Industrial action, successful change and democracy

Posted by Dave Kemp on July 17, 2015

Tube Strike

According to Terry Pratchett, democracy is a one man, one vote affair. In his books, in the Discworld, that one man is the Patrician. He has that one vote. (find out more about the Patrician here). In our world, it’s perhaps a bit like being a project or change manager. There’s arguably one vision, but many views. You may be in charge, but autocracy may not be the way to go; there’s significant tension between real and threatened industrial action, successful change and democracy.

The particular quote came to mind during last week’s industrial action on the London Tube, and some related thoughts on the reported whys and wherefores behind it (Disclaimer: I’m not even vaguely close to the London Underground overnight trains debate, but having done some work for Transport for London, I find the drivers (no pun intended) for this scenario particularly interesting).

It also came to mind because a lot of what we do here at Leadent, and in life generally, if we’re honest, is managing and delivering change. And if change is going to happen, and for the better, it strikes me a number of things need to be true.

  • There has to be a problem, the so called burning platform – something we need to fix, and which is causing someone, somewhere, some pain. In other words, according to a LinkedIn meme, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change”. And there needs to be a degree of consensus about what it is. For TfL, that means there’s a perceived need for a service to support London’s 24-hour lifestyle. For TfL, it appears they get too much pain from their customers  to not provide such a service. But for the drivers, they’re quite happy as they were, thank you very much. (This is common in many public sector organisations – where the pay may not always match the private sector, but other conditions can more than compensate).
  • There has to be a perceived solution to the problem.  For TfL this looks simple. Run the all night services. How hard can it be, really? Moreover, there has to be a sponsor for that solution (our Patrician), willing to drive the new world forward. And, like the problem, there needs to be some consensus on the solution too (see the Heathrow debate, if you want a current example)
  • There has to be a way to deliver the solution. In TfL’s case, you could argue that you  simply schedule the new service, change the rosters, job done. Except we all know it’s never that easy. Especially in the public sector. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a view on how to do things. And a great many of them are not backward is coming forwards to express it

Delivering on the vision for the future isn’t just about plans and money, it’s also about ways and means, hearts and minds, and nowhere is this more true that in the public sector. That means stakeholder management; managing the “What’s in it for me” for all concerned. Get it right, and they’ll be queueing up to eat out of your hand. Get it wrong, and you’re liable to get some sort of pushback, potentially of a scale to derail your project. Which isn’t to say TfL “got it wrong”. These processes are exactly that – processes of negotiation, processes of engagement, processes of selling a vision. Performing the mental ju-jitsu to reverse other people’s position; finding what can, and can’t, be achieved. The sort of things where the Patrician is reputedly able to out-Machiavelli Machiavelli.

If we take the TfL case, the drivers have it that the proposed change has been railroaded through (OK, I intended that one), saying the change has been presented as a “fait accompli”, without any consideration for the impact on their lives at large. So we have:

  • A problem? – Yes
  • A clear aim and vision? – Yes
  • Engaged stakeholders? – No

For my money, there’s still some selling to do.

Successful change, then, is paradoxical – the (beneficial) dictator persuading all (or enough) of the people impacted that the change is worthwhile, explaining what’s in it for them, helping them to make the changes needed.  Because if not, the flip side of the “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change” argument, is a great big backlash, rather than the implied and desired outcome where everyone changes in just the right way.

So, what lessons might we take forward from all this introspection? How do we get change to happen? Well, whether it’s TfL or any other organisation, there’s always a tension, to some degree, between the envisaged future, and the status quo. Change will bring winners, quite possibly some losers (and we need to work out how we manage those cases), and very probably some middle ground. And it’s not always simple. Some change advocates will work to the greater rather than the personal good, for example. Some people just don’t listen well. So:

  • You need a clear narrative to draw people in and explain the what, why and how. The power of the tale, as an old school pal coined it. Explain “What’s in it for Me”, for them.
  • For each “Me”, understand where they are (see “Real Change Readiness), and where you need them to be. Whether they’ll help or hinder you. Workout how you respond to each, so they’ll help (ideally), or at least not hinder (if that’s the best you’ll get).
  • Engage with each community, however large or small. Failure to do so may put your project at risk, or create adverse headlines. If nothing else, you’ll likely create some unnecessary work for yourself.
  • Remain pragmatic; recognise that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but also that simple things can have a big impact.
  • Keep talking.


Managing your community, and the changes you need them to work through is key to any project. And whilst you might be the one in charge, accountable and responsible for the changes needed, you generally can’t do it without the majority of your stakeholders.


So, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Terry and the Patrician. “Human nature”, he always said, “was a marvellous thing.  Once you understood where its levers were”. Where are those of your stakeholders’?