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Trainer’s Diary: The Okavanga-Kalahari Syndrome

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Management consultant and writer Byron Kalies looks at why change programmes fail so often.


"There's a new change management programme starting next week," said the worried voice on the phone, "What can I do?"
"Keep your head down," was my sage advice.
"But this one's serious."
"They all are."
"No - really. This time the HR Department is determined to make it happen. I don't want to change. What can I do?"
"Stay out of the way. It's the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome"
"Eh?"
"There's a river in Africa that starts in a range of mountains in Namibia known as the Okavanga-Kalahari River. Everyone knows where it starts - it's a huge river. It flows into the Kalahari Desert but no one really knows where it finishes. It just sort of fades away."
"Ah."

The vast majority of culture change programmes go like this: Big start with trumpets, fanfares, senior managers wheeled out... the first events are hugely popular and over subscribed. Go back in six months time and ask about it. It just sort of disappeared - no one knew when, or whose decision it was. It just faded into the desert - the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.

There's a syndrome creeping into modern business now of change overload. Every week there seems to be a new initiative, a new programme, a new mission statement. People are getting drained. Any new programme needs to be real, well thought out, have tangible benefits and fully supported by senior management and all departments. There should be people begging to go on them.

There are a number of factors that will help in the success of any culture programme. Number one is do the maths. How much will it cost? How much extra will you get out of it? If you can't get a tangible benefit then forget it. Your employees certainly won't be bothered unless there's something in it for them, as individuals. You certainly shouldn't be bothered unless there's something in it for you as an organisation.

People tend to not like change so if you're not getting any resistance - it's because they've heard of the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome and are just keeping their heads down waiting for it to go away. You need to encourage resistance - get it out in the open. At least here you'll have a chance to address it. If it's hidden in the shadows you have no chance.

You must instigate any culture programme from the very top and work down. Managers at all levels must buy into the programme and sell it down the line. This is frequently a very difficult trick to pull off as somewhere in the chain there will invariably be managers that 'don't do training'. Talk to them, encourage them, threaten them - whatever works, but you can't ignore them. Staff see managers not attending, or attending and not changing their behaviour and the programme suddenly loses credibility. "Why should I bother?" You'll start seeing lots of non-attendees with "too busy to attend" notes from their managers. Leading by example has to start from the top and top managers rewarded or disciplined immediately. If the credibility of the programme goes you'd just as well forget it straight away and save yourself some money.

* Byron Kalies' latest book "25 Management Techniques in 90 Minutes" (Management Books 2000) was published January 2005

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