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Friday Features
Friday Fiction

Fiction | Change management

It had been two weeks to the day since we were seated in the Theatrette listening to the Director General explain how our Department would be overhauled. To keep our attention focused on the details of the new management structure, rather than furtively trying to locate ourselves in it, she announced at the beginning that when we returned to our desks we would each find an envelope with details about our future positions.

Now Fintan O’Flaherty, a short, buttery Irishman recently arrived from the New York City University Business School, stood before us.

 ‘There are seven phases in the process of managing change,’ he told us.

Key phases,’ he added, possibly to emphasise their gravitas. 

Fintan was our change facilitator. When our Branch Director introduced him saying he had a PhD in the sociology of organisational change from Columbia University, his smooth, pink face crinkled with a smile. Dressed in a casually elegant black suit with tasteful beige linen shirt unbuttoned at the collar, he looked as if he had recently teleported from Park Avenue.

‘Your leader is a resilient woman,’ he told us once she had left the room. We thought this was a diplomatic way of saying he knew her position had been abolished. Apparently, she’d discovered this in the Theatrette the previous week while peering at the new organisational chart, which showed our Branch being merged with two others to create a Super-Branch. 

‘And a wise one,’ he added, patting his sparse grey hair with a well-manicured hand. We had to agree with him because, even though our Branch would soon not exist, she’d decided to spend the funds still at her discretion on hiring him to support us.

Loyal to her staff too, we had to acknowledge. ‘I am not going to abandon you to the wolves that blew your house down,’ she began at the Branch meeting called the day after the Theatrette announcements. ‘I will support you to learn the most effective tactics for success and advancement within our re-tooled Super-Branch, or in the business world outside, for that matter. You must remember, the skills you’ve acquired in the public service make that world your oyster, too. If you act strategically.’

Fintan, who was now among us, our new shepherd, said, ‘Seven key phases.’ Then, opening his blue eyes wide, he looked intently at each of us.

‘I’d like to get an idea of how you’re feeling at the moment, your state of mind,’ he said. ‘Would anyone like to share that with the group?’

‘I feel as though I’ve been hit across the back with a railway sleeper,’ Vanessa offered.

‘What Vanessa describes,’ said Fintan, ‘is a classic symptom of the first stage of change management.’

He tapped a key on his laptop. ‘This diagram might help you understand what you’re facing.’ A PowerPoint slide appeared on the screen at the front of the room. Titled ‘The Transition Curve,’ the diagram showed a line starting below the mid-point on the left-hand side of the frame (the vertical axis, representing competence), then dipping and rising as it moved along the horizontal axis (representing time), and coming to an end near the top of the righthand side of the frame.

‘Makes me think of a track over sand dunes,’ Damien said.

‘Couldn’t think of a better metaphor myself,’ Fintan replied, nodding in Damien’s direction as he picked up a laser pointer.

A red dot appeared on the word below the starting point of the curve on the left hand side.

Immobilisation,’ Fintan read. ‘That is the first phase—where you all are now, I imagine. And feeling much like Vanessa described.’

There were signposts along the line marking the other six phases. Fintan’s red dot leapt from Immobilisation to Integration on the opposite side.

‘And Integration, whatever that is,’ Vanessa said, ‘must be the last.’

‘Correct. And to borrow Damien’s image of a track in the dunes, although the sand moves and shifts under our feet, there are times when we feel as though we’re making progress. That’s because we’re getting to the top of a dune and can just glimpse the bush or a limestone headland in the distance. At other times, we’re descending into a gully. The more energetically we trudge, the deeper the sand gets; it fills our shoes, swallows our feet and threatens to suck us into its fine-grained, choking space, to ingest us whole.’

Fintan assured us that it was completely normal to feel clueless in the Immobilisation phase. Not just about how to cross the dunes and get to terra firma, but how to get out of the gully. It was his job to show us how.

‘I’ll begin work on that in next week’s session,’ he said. ‘In the meantime, try not to let the noxious weeds of negative expectations sprout up in your mind. And practise being kind to yourselves.’

 

‘I smell an ex-priest,’ Vanessa declared over coffee a few days later.

A lapsed Catholic, but still connected to the Church through her daughter’s school, Vanessa had consistently displayed a talent for sniffing out the ex-religious who reincarnated themselves as organisational messiahs—psychologists, counsellors, HR specialists, workforce advisors or change agents. In her view, they gravitated instinctively to their old role as intermediaries between the omnisciently powerful and the relatively powerless. That’s what made them so skilled as peddlers of twenty-first century organisational indulgences.

‘Do not trust him, I tell you,’ she said darkly.

 ‘Why?’ Damien, who enjoyed playing devil’s advocate, countered.

 ‘What does an Irish priest sent to America to advance his education do when he loses his vocation?’ she responded, examining her cheese and herb muffin.

