What David Cameron Must Learn About Leading Change

The UK’s new prime minister, David Cameron, recently revisited his big idea from the general election campaign and launched his “Big Society” vision. Unfortunately, I believe that Mr Cameron’s Big Society programme is destined to fail if it continues to be led and managed along its current path.

My experience of leading organisational change programmes has taught me that three conditions must be met if people are to change their behaviours in a positive and lasting way.

  1. There must be a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the current situation. A feeling of ‘something must be done’ must be shared by sufficient numbers of people so that you can explore new ways of working.

    The Big Society falls at this first hurdle. I don’t believe that the management of public services – outside of hospitals and schools – is that high on people’s agenda, and during the election campaign MPs reported back to Mr Cameron that the Big Society idea was not resonating with voters.

    The prime minister’s colleagues don’t even seem share his discontent with the current systems. Mr Cameron is consistently pictured alone when talking about this subject; the Big Society seems to be run by a team of one.

  2. A clear vision for the future must exist. You must be able to articulate how the organisation and your people will be better off as a result of the proposed change.

    Here, I think Mr Cameron does better. He talks about reduction in bureaucracy and greater ownership and control by local people. The vision may be slightly too fuzzy for some people, but at least a sense of direction exists.

  3. There must be clarity around the initial key steps required to make the change happen. People don’t need to understand, in detail, the whole journey, but they do need to have sufficient clarity on how it will begin. It is the leader’s job to shine a light into the dark so that people can see how they can move forward, what is expected of them, and what they need to avoid.

    Here again, however, Mr Cameron is found wanting. The reaction of commentators and the general public has highlighted the uncertainty about what participating in the Big Society actually means.

The Big Society needs a big change in how it is being led. Mr Cameron has a lot of work to do to make it succeed and should take three immediate actions:

  1. Create a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the way our local services are delivered, and raise the importance of this issue in people’s minds. He needs to start by building a collective sense of discontent among his cabinet colleagues, then across his parliamentary party, and through to the wider population
  2. Work with his key colleagues to better articulate what success will look like, and ensure that the whole leadership group is able to give the same story about the future vision.
  3. Clarify the specific steps that will be taken to make the Big Society happen, and give people the information, skills and tools necessary for them to let go of the current ways of working and move, with confidence, to the new system.

The bottom line

So much for David Cameron, what about your major change programmes? Have you and your team clearly articulated why change is required, how your organisation will be better off as a result of the change, and what’s required of your people to take it forward? If you haven’t, don’t be surprised if the response is as negative and suspicious as the UK public’s reaction to the prime minister’s Big Society.


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