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Why real change starts from the outside in

Identifying how to improve can be a tricky business. Could an outside perspective and a focus on people management help? 

When you’re emotionally, physically and financially invested in a business it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees. Outside consultants can bring a fresh perspective, act as a useful sounding board and build valuable bridges for a business, helping you make the most of your people. It takes bravery to invite constructive criticism but wherever it comes from, it’s essential for success.

We spoke to two highly experienced Investors in People practitioners to gain their insight on why looking from the outside in can make all the difference. Specialising in coaching, employee engagement, change management and leadership skills, Carol Barnes is a practitioner for Investors in People in the South of England and North of England. John Ramsden specialises in education, people development and communication and is an Investors in People practitioner for the South of England.


Investors in People (IIP): How useful are a fresh pair of eyes, when it comes to business improvement?

Carol Barnes (CB): Very useful. Although it’s rarely the starting point. More often than not, a business will have identified a need to change and will have engaged with a process to make that happen. With IIP, a practitioner – and the critical insight we can bring – comes as part of that process. So it’s really once we’re working with an organisation that they discover the additional benefits a fresh pair of eyes can bring.

John Ramsden (JR): For example, a family-owned manufacturing company in the aerospace industry which I’m working with had already identified an ambitious plan for growth, but through our work together they’ve come to recognise the role that clear-sighted strategic thinking around people management plays in achieving that growth.


Investors in People (IIP): As an outside consultant, how did you help them identify that better people management was intrinsic to growth?

JR: Well that company, which then employed about 60 people, decided they wanted 30% growth year on year for a three-year period to achieve a target turnover of £8 million. This was during the recession, so it was a big challenge. The organisation had already devised KPIs for their top managers and then there was an IIP review due when they’d been reporting against these KPIs for about six months.

As part of this review process, I discovered and brought to the MD’s attention that below the senior managers there was no real people management going on and no real middle management structure, which was increasing the burden on the senior managers.

I was able to suggest that if he was going to consider taking on middle management, I’d recommend training his senior managers first – I know from experience that if senior managers don’t get any training on how to make use of middle managers they won’t get the best from them. So we carried out a series of training sessions. The company has gone on to gain Silver accreditation with IIP and is now expanding and restructuring into a group, with operations in England, the Emirates and the US, which will be headed up by former senior managers. The work really put into practice and articulated some of the things the MD was beginning to think himself. What I was able to do was sharpen focus on issues that he’d already started to consider.

CB: I agree, it’s rare that I get to a meeting where what we have to say to a client comes as a complete surprise. There’s usually an element of, “we knew that but we didn’t know the details”. One of the values a practitioner brings is that we’re able to relate to people at every level of an organisation, from Chief Execs to junior staff and gather information from them to build up the bigger picture. I think that’s one of the things that makes the IIP approach so detailed.

For example, about 18 months ago I became the practitioner for a highly complex facilities management organisation employing thousands of staff. It’s got different strands and covers multiple sectors. Part of the value for money for clients has got to be a practitioner who can take all that on board, no matter how complex the organisation. I found it quite stretching, but incredibly rewarding. Having got to grips with the organisation in its difference facets, I was able to couch all my questions in a way that every section of the business understood, because they each have their own language. That followed through when making the recommendations too.

And one of the benefits of working with the IIP Framework is that it doesn’t matter what size the business is, there’s enough flex so that it can be tailored to organisations of any size. I’ve worked with everyone from complex organisations like this one to small businesses employing 10 staff – the value of the fresh perspective and insight a practitioner brings applies no matter the size of an organisation.


IIP: Not everyone is so open to the idea of working with outside consultants. What would you say to businesses that lack belief in the value it can bring?

JR: Well, it’s worth saying that as practitioners, we’re consultants operating within the IIP model. The organisations we work with experience the structure, resources and assessment process which frame what we’re doing, and we can shape our recommendations using IIP’s tried and tested approaches – it can be more holistic than just an independent consultant coming in – there’s more of an offer, more value to be gained.

CB: I think barriers like a lack of belief are something every consultant faces. Organisations that think, “We’re making money, the bottom line looks good, so we’re doing OK”, are unlikely to be convinced. Any business that thinks they’re doing OK is really unlikely to have the drive to want to go further because they’ve probably lost their entrepreneurial edge. So moving them from a lack of belief in the value of outside consultants will be challenging.

Ultimately it’s not about convincing people to come on the journey. They have to be ready. And if they are, and they are open to feedback, the results speak for themselves. I was recently talking to a charitable organisation I’ve been working with that I know has got real value from the IIP Standard, but that’s also got real value from the input I’ve been able to give through the reports and the improvement planning meetings on things like driving innovation and change management. It’s all helped them stay nimble. As an organisation that relies very heavily on fundraising they needed to remain agile. There was a danger at one point when I first went in that their fundraising was drying up, but with regular contact and input they’ve gone from strength to strength.


IIP: Are driving innovation and change management recurring themes that come up in your work with clients?

JR: Yes, I think that once you start working with an organisation as a practitioner, no matter what you’re looking at initially, you will segue into these key issues. I work with a big organisation, employing around 650 people. Their manufacturing division works on high tech product development projects. When I was doing the initial assessment these teams were falling behind. I suggested project management training in order for the projects to run more efficiently. It may not always be innovation in terms of product, but certainly in terms of improving management processes. And it is actually a contribution to ensuring their technical innovation was handled better.


IIP: So, what advice would you give to an individual or business about to tackle change management? How can a fresh pair of eyes help?

JR: I’d say, think of where you want to be in five years time. It’s a very powerful question, whether it’s in the context of an individual and their career plan, or an organisation. The moment you’ve got an answer, you can start planning how you want to get there. What part do your people play? How are you going to get them to a stage where they’re driving that change forward? This is where a practitioner – or a fresh pair of eyes – as an external sounding board is of tremendous benefit. Someone who is in your corner, but has no personal axe to grind can ask powerful questions and help to formulate a strategic plan in response to your answers.


Check out our How To Guide on continuous improvement to find out more about how to manage change.

Discover more about the IIP process or request a meeting and free initial consultation with a practitioner in your area.