Saturday, 3 September 2016

I'm The Greatest Star: The Importance Of Plan B

Succession planning can be a dirty word in some organisations. What form does your planning take? Is it a fancy colourful spreadsheet with every possible crisis situation? Is it aligned with a talent management programme? Or is it more of a knee jerk reaction when your lead performer scores a dream role on Broadway?

According to CIPD, succession planning is ‘the process of identifying and developing potential future leaders or senior managers, as well as individuals to fill other business-critical positions, either in the short- or the long-term.’ This is something in Theatreland that we do exceptionally well.

You, as the manager (or director) of your West End team, are analysing performances, giving constructive feedback (or ‘notes’ as we call it) and ensuring your cast are challenged and motivated. You cast your lead performer in the role that fits their skills and abilities, but it’s only a matter of time before they are dazzled by the excitement of another show. As they are human, they will also get ill and need a holiday - if you don't have a backup solution then the show will not go on. So what is your Plan B?

A smart director has people in the team who are ready and willing to take on additional responsibilities, or are flexible and agile enough to step up at the last minute.  They have two main options for this event; an understudy or a swing.

An understudy is in the main cast at every performance, therefore knows the team and their objectives inside out, and steps up for the lead if they are ill or have booked time off. By my experience the understudy has to be even more fantastic than the original lead under pressure, especially if the lead is well recognised for their skills (think Glenn Close falling ill in Sunset Boulevard). If the audience see the understudy is on, instead of their expected lead, then this person has the task to capture their attention from the offset, get the message across and get the project delivered to a high standard.

A swing in theatre is a member of the cast who knows several roles in the ensemble and cast, and when an understudy steps up to take the lead, the swing takes the responsibility for the role the understudy is leaving behind. This person will be the most flexible in your team; they will have a wide variety of abilities and strengths, and can flit from one task to another effortlessly, particularly in a time of crisis or impending ever-changing deadlines.

There is also an option to use a standby; a person who only replaces the lead when necessary and otherwise is not involved in the show. They are expected to be available at a moment’s notice though, but only tend to exist if the lead is a well-known performer in the theatre industry. This could be a peer colleague who can lead your team when you aren’t there, or a project manager who can step in to help quickly if your team is lacking capacity or expertise.

Where do I get an understudy or a swing I hear you sing, possibly harmonising with other managers in your workplace (well I can dream)? Consider your ensemble, or chorus; this group consists of the core members of the cast who fill smaller yet necessary roles and dance numbers. Few shows on Broadway or the West End do not have an ensemble, and this group has both the key people that keep the team going, as well as your future understudies and swings. Nurture this group and your team will function flawlessly and perform to a high standard, as well as become key players in your succession plan.

If you can develop your team to have transferrable skills whilst ensuring each member’s skills and workloads align to the higher purpose of the organisation, then they will be more capable and willing to step into the limelight at short notice. Your team look to you to make these essential casting decisions in times of crisis, so make them quickly and confidently and ensure you support them to do the best job they can. Remember that history has its eyes on you.


CIPD, 2015: Succession planning factsheet [online], available at:, last accessed 3 September 2016.

Radio Silence Has Broken

Apologies for the radio silence for the best part of a year. Unfortunately my career has taken a backseat lately, ever since my dad was diagnosed and passed away from cancer last September. I know I’m not a special case; myself and thousands of other people have lost their loved ones, their heroes and their biggest fans, but all I can say is I was well and truly knocked off my feet.

I have had a lot of time to re-evaluate what I want and need in my life, and have made a lot of changes since that horrible day. I am incredibly lucky to be part of a very supportive team and am still so proud to work in the NHS.  And I can confidently reaffirm that OD is still my passion, as well as all things #stagey of course, so I don’t think you’ll be getting rid of me just yet.

Thanks for reading my blog. It will continue to be filled with theatrical references, I just think OD and theatre relate a lot more closely than one initially might think. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Any good change is a diamond: reflections from the CIPD L&D Show 2015

I was lucky enough to be invited by the CIPD to be part of the CIPD Learning and Development Show 2015 Blog Squad this year. I spent two days rubbing shoulder with some amazing HR, OD and L&D thinkers and hijacking their sessions and workshops to steal the knowledge gems and wisdom. You can follow my tweets from the day via @NHSRebecca and the buzz from the day using #cipdldshow - and here is the first of my blog posts from the day...

