Dealing in the ‘Currency of Change’

Many organizations have a ‘currency of change’ – a unit which forms the focal point of the majority of changes that they make. Typical examples of currencies of change are products, services, customer interactions, business processes and technology components (application software and infrastructure). It is based on these focal points that change is envisioned, planned and executed, and on which successful change is measured. These focal points are familiar to employees and change agents; people relate to them, understand them and have experience of dealing with them.

However, there are also currencies of change that people may not relate to, and a common example is business capabilities. Even though they are business-focused, their abstract nature means that many people struggle to associate with them, and making significant investment in change based on a concept that people do not relate to is risky. That is not to say that business capabilities are not a useful construct at a strategic level – not least of as they enable a linkage between an organization’s objectives and what it does and needs to do. However, changes are ultimately made at a more granular level, to the elements of the capabilities, the people, processes and technologies that collectively provide the capabilities, and these are elements that people can relate to.

Within organizations (especially large organizations) there may be more than one currency of change, and it often varies across function (division/department). For example, in a bank the currency of change in the front-office (revenue generating, customer facing) functions may be products or services, but for the back-office (support and shared functions) technology may be the currency. With the omnipresence of digitization, technology is increasingly perceived to be the currency of change … although there needs to be a link between technology and the organization’s strategic intentions to ensure that the tail is not wagging the dog so-to-speak.

One way of identifying an organization’s dominant currency of change is to look at its change portfolio, that is the list of programmes or projects that are planned and executed, and the manner by which they evolve their business.  One national supermarket chain that I visited wanted to improve the efficiency of its customer-facing operations, and specifically its business processes that involved customer interactions. However, their list of projects was basically a list of a subset of their software applications – their currency of change – and one step removed from their actual focus of change.

Having more than one currency of change is not necessarily a problem but it can hinder the ability of an organization to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of change. Take an extreme case – which I have experienced on more than one occasion – in which a change to achieve an objective (in this case to improve customers’ ordering experience) was divided into two separate projects, one focused on the business process and the other on the underlying technology that supported the business process. Each project had a different currency of change, each with its own Subject Matter Experts, terminology, methods and deliverables. And the technology-related project was one step removed from what the organization ultimately wanted to achieve (namely to improve the customers’ experience). Although the change resulted in a positive outcome, it was suboptimal; the change was effective but it was not achieved efficiently.  Adopting separate currencies of change can also perpetuate existing inefficiencies within organizations, where change is disjointed, hindering the organization’s ability to be fully integrated and, for example, leveraging shared services across the organization.

The best consultancies recognise the currency of change of their clients and engage with them accordingly, talking in the language their clients are familiar with. Some consultancies, however, impose their own currency of change, reinforced with their change methodology, and if that differs to the organization’s then the result is often sub-optimal change, and too often results in frustration, disillusionment and ultimately disengagement of the organization’s employees. That is not to say that a different currency cannot or should not be adopted, indeed it may be preferable, but adopting a new currency requires thought and effort, including an understanding of how deep-rooted existing currencies are, and a strong strategy to engender a new currency.

So, what does it mean for digital transformation programmes? As I mentioned in my previous article (Visualizing Digital Transformation), change is fundamentally about people talking to each other, understanding each other, and making sense of what’s going on – fundamentally developing shared meaning. Focusing communications and conversations on a currency of change that can be easily related to, and which relate to the objectives of the organisation (and the changes that it needs to make to achieve those objectives) provides a greater chance of sustainable transformation.

Jonathan Whelan is the author of Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning, which he co-wrote with Stephen Whitla (Pub: Routledge; 1 edition (6 Feb. 2020), Hardback and eBook (Kindle & VitalSource).


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Jonathan Whelan

Jonathan is an established business transformation specialist who has over 34 years’ experience in change-related roles. His commonsense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programs.

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.