Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tough change: The French and the British can be so resistant!


Change managers are paid to anticipate resistance, to make strategy and contingency plans for it and, in short, to ensure a smooth transaction from an existing situation to something new.

Historically, apart from wars between countries, there have been some massive change projects that I would have been proud to have claimed to ‘have managed’ :

• 3 September 1967, Sweden switching from driving on the left to driving on the right,
• January 1, 2002: the Germans give up the Deutschmark for the Euro
• 28 March, 2005: the Irish introduce a no smoking ban in all public places, including pubs and cafe’s.

This week the French switched to a new style car number plate. Previously, the plate was issued to the person and not the car. It indicated the region from which the owner came from. As from this week the two digit regional identifier has been removed causing much upset and push back.

Probably the most resented of all the French regions is 75. If you live in Troyes and you see a car badly parked, you would likely be inclined to look at its number plate and if it turned out to be from the region 75 then you would most likely explain it away by saying “typical Parisian!” And if you were stuck behind a dithering car in the capital city and noticed that the plate came from your local home town, you would probably sympathize with the driver and refrain from honking your horn.

And so is it, from now French children won’t have the fun game of spotting regions on long car journeys, and everyone will lose (against their will) the link between themselves and their regions. But the French authorities have brought in one concession – they have left a space at the end of the plate, where the owner can add a sticker indicating where they come from. Of course, like all last minute initiatives, this has not been thought through because people can put on any sticker they like. So Parisians on holiday in Reims can switch their stickers and pretend to be from somewhere else! How strange and unpredictable we humans are. How strange that we become so chauvinistic about where we come from and where we would like to be!

In my experience, change managers have the biggest difficulty not with handling massive changes but small ones. I once managed a change project for a multi-national company where we had to introduce US Qwerty keyboards into all their offices across the globe. In Spain and Germany (where quite frankly the impact was massive) the resistance was predictably vocal but balanced and a solution was found. In the UK, however, where the difference in the keyboard is almost zero (only the British pound sign is replaced by a $, and a couple of other very minor differences) the resistance was incredible. I had not expected it and had no plan in place to fight off the vociferous and passionate resistance. The argument thrown at me was that because the change was so small, there was no point in doing it! The UK resistors expected us to make technological changes to our platform and change our purchasing procedures where in every other country, the globalization argument of ‘anyone working anywhere’ had won the day.

Life is strange and people unpredictable and as long as it remains this way, us change managers will continue to have a purpose and a very interesting life!

2 comments:

Christophe Lastennet said...

Dear Harley,

Thanks for the article which I guess shows how important change management is even for "small" changes; the question is: do small changes really exist? I live in France and I confirm that removing the department number from car number plates is a massive cultural shift for quite a few! The reason is mainly that this number is now widely used, particularly amongst the young generation, to say where you come from. So you would say I come from 92, for example, an not Seine Saint-Denis. Personally I much prefer to say I come from an area than a number but that's not the way many people see it. I believe an association was even created to protest against that measure. So now as you mentioned, we will have the possibility of indicating the region (a region typcially includes 4-5 departments). All in all there are so many other changes and problems in France at the moment that I think eventually this will be arather smooth change process.

Furqan said...

I guess the article shows how important change management is even for "small" changes; the question is: do small changes really exist? Thanks for the article.
Regards,

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