Change Soapbox


When I was a kid, my Nanna used to try a make a new soap by squashing together all the tiny bits of individual bars that had become too small to use on their own. I once remember seeing an advert in one of those door to door sales catalogues for a “gadget” that claimed it took the effort out of this process and really made a new soap out of the old. It never worked. As soon as you tried to use it the component soaps would fall away from the whole into their previous forms. My Nan came from a time where such resources were precious. Nowadays, rather than waste the effort, we would just throw the soap away once it becomes unusable and open a new packet.

Over six years ago I worked in a local authority. The government wanted to remove the layer I worked in, meaning six smaller councils would be absorbed by a much larger one. Despite the views of the now defunct authorities, it did make sense on paper. A pre-Conservative reform of its type indicated just how expensive and ineffective local government had become. Its an arena with an almost complete lack of consumer choice, creating a bureaucratic monopoly castrated by power hungry politics. Organisational size seems only to amplify this problem.

At around twenty times the size of my employer at that time, the organisation due to take over our employment contracts was already gigantic. At a small authority we were used to doing several different jobs at once. At the large authority several people were doing one job. There were tales of people sleeping at their desks and building their own office partitions from cardboard boxes. Someone had even taken over one of the toilets, adding their own seat, toilet brush and luxury branded paper. When I was seconded to a small central team dealing with the transfer of staff, I was horrified to find out that much worse was condoned. All hopes for influencing any improvements quickly dissipated in an environment where power was based solely on grade and you couldn’t even change the title of a column on a spreadsheet without a director’s approval. Fortunately after four weeks I was called back to the small authority to work on a different project that got me a better role elsewhere.

I’ve dealt with numerous staff transfers over the years – always a larger organisation taking over a smaller one. The most common complaint I’ve heard is not that the transferring staff have to change (that is expected) but that their new employer is completely change averse. They are viewed as the inferior failure being saved by their absorption. Any suggestions for better practice that they might bring with them are seemingly always ignored. They must fully become “one of them” or be pushed out.

Unfortunately this “new soap for old” approach to change never works. Squashing one or more cultures together and expecting them to integrate does not create a bond between the pieces – just like my Nanna’s “new” soap bars. Yet the effort is never made to use a more organic approach, selecting the best bits from both sides, boiling them down to a more efficient and complete whole. Throwing away the small bits because they don’t stick at first – that’s a true waste.

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