Category: Change Management

Hey, It’s Not Brain Surgery!

Having just come through brain surgery, I’ve learned valuable life lessons that can also be applied to change and transformation management.

A little background context – In early January, 2012, I started experiencing problems with my vision and after a series of tests culminating with an MRI in early April, was diagnosed with a pituitary macroadenoma – in layman’s terms, a 4.0 cm benign tumour situated between my brain and my pituitary gland.

The Outcome – On June 4, a neurosurgical team at theOttawaHospital performed the surgery to remove the tumour using a minimally invasive, Endoscopic Endonasal Approach (EEA).    The surgery was made more complicated by the fact that the tumour had grown to approximately 4.0 cm in diameter and had to be removed through my nostril via a deviated septum.    Despite the complications, the tumour was successfully extracted in one piece and an MRI the next day confirmed that the area was “clean”, setting the foundation for a quick recovery and an excellent long term prognosis.

How I Prepared and What I Learned – When I was initially diagnosed with the tumour and the prospect of a serious surgery, I contacted the renowned sports psychologist Dr. Terry Orlick ( to ask his advice on how to prepare for this event.   Years ago, I had read Terry’s book “In Pursuit of Excellence” which chronicled Terry’s work with athletes and high-performance executives, and we had invited Terry to one of Systemscope’s corporate retreats in 2008 to present and discuss techniques on achieving higher levels of performance.

After a long talk, Terry offered me these three pieces of advice:

  1. Focus on positive outcomes
  2. “Change the channel” and think positive
  3. Lean on your support networks

The advice prepared me well for the surgery, but it also made me think of how this applies readily to any person, or any organization, about to undergo a major event or transformation.  Based on my own experience, I would add two additional lessons learned:

  1. Communicate effectively and be persistent
  2. Celebrate success and acknowledge who got you there

Applying the lessons of Brain Surgery to Transformation and Change Management

Let’s examine each of these five areas in more detail:

  1. Focus on positive outcomes – as an engineer, it would have been too easy for me to get caught up in process details: testing, consultations, surgical delays, worrying about things beyond your control etc.   Instead, Terry recommended that I focus on positive outcomes – the removal of the tumour, restored eyesight, and re-established quality of life.   In organizational transformation and change management, the same technique can be applied – establish a vision of what outcome(s) should result:  greater system efficiencies, better service to clients, or increased productivity.  Once you set your eye on the outcome and keep it there, you can enhance your enablers for success and minimize any barriers or risks along the way.
  2. “Change the channel” and think positive – this was one of the more creative techniques that Terry taught me and it worked remarkably well.   Terry told me to think about picturing a large TV screen in front of me.  Whenever negative or worrisome thoughts crept in about the upcoming surgery, he suggested that I simply “switch the channel” to positive, outcome-based thinking.  I must admit that my visual depiction of changing the channel literally meant going “old school” and turning a dial on a TV rather than use a remote, but nonetheless, the positive imagery served me well before the operation and again during my recovery phase.    Too often and too easily during major change, we embrace a level of negativity or cynicism that can spread like poison and bring down even the most well-planned change management programs.   To mitigate this, I believe that the onus must be on each individual throughout the organization to deal with change using positive behaviours that foster a culture of optimism and progression.   Feeling down about changes to your organization?  Change the channel and look for the positive possibilities.
  3. Lean on your support networks.   Terry had reminded me that I was under the care of one of the best neuro-surgeons in the world, a pioneer in the EEA, and in one of the best medical institutions inNorth America.  Further, I had an amazingly supportive family and colleagues at work, and a wonderful network of friends I could draw upon through this process.   Applying this to organizational transformation, the same can also be said.  You’re not alone in change management – seek out the strong and supportive leaders who can make change happen effectively and lean on your colleagues to collectively get you through the transformation.
  4. Communicate effectively and be persistent.    Although it may seem obvious that communicating effectively is a basic tenet of dealing with stressful events (and in many cases a foregone conclusion), I never took communication for granted.  Apart from the therapeutic value of just talking about my tumour and the surgery, strong and persistent communication with medical practitioners in the days and weeks leading up to the operation left me feeling more comfortable and confident about the event.   In organizational transformation and change management, lip service is frequently paid to positive and effective communication, but the actions rarely reflect the intent.   This leaves managers and staff confused, anxious and prone to rumour mills, which in turn create a compound effect of negative stress.   Rather than turn the communications taps off during times of challenge or change, put a communications framework and strategy in place quickly, and let the messaging flow both ways!
  5. Celebrate success and acknowledge who got you there.    In the days following the surgery, I sent thank you cards and flowers to the surgical team and recovery ward nurses.   I wrote a letter to the CEO of theOttawaHospital acknowledging the success of the surgery and the professionalism of all staff involved along my journey.   I took the time to cite particular individuals who I felt had gone beyond the call of duty.   The responses that I received were completely unexpected and articulated increased morale for them and their staff.  Executives and managers have to take the same steps during programs of change to recognize and celebrate success at regular intervals (not just at the end) and acknowledge their staff’s contributions.  They should cite the Herculean efforts of key individuals and trumpet achievements over all channels.

