Change Management Interview: Tonny Berend

At Q7 Consulting, we are aware that we live in times of uncertainty, and now more than ever Change Management and Leadership within organizations, are essential concepts for success. Great enterprises require great leadership and successful projects require effective management structures that flow through Change. Without these essential traits, projects will not be successful, talent will flee and enterprises cannot hope to overcome or stay up to date in the everchanging world we live in.

The people we interview are from all around the world and have outstanding professional trajectories. They have attained success within their roles, have essential leadership traits, are influential within their organizations and have experience implementing and managing Change.

In this second episode of our new series, we interview Tonny Berend, who recently was the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Municipality of Amersfoort, Netherlands. Amersfoort is a municipality in the Netherlands near the capital city of Amsterdam. Tonny Berend leads through her role to drive digital transformation and innovation, in order to transform cities into a major smart, sustainable, data and innovation driven, digitally savvy and “ready for the future” cities.

In this article we take a look at digital transformation, Change Management and Change Leadership applied directly for the benefit of a population, the environment and the evolution of a city into a “smart” city or city of the future, as such concept is widely used nowadays. This article shifts away from the notion that Change Leadership or Change Management only serves the goals of organizations and their members and broadens our perspective making us look into the future, where we live, and where our Changes can have major impacts in our teams, communities, cities, and eventually our countries.

Please find below the main questions addressed in our interview with Tonny Berend with to the point answers for easy reading.

What have been your takeaways from managing Change?

It’s all about communication, setting expectations and leading the Change. Somebody needs to lead and determine the pace, and that’s what you do as a Change Manager, you set the objectives, you lead, you communicate an awful lot about what you are doing and why (so that people don’t forget why we are doing the Change). You also have to constantly evaluate the business objectives.

The culture in the organization determines the pace of the Change, some organizations are more Change oriented and some are very resilient. This is very important to determine the pace in which you can execute Change, so you always have to be two steps ahead. Be the leader and stay the leader, keep being that person that wants to go somewhere.

What is your advice to people who start managing major Changes in organizations for the first time?

I’ve been doing this my whole life, and my advice would be to believe in what you are doing, lead by example. Just do it, be convincing and get this high energy level going. Some Changes take years and you can’t keep this energy level all the time, so you have to give yourself some rest in between.

You also have to listen to the rejections and objections, because there will be a lot of rejections and objections. You have to address them, never ignore them. Especially with re-organizations. While you and your team are spending money on the “new” innovative exciting digital transformations, others are at risk of losing their job, old safe way of working due to automation and departments having to cut costs. Be humble, be aware of the impact this has on the life of people.

It can be a very lonely job sometimes, so you have to keep believing, and also get a team around you that also believes in the Change. You have to be a team that pushes forward together with your main stakeholders.

What was your role in making Changes in the organization and were the Changes clearly linked to the mission and vision of the company?

The Changes were always linked to the mission and vision of the organization. One of the major Changes I did, I spent around 8 years on this, was the introduction and implementation of the electronic ticketing system in public transport in the Netherlands, moving away from the paper ticketing system to the electronic wireless system (OV-chipkaart). I was responsible for implementing this in Amsterdam. The public transport companies in Amsterdam had tried this before but it hadn’t worked, and now it became a National project. Amsterdam as a capital city with its tourism, everyone was looking at Amsterdam of course, so it’s a different dynamic. It touched the whole city, its population, the almost 18 million yearly tourists, the public transport organizations, not just the IT department, but also the metro, the trams, the buses, incoming trains, the marketing, product management, sales, communication, finance because we had to make totally new products available. We had to keep the old and the new system running parallel. It touched also the thousands of public transport drivers and the inspectors, because the drivers were used to stamp and check all the tickets. People were used to buy the ticket in the vehicle or the metro station and now everybody would have this chip card and could go in and out everywhere. This was the main infrastructure we needed then to get the benefits we are getting now.

The users of public transportation where reluctant to use it at first. So you had this whole communication going on in the market, we targeted difficult groups: older people, people with an extra challenge in life (disabled, blind, low income, etc.), students, young people from primary schools going to their swimming lessons for them to use this. We had all this whole lot of market communication going on to teach how this system worked, it was very important that the drivers and inspectors (over 4,000 people) also got educated and started believing in the system, because they are your service to the public.

It was a major Change for public transport in the Netherlands and specially in Amsterdam. Now it’s been used for 10 years and they are thinking about the next thing now. The mission was a country wide mission to be interoperable in transport, so you can use this one card and go into any public transport, or even taxis and ubers if you wanted to. The mission and vision was for people to be able to travel door to door (MAAS: mobility as a service) seamlessly and effortless in the future throughout the country. It’s making innovation available, step-by-step over the years, to the public, with direct social impact for a better life in the future.

How did your company support you in getting ready to lead / manage Change?

They gave me funds, authorization to build a team, to get contracts with suppliers, the whole structure to set this up. It is very easy to get outside expert knowledge, but you don’t get things changed and implemented, if you don’t get the outside expert knowledge combined with the inside expert knowledge from the organization. So you have to build a multidisciplinary integrated team from outside and inside experts. You also have to have people available from inside the organization to participate in these multidisciplinary teams.

