Saturday, 5 January 2013

Belfast City Hall 'fleg': Lessons for negotiation and change management

Few of you probably realise that just as I was starting my procurement career one of my 'any other duties' was sending out details, to those responsible for Belfast City Council buildings, when they should fly 'the Fleg' (as they say where I come from). I worked in Belfast City Hall right through the worst of 'the Troubles' and the daily threat of bombs - indeed I clearly remember a bomb going off a few metres from my office during a meeting with one supplier. Heaven forbid that we ever return to that dark past of daily atrocities. I left the Council in 2000 but I still live in Northern Ireland.

It may come as a surprise to you, but I think the whole 'Fleg' fiasco, like the Julian Assange fiasco, can teach us some lessons for procurement negotiations and change management.

The average man in the street could have predicted that a decision to instantly change from 'business as usual' of flying 'the Fleg' would have provoked anger and resistance.

2012 marked the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant by 471,414 men and women - many signed the Covenant in their own blood in the same City Hall (see picture) - so timing of the change was not particularly sensitive. The fact that there were protests outside when the decision regarding the 'Fleg' was to be taken should also have signalled problems - clearly there were those not ready for change and quite vocal in their resistance to the change. The reality that there was a large continental market taking place in the grounds of the City Hall, with traders from across Europe, could also have indicated that the decision's impact would travel far and risk compromising so many positive Belfast stories of recent years. Risk management, stakeholder management, communications strategy and timing don't seem to have been considered in a way that would have minimised the resistance to change. It just doesn't appear that Belfast had reached the right stage of change readiness.
Nevertheless the political decision was made.

Now almost daily there is a security alert with a suspect device and there is trouble on the streets. Last night nine police officers were injured and 18 arrests were made for causing disorder in Greater Belfast. - water cannons have also been used!  Those charged with the democratic leadership of Belfast are losing locally and internationally - the leadership of change has led to increased cost.

I have explained that I worked in the City Hall. However, I also still have a legacy of Facebook Friends who are closer to 'the streets' than most. My observation is that many who feel bitter about the 'Fleg' decision are also seriously concerned about the violence and destruction that has followed - they are fearful of a return to the past. Facebook Friends at the centre of the loyalist tradition express frustration with their politicians but also are pleading, through Facebook for an end. However, following some of the conversations is insightful, for example, one conversation calling for an end to the violence on the streets received this comment:
"Easily solved put the flag back and we can get back to normal that's wot we all want."
The change management handling of 'the Fleg' fiasco may have been poor but the negotiation strategy of those aiming for a reversal is just crazy. How on earth can the decision to reduce the days of flying 'the Fleg' be reversed in a 'face-saving' way? The current negotiating strategy cannot work as it will demonstrate that violence works - the very criticism that loyalists had when they felt IRA terrorists had 'bombed their way to leading the Northern Ireland Assembly'.

So what are the lessons:
  1. Change management means bringing major stakeholders with you;
  2. Change management requires reaching a stage of readiness;
  3. Change management requires good risk management;
  4. Change management requires good stakeholder management;
  5. Change management requires good timing;
  6. Change management requires good communications;
  7. Effective change and negotiation requires making is easy for those affected to change;
  8. Effective change and negotiation requires focusing on the benefits to be gained by the key stakeholders;
  9. Effective change and negotiation shouldn't end up placing you in a worse position than you were previously;
  10. Sometimes it is better not to rush when there's no need for urgency.

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