So there you have it – brain surgery preparation applied to organizational transformation and change management in 5 easy steps!   In all seriousness, these tips combined with a strong roadmap of change, communications and engagement strategy, can go a long way to help individuals and organizations prepare for and achieve successful outcomes in times of major challenge and change.


Systemscope Now On THS

Systemscope has qualified under the Government of Canada’s Temporary Help Services (THS) procurement vehicles for Supply Arrangement and Standing Offer.

THS allows clients to procure professional services up to $400,000 or 48 consecutive weeks, whichever comes first. A call-up/contract can be extended by an additional 24 consecutive weeks but must have the prior approval of PWGSC.

For the THS Standing offer, Systemscope is qualified under these two streams:

  1. Human Resources Management (Sub-Stream 5e)
  2. Policy and Advisory Services (Sub-Stream 5f)

THS is one of four options available to departments for contracting.

Our New Space: Introducing The Systemscope Lounge – Our Creative Commons

The new Systemscope office space will provide a panoply of collaboration opportunities for Systemscope, the centre-piece of which will be the new “Systemscope Lounge”. The idea emerged after last year’s GTEC conference, where the new conference centre offered a space that, while functional, left us feeling more disengaged from our peers and clients.Systemscope Lounge

With the new space, the “Systemscope Lounge” idea suddenly became a permanent reality. The “Systemscope Lounge” has been designated as both a physical space and a branded source for creative ideas and products, where new, creative and provocative thinking could emerge out of the professional practice of the firm. This will allow the firm to maintain its reliable and recognized “brand” but engage with the more “out-there” thinking.

The lounge’s physical presence boasts elegant and timeless leather couches, cowhides stools and rugs reminiscent of the mid-century modern aesthetic that inspires so much design creativity in this age. This informal and creative space will be used by Systemscope staffers and clients alike to surface ideas and truths that are outside-the-box of past and current traditional thinking; ideas that may, or may not, move to the “Systemscope Lab” for their formalization into architectures, models or methodologies.

This approach is also getting another space in virtual reality. With the redesign of the Systemscope Website, the “Ideas Lab” will serve as a virtual platform for any and all good thinking to emerge from communal Systemscope efforts. We’re not just talking current blog posts here. Content ranges from “freshest” thinking to “preserved” classics, and is topped off with the ThoughtMix section, where single images or quick ideas are brought together in a primordial soup of creative thinking.

“It is amazing to think that a physical space could come to embody a theoretical ideal, but this is what we see the new Systemscope Lounge embodying,” says Denis Barbeau, Systemscope Partner and Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting. “The Systemscope Lounge is a physical environment in which we and our clients can think aloud, unfettered by the daily reality of what we see and are told are constraints, allowing us to push the boundaries of conventional wisdom to find strategies and tactics that will allow our clients to thrive in these times of transformation.”

Snapshot of the Next Level Director

Senior Executives in a variety of federal departments are making significant changes in response to new demands for their businesses and services. They are aware of the gap that exists between their current and future state, and recognize that their success will be defined by both the achievement of their goals, and by the effectiveness of the journey. In order to be successful, their leaders must possess certain strengths to deliver on both accounts.

Metaphorically speaking, their leaders must be striving to perfect their golf swing.

We’ve observed that the leaders most relied upon for moving an organization from its current to future state are Directors. They are the backbone of their organization, and as such, they are the individuals most heavily tasked with the conversion of the ‘what’ into the ‘how’.