What strategies worked and did not work to communicate the Changes and what strategy did you use to generate a sense of urgency with people?

Within the team, I built new teams a few times. Some people can keep the energy level and have a lot of knowledge and some people just can’t. You need to make Changes to keep the constant flow in the team, to keep the energy level and not become stagnant. You have to have visible results after two or three months at least, visible to the whole organization and to the public. Not a plan, or paper, it has to be physically visible that something is happening, even if it is small, even if it is not used in the daily operations yet, because if people see visible results then they start believing in the Change and become part of this. If they only see presentations, and plans, then nothing is going to happen.

We had 52 metro stations that we had to build and we started very quickly to build the first 5 major metro stations and it was annoying to the public, but because it was annoying, something was happening. Then we got articles in the paper, to explain we were building the project, and that it wouldn’t be used for another three years, and why we were doing this. We were scrutinized for this, but we were getting attention.

Within the organization, I had weekly meetings, just around the planning, we were working agile, with major objectives and results, and once we got these results we celebrated a little with the whole organization. This way we became a very close team and achieved buy-in within the entire organization. We showed our achievements to the stakeholders and even local politicians and the Mayor and City Council Members so they would keep supporting us.  Sending emails is no use to communicate Change, I had to give presentations, and create custom presentation material when required. The main thing is that you communicate a lot, and that you communicate the same message internally and externally, it is the same message. You under promise and over deliver, you make sure your plan and deadlines are achievable, and you do a lot of testing, address any issues that come up internally or externally, make yourself open to the world for people to address issues, but keep the message clear and simple.

Be creative, but not everything you create will be a success. Accept that not everything can be a success and that you will spend money on things that will become obsolete, it is a part of a final good working system and product; to fail on parts, contain it, learn and find a better solution. But do it fast. Keep the pace going.

How did you approach planning Changes? How well were the Change plans followed and how did you approach Changes to the plans?

We worked agile long before the term agile management was applied. You have to have your major big milestones clear, you have to deliver those and you have to be flexible with all the smaller milestones, don’t fix yourself into a too detailed plan, keep it flexible because the world around you is changing while you implement Changes. It’s a very thin line between keeping your project going, staying within the scope and adopting Changes, because there can be Changes that you can adopt easily and there can be Changes that will offset your plan. You have to really put a government structure when adopting and implementing those Changes. Reject Changes upfront unless the Changes are essential for the project to succeed. Don’t accept too many Changes, because all these Changes require attention, limit them. I used a bucket approach that we can fill with Changes, when it’s full, no more Changes or substitute within the bucket.

It is also important to establish the time frame and cut-off time for Changes to the plans. Be flexible but strict when implementing the Changes.

What strategies did you use to attain milestones and make achievements visible?

Demonstrate it, show it, make it a visual thing, show that it works, that it’s there. Make products that you can touch, use or demonstrate. Physical products. I believe in visualization and storytelling as a way of communication.

It is very important to make things visible, we made a simulation, with a real-life tram and bus with the new system implemented and we drove around cities demonstrating how the system was going to work. It takes great educational effort within the organization and outside to the public and stakeholders.

What did you do to keep people committed? What did you do to keep people from going back to old ways?

You can’t force people and you have to understand that it takes a whole lot of time for people to participate on a voluntary basis. You stimulate with communication, help them and support them. Never do a big bang, do Changes in small steps, so the Change becomes a new way of life and comes naturally. You push a little bit, but you don’t force.

Did you underestimate or overestimate what was needed to be done to achieve Change?

Underestimate a lot and overestimate some things, in the end it balances out. If you have 100 million to invest, then you plan for 60 or 70 million to spend, but keep the rest safe for everything else you under or overestimate. You have to be creative all the time, especially with those things that imply risk. Change Management is all about risk management, you tend to look at what is going wrong and you have to look for a balance, to also see what is going right. Make sure you communicate with your team and everybody in the organization, the things that are going right and let people enjoy this. But as a Change Leader yourself, you are mainly focused at the risk and the issues, at the things you have underestimated.

You also get lucky sometimes, and if you get lucky, take it and incorporate it. When it’s time to act, act, be courageous, make a timely decision and sometimes you need to take a calculated risk in order to achieve your goal.

What worked and what did not work in planning and executing Changes?

What worked was that we did not accept many Changes, we limited the number of Changes, you are aiming for a minimal viable product, the basics have to work, because people want to Change into something today and tomorrow into something else again, so you make a plan for the next level, a base that becomes a very good idea for the future, and for the next big thing.

Take a risk in order to achieve your goals. You can’t get Changes done if you are afraid for your job. You need to have the support of your upper management, one or two stakeholders need to be behind you. You cannot do Change if upper management does not support you, through achievement and mistakes.

Do your job seriously but also have fun. It says something of the mentality of the Change Leader: You can only lead Change in a positive mood with a positive attitude while tackling all sorts of issues and resistance. And if you are successful, it’s the success of the whole organization. Be humble.