‘I have no idea,’ Damien said, ‘Not having had the advantages of that solidly Catholic education you go on about.’

‘He goes into academe. Sociology, that refuge of proto-prophets and would-be Messiahs is a favourite bolthole. And what does he do when, finally, the PhD scholarship and post-doc fellowships dry up and he has to earn a crust? He gravitates to large organisations. They are always buffeted by change. He becomes a change facilitator.’

Vanessa tended to hyperventilate when she started on the Catholic Church. Especially at the moment, when she was battling her daughter’s progressive Catholic school’s decision to expel the teenager for being caught with drugs. In response to Vanessa’s attempt to discipline her, the girl had run away and was living on the streets.

We were entertained by her fiery, if partisan logic, and tempted to be swept along by it, as it salved our own slightly unhinged state of mind. But perhaps Fintan had something to teach us, whatever his background? If he had been a priest, hadn’t he traversed the sand dunes of change to transform himself into an organisational guru? Besides, a PhD in organisational change from Columbia University must count for something.

 

Our second meeting with Fintan didn’t happen the following week, as planned. It was postponed to the week after that because of preparation for Estimates Hearings. To survive the inquisitors she would face in Parliament (especially from the Opposition), the Director General required an impenetrable shield of information about how our Branch had contributed to her Department achieving its outcomes. And we were set to work to provide this.

A week of intense activity followed during which we reverted to our pre-Theatrette selves and spent long days writing and revising the briefings, budgets and speaking notes that made up the shield. Immersed in this labour, we forgot about our own and the Branch’s predicaments and emerged at the end of the week in a state of satisfied exhaustion and almost light-headed elation. The pronouncement made in the Theatrette seemed absurd and illusory, a bad dream from which we would soon awake. Some of us even became convinced the Director General would come to her senses and see what a mistake she was making in taking us away from the work we did so well.

Fintan picked up on our upbeat state of mind straight away when we finally met.

‘You’re all looking more cheerful,’ he commented as he sat down at the beginning of the second session. ‘I’ll have to postpone my presentations more often.’ We responded with subdued laughter and offered detailed accounts of the pressured workload of the previous week.

He was too smart an operator to tell us we had reached that small and temporary plateau, the phase of Denial. Instead, he put us to work. Our future was in our own hands, he told us. If we were prepared to risk being proactive, to leap ‘beyond the square’, we could shape much of it ourselves.

Thus began our Spirit of Change Project. Three teams were formed, each reflecting the diversity of expertise and experience in the Branch. Gender diversity was constrained by the small number of males among us. Nevertheless, care was taken to distribute them as evenly as possible among the groups.

The teams’ overarching task was to incubate a vision of how our new Super-Branch should be structured to enable each of us to achieve our potential, and thus maximise our contribution to it. Added to this, we were to identify the roadblocks that would result in endless and unproductive detours. Enabling and supporting behaviours and structures that would promote cohesion, efficiency and collaboration and signal clear paths for innovation and progress also had to be illustrated.

‘Why are we doing this in isolation?’ Damien muttered as we ambled back to our desks at the end of the session. ‘Shouldn’t we be working with those from the other two Branches we’re joining with? We’ll have to do all this again when we’re finally merged.’

We worried about these questions, and many more, and debated them in the following weeks. Vanessa’s response was trenchant.

‘This Spirit of Change stuff is busy work,’ she said, ‘Should be called the Spirit of Diversion’.

‘What do you mean?’ we replied, thinking it must be hard for Vanessa to have her heart in this project after discovering her job had been abolished. In recompense, she’d been offered two positions at an equivalent level in the new Super-Branch, but neither fitted her expertise or interests.

‘Fintan’s got a point,’ we suggested. ‘Listen, we’re being given time to think about how this Super-Branch should work, to come up with our vision, offer our solutions. It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t throw away.’

‘They don’t want us to solve problems. They’re not interested in our solutions. This is a way of keeping us quiet and compliant. Damien is right, what’s the point, when we’re only talking to ourselves?’

‘We’re presenting the completed project to the Director General,’ we reminded her.

‘And then?’

No one was sure of the next step.

‘I’ll tell you. She will quietly forget about it. I think we should boycott it.’

 

Vanessa ended up missing Fintan’s next session because she had to be in court with her daughter, who was facing drug possession and charges of theft. The daughter had also discovered she was five months pregnant. Being a tall, sturdily built girl, bodily changes had only recently become obvious and she had not suffered from morning sickness. Lucky her, thought the women in our group.