Yet surprisingly, this level can be one of the least defined and non-standardized within any organization. In many cases, Directors are left to determine their own role and develop their own tools to meet their own needs. Each Director’s approach may be different, and there have been few attempts to standardize them.  In other words, their golf swing is often ad-hoc and imperfect. When perfecting a golf swing, how do you get a number of key techniques and attributes working in harmony?

Let’s define some standard characteristics that Directors who are seeking to take their teams to next level performances should possess. Perhaps the answers are all hanging in the balance.

1. The ability to describe a vision and sell the dream.

They should recognize the importance of a high level vision and act as champions for its attainment.  They should respect the time and commitment required to achieve next level performances and not dilute or minimize the effort required. They should strive to find that balance between acting with urgency and respecting the inevitable complexity of all things.

2. The ability to prioritize their many priorities.

They should require on-going strategic alignment with their boss. They should ask lots of questions about priorities and focus their energy on delivering strategically focused outputs. They should strive to find that balance between supporting the overall work of their team while challenging (or eliminating) the aspects that are less strategically aligned.

3. The ability to leverage their chain of command.

They should build a strong functional management team that places appropriate accountability in the hands of the managers. They should be a masterful delegator who shares the departmental workload across their entire team. They should strive to find that balance between respecting individual subject matter expertise while still holding team members accountable for the greater team’s performance.

4. The ability to effectively collaborate with all levels of the organization.

They should plan their communications and determine the most effective means of collaborating and sharing information. They should ask lots of questions and continually seek to engage others in forward thinking discussions. They should strive for the balance achieved when a leader is working for a Senior Management Team, and also for those people who report to them.

5. The ability to hold people accountable in a positive and constructive manner.

They should see accountability as a means of building their team. They should communicate positively about expectations and deliverables. They should provide constructive feedback in an open and transparent manner.  They should strive to find that balance between engaging people in the process while still challenging them to achieve outstanding results. 

6. The ability to embrace structure and standardized management tools.

They should seek to achieve next levels of performance through consistency in their commitment and actions. This consistency should require discipline and compliance to both a structure and its standardized management tools.  They should strive to find that balance between embracing standardization while still respecting the human factor in all that we are and all that we do.

The Next Level Director should strive to possess these standard characteristics. They should embrace the challenges associated with their role and recognize that finding that perfect balance is a key ingredient to perfecting their golf swing.

By doing so, they would increase the contribution of every member of their team and successfully lead their organization to achieve any future challenges that will inevitably arise during the next major golf event.

Do you have a solid enough foundation for the matrix?

If you are working within a matrix organizational structure, you are probably aware that optimal environments are described as being larger organizations, highly professional environments, and those requiring resources with diverse skill sets.

At first glance it may seem that many organizations should do well working within a matrix structure since they appear to meet the above criteria. Yet many organizations fail to achieve real and sustained success.  Why?

Perhaps their foundation has some cracks …

If we look back at some of the research around matrix structures, we’ll see that the above criteria are only half the picture. In addition, matrix organizations are optimally suited for environments that are highly collaborative, have people with strong interpersonal capabilities, and have appropriately placed authority to make critical decisions.

This is where it gets interesting. For example,              Does everyone within an organization have to collaborate well or just a few? What are appropriate interpersonal capabilities in the workplace and when are they considered strong?  Who should be authorized to make decisions at what level and when are they considered critical? Subjectivity will greatly influence an individual’s response.  In fact, anyone working within a matrix structure could find examples within their organization to satisfy this level of ambiguity.

To understand if your organization is well suited for a matrix structure, you need criteria that are more objective and definitive in their application. You need to take a long hard look at your organization’s foundation.

For example, how well does your organization adhere to the following criteria:

  • Documented and understood roles and responsibilities across management levels
  • Operational weekly plans in the hands of Chiefs and Managers
  • Documented business critical processes including defined standards and requirements
  • Mature issues management processes and documented escalation procedures
  • Activity time sheets in the hands of Staff
  • Performance measures in the hands of Directors
  • Dashboards in the hands of Senior Management
  • Documented and understood governance and lines of reporting

Basically, if your organization is not operating in an environment of accountability with strong governance, you may not be reaping all of the potential benefits of the matrix structure. In order to reach your potential, you may need to work on some of the fundamentals of accountable management.

You may not achieve all of the criteria on the list, but in the process, you will ask yourself enough hard questions to determine the best next steps for your organization.  It’s all a matter of timing and you may want to ensure the foundation for the house is solid before expecting it to effectively support the matrix walls.