I attended a session entitled ‘Investigating New Ways to Drive Growth and Engage Employees in Change’ with Paul Taylor (NHS Employers), Tony Crabbe (BusinessPsychologist) and Jen Wright (Change Management Institute) which consisted of some thought provoking ignite talks and an open space discussion.

It was in Jen Wright’s ignite speech however when she produced the metaphor, ‘Any good change is a diamond… multi-faceted’ which pinged a light on in my head instantly for obvious reasons.

This idea that change was multifaceted was great – change can be and should be seen from different perspectives which will each have different needs, and each perspective will reflect the changes in a different light, but I don’t think it stops there.

Change is valuable, and desirable by many. Change is what prevents the status quo, what makes the world spin round and shakes up things from time to time. It is a rough ground substance, by which I mean that it forces organisations to look at their roots and founding ethics or key priorities and base any proposed changes to further these and improve the business. My work in OD is how I respond to that change, and how I can make my organisation and my staff more flexible and adaptable as a result.

Diamonds are formed at high temperature and high pressure – often a component when organisational change is brought into the mix. A change could be proposed by a senior manager and potentially under high pressure and heat from the rest of his or her senior team, it can be moulded into a ‘better’ change. The change proposed by management teams can then go through more scrutiny and pressure when staff are invited to comment and provide suggestions and ideas, if they are asked at all, but theoretically this should make the proposals into a ‘good change’ like Jen refers to.

Not one to shy away from my #stagey legwarmers, it is in the musical Wicked where Glinda and Elphaba share a lyrical exchange of ‘Who can say if I was changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good’. 

Sustainable and long-lasting changes which build and improve relationships therefore could constitute a ‘good’ change otherwise what was the point in instigating and implementing it? But what constitutes a ‘good’ change? Reduce costs? Improve staff wellbeing? Push profit? Or merely just making a significant beneficial difference?

Any changes we make in our organisations need to be constantly re-evaluated to see if they are both fit for purpose and still making a positive difference to the business and the staff who deliver our priorities. And if not, it’s time to shake things up again; be creative and innovative whilst engaging those that the changes will affect – they tend to have all the ‘good’ ideas anyway.

Thank you to CIPD for inviting me to be part of the blog squad 2015.

Monday, 18 May 2015

If all the world's a stage, what's your part?

I was lucky enough to attend the Organisation Development Network Europe (ODNEU) conference recently and heard the amazing Dr John J. Scherer speak about his life and his work, his influences and drivers and his calling in life via his LDI five questions that can change everything.  One of the questions was ‘What am I bringing?’ in relation to what do I bring to my role, my organisation, the world of OD. I’d never really thought about this but his emotive and inspirational stories and reflections left me wanting to explore this further.

My background before my HR and OD days was theatre; I had completed a drama degree in Northern Ireland and the US, and even to this day, it remains a huge part of my life. Theatre has run through my veins ever since my first role in the school nativity – third angel from the right – and I firmly believe I would not be as confident, creative nor expressive if I hadn’t developed into a #stagey individual. Whilst some of my #stagey characteristics are tucked away when at work – I learnt that no one enjoys ‘Let It Go’ sung every time they get a snappy email  - some of them I draw on every day in the world of OD. 

But is the process of theatre really that different from OD I wondered? I found the below quote from Lee Hall, the playwright who wrote the screenplay and stage adaptation for Billy Elliot:

“Whether you are a writer or an actor or a stage manager, you are trying to express the complications of life through a shared enterprise. That’s what theatre was, always. And live performance shares that with an audience in a specific compact; the play is unfinished unless it has an audience, and they are as important as everyone else.”

What a powerful quote about theatre, but doesn’t it also reflect on our work as OD practitioners? Firstly that OD also attempts to express and address the organisation’s issues and complexities, and secondly that OD is not OD unless it has an audience; its staff, stakeholders, managers, clients, patients. 

Even the smallest organisations have complex social systems, and OD can be used to diagnose the required development areas, and improve the business. Once the issues are identified, dialogues take place – perhaps more improvisation than scripted – to express the current state of the organisation, the desired state and how we propose to get there. There’s usually a call to action too, but we need to be mindful that these conversations don’t turn into farce or tragedy.

OD needs to involve everyone from the outset. An OD strategy is a piece of paper, useless and unfinished without the engagement and drive of OD folk and their audience. A change initiative is not OD without engaging those it will benefit and affect, and then when implemented in an organisation, getting feedback about what worked and what didn’t. 