For the remainder of Fintan’s sessions, Vanessa’s mind was more often with her daughter than our Spirit of Change Project. Thanks to a sympathetic judge, a place had been found for the daughter in rehab. But, to learn to live independently, she needed a job and a place to live when the rehab ended. Vanessa spent all her lunchtimes on real estate websites or promoting her daughter’s skills and attributes to friends. We were not unsympathetic to Vanessa’s more-than-occasional text messaging under the table at workshops and found ways to distract Fintan from noticing any lack of engagement on her part.

By the time Fintan had completed his six sessions, we were familiar with Feeling Incompetent, the phase that followed Denial. Finding our vision for the Spirit of Change Project had been a struggle. Everyone had pet features they wanted incorporated. In the end, the escalators, a particular architectural feature of our building, and one we used many times each day, gave us the organising image and structure for our presentation. Thanks to Damien’s animation skills, we produced a PowerPoint that humorously illustrated (Fintan loved that hint of subversion) how we, in our small corner, could ascend through administrative purgatory to our version of organisational paradise. In reality, the escalators were often immobile, their inner machinery jammed by a small moving part that had broken or worn out. These breakdowns neatly illustrated the roadblocks to enterprise and innovation, and the frustration, inconvenience and lack of productivity such obstacles caused.

After watching a rehearsal of our presentation, Fintan declared we were ready to share our handiwork with our leaders. But the first free slot the Director General had in her diary was four weeks away. By then we’d slid even further down the gully to the sandy bed of Acceptance of the status quo and embraced this delay with calmness and good grace.

‘From here, the only way is up,’ Fintan told us, the day of the presentation. He’d projected ‘The Transition Curve’ slide on to the screen, to help our Branch  Director when she introduced our work. She was serving out her final weeks before leaving, with a handsome payout, and looking forward to her new executive role in the Ministry of Education of the United Arab Emirates, based in Dubai.

Our leaders followed our presentation closely, appeared impressed by our vision and laughed in the right places. When we’d finished, the Director General spoke for at least five minutes on the relevance of the process we’d undergone for other Branches. She concluded by praising our Branch Director’s foresight in organising the sessions, Fintan’s motivational skills and our insight into organisational culture. Her only quibble was to ask why our Branch had done the project in isolation.

When our Branch Director began to explain that staff wellbeing had been her main rationale for the project, the Director General interrupted. ‘Yes, I understand that,’ she said. ‘Now the other sections need to be brought up to speed.’

A celebratory lunch followed, catered by Inclusive Eats, the corporate caterer favoured by the Department for their delicious yet inexpensive finger food, prepared by staff, a high proportion of whom were on ‘Jobseeker’ programs. 

 

It was another couple of months before we moved to the floor above, joining colleagues from the other two Branches to form the new Super-Branch. To save space, individual offices were dismantled and the floor redesigned to operate as open plan. This was promoted as fostering cohesiveness and a spirit of collaboration. We thought it strange that the initiative had been adopted, as we had not identified it as enhancing these behaviours in our Spirit of Change Project.

‘Don’t be afraid of your anger,’ Fintan advised when he called in to say hello after conducting workshops with other groups. ‘You’re in the Testing Out phase. A lot of anger will inevitably be released.’

We figured we must be atypical, or that Fintan had taught us more than we had given him credit for, as we seemed to have little anger to expend. We were sad when Vanessa reluctantly moved to take up the position in the Super-Branch she felt least ill-suited to. But angry? No. By that time, her relocation had the inevitability of an event preordained in the distant past. We wondered if the feeling of detachment we experienced meant we had reached a deeper understanding of the reasons for the change in our workplace, as Fintan had predicted we would.

Six months later, when redundancy packages were offered in Vanessa’s section, we discovered our anger. We were happy that she received an excellent package, one that would enable her to resign and enrol in a Fine Arts degree in painting, her passion. Most of us felt the inevitable twinges of resentment and envy, but rose above them to organise a farewell lunch, collect money for a gift and huge card wishing her a wonderful future. What triggered the anger was that she did not visit us to say goodbye on her last day. The email we received days later, apologising and explaining that she had been unavoidably delayed, intensified our rancour.

More than a year on, we heard of Vanessa’s success with her art studies, and about the renovation of her house to create a wing for Air B&B rental. That, and the fact she was selling some of her canvases made her very comfortable, financially. Her daughter had given birth to a healthy son, christened Cobain, and had managed to stay drug-free. Vanessa delighted in babysitting little Cobain three evenings a week while her daughter studied part-time for her ATAR. Fintan had become Vanessa’s close friend, and mentor to her daughter, who hoped to go on to university. He and Vanessa were encouraging the young woman to study organisational psychology, an area they believed had great earning prospects.

 

Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rita Tognini is a writer of short fiction and poetry. Her stories have been published in collections and journals and have received many commendations and prizes. In 2018, Rita was selected for the Western Australian Four Centres Emerging Writer Program. She recently completed her first collection of short stories.

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