too. I have experienced it myself, so I know.

And those who are mentally checked out of the workplace, they don’t care if it works well or not. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t work, because they come in the morning and go home in the afternoon, and what they did during the day is not that relevant.

The description comes from Gallup and the survey of workplaces worldwide. As many as 74% of all people working in Sweden can be classified as mentally checked out. Managers as ‘ordinary’ employees. This is a frighteningly high figure.

Then there are the 12% who are classified as active opponents. They sabotage everything called development.

Värmdö encounters counter-forces

If I read further about Värmdö, this is where such counter-forces come in. Again, I have seen it happen before. “The ‘whistleblowing’ function is used to raise health and safety concerns and issues around incorrect procurement. Or you can go to the media.

Either way, there is no need to be proud of your criticism, because it will be anonymous. Now the whole bureaucratic ammunition is being used to put an end to the “misery”, i.e. development.

People can go on sick leave because of mental health problems. It arises naturally in individuals who feel unhappy or unsure about their role, now or in a future evolved organization. It breeds work environment problems, which can be directly picked up by the counterparts.

And when this happens, those responsible up the hierarchy are not strong enough in their conviction that further development is the right way to go. It is neither the immediate manager nor all the way up to politics, as in Värmdö municipality.

Responsible leaders are sacrificed on the altar of saboteurs. Anything to appease them. But they won’t rest until it’s stopped completely, so we can return to the calm that prevailed before.

Important to be clear from the start

Nor has it been clear enough from the start. The purpose of the improvement work has not been communicated and anchored in the organization, so that staff are involved.

As a change leader, you need to make sure that you get your employees on board with future work to improve the business. You need to make sure you lay the groundwork in understanding both the needs for development and that it will feel a bit uncertain going forward, and that it will also be much better once we, together, walk along the path of improvement.

You need to constantly, in different contexts, raise the purpose, goals and plan, so you don’t lose focus on the future and take care of people’s mental journey in development. Concerns must be taken seriously and met with understanding and active support.

If you succeed in getting your employees on board, you will reduce the ability of your opponents to put a spanner in the works. Make sure not to give them ammunition to sink the improvement initiative.

Managers have been let go or have moved on themselves

If I read the list of managers in Värmdö who have had to leave or chosen to leave, many have had positions in quality, development and the new future organization. All those who seem to stand for development have been depoliticized, all to appease the opponents.

So, in addition to the above advice to really work on the soft issues, to get your employees on board, you also need to be extra careful not to make any formal errors.

Because you can drive and create strong improvement for the business, but if you make one or two mistakes, it can directly be used as ammunition to sink you and your improvement initiative.

The only way to escape the fire is not only to have the support of the majority of your coworkers, but also to have real support all the way up the hierarchy, so that everyone above you stands up for you and your work.

In Värmdö municipality, this does not seem to have been the case, as the previously acclaimed head of the municipality, Cecilia Lejon, was the latest in line, and the highest manager, to leave. It remains to be seen what happens with the improvement work and all that has been achieved over the years. It may all come crashing down. I have seen that happen too. Great work is thrown out the window.

And then you go back and complain and wonder why it’s not working so well… “Hey, we have something to talk about at coffee again.”

Include everyone from the start, if you want to avoid counter-forces

Wishing you success in your improvement efforts. I hope that the advice above and in other weekly newsletters can give you what you need to succeed.

If you want advice, I suggest you contact me. We can discuss your situation and what you can and need to do to move forward. That time is on me. In other words, you don’t even have to risk showing in an invoice that you have sought help. It’s just between you and me.

I know what it’s worth to get someone else’s view on what’s going on. Don’t hesitate, just email me and we’ll book a chat together. I really want you to succeed in your improvement efforts.