Only when your audience is on board with the great work we are trying to do will an OD presence be felt and appreciated. We want to improve the business and organisation through the amazing talented staff we have, so it is imperative that our audience is involved at the beginning and throughout any OD goals we have. They are the ones who will watch the journey of OD on the organisational stage, and no doubt will also be our harshest critics so let’s embrace their input and invite their reviews.

So what am I bringing to my role and organisation? An understanding of theatre. I listen to the other players and audience involved in my work, I can express my views succinctly and confidently to a room full of senior management, I can look at things from other perspectives,  I can perform when I need to and I can engage an audience to listen to me.  

What am I bringing to the field of OD? Enthusiasm, ambition, innovation and dedication. And I can sing any piece from the musical Wicked with conviction and optional jazz hands. Jackpot. 

This blog was originally written for NHS Employers' Do OD campaign, and can be found here.

I Do vs. Do OD

Growing up, I dreamed of my special day; marrying my Prince Charming in a picturesque castle with everyone ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the beautiful bride. The happiest day of my life, and a whole day about me.

When I started to plan my Phantom of the Opera themed wedding two years ago I learnt that my Disney-style dreams were misguided. I am sure the past and present brides among us realise very early on that the day is not about the bride, or even the happy couple. When I thought about it, I realised there were a surprising number of parallels between OD principles and the world of white weddings:
  • Co-creation is keyI had never planned a wedding before; I didn’t know whether I wanted a sweetheart neckline with cathedral veil or that a cake would cost £400. To design the perfect day, I needed to call on the subject experts for their educated views and advice, and then test them out. The wedding boutique knew all the dress styles available, but only my mother knew what would work for me. Whilst we should never devalue the OD theories or subject experts we have available when designing an OD initiative, we should always ensure that we pilot our ideas with people ‘on the ground’ – only they will know the culture and context pivotal to success.
  • Be aware of existing relationships – but don’t be governed by themSo Auntie Jane can’t sit next to Nanna Ethel because she ran over her goldfish thirty years ago. Any bride will tell you that seating plans were the bane of their lives. It is also no secret that a workplace has complicated relationships governed by historical experience and current priorities, but in when designing and implementing successful OD initiatives you will need input from both Jenny from data and Mick from HR as to why they don’t work together as effectively as they can and then collaboratively determining how this can be improved. Ensuring they sit at different desks is not enough, but interestingly at a wedding this will suffice!
  • Plans, structures and timescales are needed but should not be inflexibleCertain stakeholders in the organisation’s development will need a plan with the details, a framework for delivery and timescales for completion to assure them that the initiatives you are drawing up are aligned to the business objectives and the detail has been though through. The venue and photographer will need detail, whereas the bridesmaids (and staff) won’t. Be flexible though – if the speeches run for thirty minutes instead of five, or a new priority comes to light, those involved will need to be able to adapt quickly.
  • Unpredictability is in our natureThe behaviour of your guests on your special day can never be predetermined, and neither can the behaviour of our staff through times of change. Evaluate the factors that may contribute to someone acting out of sorts and appreciate that sometimes ‘life happens’ and people are preoccupied with other issues. The way we behave is how we are communicating with the world at that moment, and we can encourage behaviour change sensitively and tactfully where it is not appropriate.
  • Be prepared for setbacks
    Ensuring a wedding goes smoothly is largely dependent on the many cogs of the machine running interdependently and reliably. If you lose one cog, then the whole thing may grind to a halt. Ensure that you have a Plan B for everything, and monitor when some of your cogs may be losing enthusiasm or falling behind and may impact the success of your initiative. If your senior management buy-in is dwindling, it is crucial to get that group back on your side; diagnose their issues and deliver the assurance they need that this will ultimately make the organisation more effective.
OD is never just about me, it’s about us. I am grateful to have the Do OD community as a valuable resource and network of like-minded, amazing people with great ideas and supportive natures. OD is not about what I want to achieve, it’s about finding what will work for everyone in the organisation at that moment in time.

The ultimate goal of OD is to improve the organisation through the people within it. With a wedding, it is to marry the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with. Never lose focus of the final outcome. That is all that matters in the end, not the long and bumpy journey it took to achieve it.
First published on 13 October 2014 as part of Do OD's #Blogtober month. The original blog can be found here and the full #Blogtober book of blogs can be found here