The Scottish referendum highlights a deficiency in our attitude to change, says our management consultancy columnist Mick James – we can’t agree on how to agree.


Suddenly… nothing happened. Just after the Scottish referendum the Guardian ran a poll to see if people felt a sense of anticlimax. Although I was firmly in the “No” camp as far as Scotland was concerned I found myself answering yes.

Why was this? I should have been elated. My view on the referendum was clear: aside from any emotions, a Yes vote would most certainly involve great disruption and cost, with many attendant risks and only uncertain and minor gains at the end of it. It was a classic small-c conservative response to a change proposal.

Worse, a Yes vote would have put me in the unfortunate position of a Cassandra, on the one hand hoping that all my direst predictions would be proved wrong and on the other hand hating to be proved wrong. But as a lover of politics and a student of change, what a spectacle it would have been: all the negotiations and horse-trading, all the unexpected consequences; the ability to look back in five and 10 and 15 years’ time and compare reality with predictions.

In retrospect this partially explains the success of the No camp. No-one was able to lay out an unambiguous vision of the future of an independent Scotland, and this was not so much because of the inherent unpredictability of the future in general, but the outcome of the negotiations.

Many people made bullish statements: “I’ll veto this, I’ll refuse to take on that” but this always raised the question “can he even do that?” Does this person or country have the power to dictate on this issue?

So people were asked to vote on the outcome of a negotiation without anyone making explicit what the terms of those negotiations might be.

This highlights a severe deficiency in our country’s (and many organisations’) attitude to change. We’ve completely failed to achieve any significant reforms for years now, and it’s not been for want of trying, or because we can’t agree on the need to change. It’s because we can’t agree on how to agree.

People often compare the British and American constitutions: for me it’s not about the content, not the written versus unwritten aspect. The key advantage of the American constitution is that there is a well-defined mechanism for changing it. True it is difficult and unwieldy and thus inherently conservative. But it is respected by all, to the extent that some of the amendments to the constitution are held in greater reverence by the population than the original clauses.

This is a tremendous achievement and one which in my view should be emulated: we don’t so much need to change the constitution as to have a constitution for change.

For companies such a constitution would be a powerful tool. At the moment corporate leaders are reduced to repeating mantras like “change is a constant” or doing presentations that basically boil down to “digital, phew!!”. Nevertheless I think we all understand that the world is changing rapidly and in unpredictable ways. The dream is that you could construct an organisation which would automatically react to its external environment, so that change was indeed a constant internally, rather than a series of moves from one static state to another.

However, working such a fluid organisation might be more of a nightmare than a dream, a bit like living in a house where doors were liable to become walls at any moment or the ceiling might start descending.

So a change constitution would not simply boil down to a set of change procedures or internal processes. Rather it would set down the parameters within which chance could occur and how it would be mediated, without dictating the outcome. Nor need such a constitution need to be in any way democratic, although of course it could be. But people would know where they stand and be able have faith that the outcomes, whether they agreed with them or not, had been reached in an impartial and objective way.

Could such a “constitution” ever be generalised? I’d like to think so. Certainly something like it is needed at the national level, if anything is ever to happen. People are already talking about the Scottish referendum being a catalyst for change, of all places in England, which was neither consulted on nor appears to have much appetite for devolution. A lot of what is being discussed at the moment is premature, focusing once more on outcomes when the process is still up in the air. And that seems a recipe for disaster. I have no problem with people sticking with the status quo because they like it or they are conservative or even if they fear change. But to do so simply because you can’t get your act together is inexcusable.

So… if the outcome of all this was indeed a “constitution for change” I would be far more elated than if any of my pet reforms actually came through. Who knows, maybe we could end up teaching our American cousins a thing or two about change?



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All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: mick.james@top-consultant.com
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