Chris Rapley: leading change in scientific organisations

Chris Rapley discusses his management of organisational change in the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme and at the British Antarctic Survey, in the 1990s.

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I mean, how, on a day to day basis, do you go about getting your own way, if you like? 

Well, you keep pecking away at it. I mean, it’s – it’s – organisational change – again, I was very interested in that. And you can see, there are a whole bunch of books up here about project management and how organisations work and how you go about, you know, changing the way things work. And, you know, I’d been very taken by the Machiavelli point, which I’ll – which is more or less, you know, change is – organisational change is the hardest thing ever to embark upon because those who are going to lose out in the change will recognise it and will fight very hard, and those who might gain aren’t so sure that – you know, they can’t be completely sure they’re going to gain and so they’re lukewarm in their support. So there’s a – an imbalance in those terms. So you’ve got to be pretty convinced of what the end point is you’re trying to achieve and then you need to bring a – a critical mass of movers and shakers on board so that they agree with that and they commit to it and they – you need to go through a process where they develop that idea themselves, ‘cause people support what they create, not what they’re instructed to do. And then you just have to keep working at it. And both at IGBP and at British Antarctic Survey, it took time. And there were very dark days and nights where, you know, one felt that, you know, it wasn’t going to work, where you just simply hadn’t got the momentum going. But the way to do it is, in my view, incredibly simple. You identify clearly what the organisation is for, which is what I’ve always called its mission. What is this organisation for? What is its function? What are we here to do? And it’s incredibly important to get that absolutely crystal clear. You crystallise it and you get everybody else to understand it and buy into it and say, right, that’s what we’re for, so now let’s think about where we are now. You know, we’ve got eight programmes, they’re diverging, they’re not necessarily, you know, that well coordinated. Some of them are a bit shaky. Some of them are stronger than others. Where do we want to be in five years’ time? You know, what would the world be like if we – how would we say we were successful? What are the criteria? What are the particular achievements that we would like to tick to be able to say that we’ve not only delivered something but we’re in a state that we want to be in? So you come up with a vision. Now I’d seen a little bit of this when I’d been at – at MSSL. Again, I think I mentioned that Robert Boyd let me go on a course that Erica Jones had – a two and a half day course on project management. And although that was about how you run projects, you know, running an organisation, or going through organisational change, is just a project and so all of the principles applied. So, again, that had been something that I’d been very interested in. And we applied the kind of theory and in a slightly messy and imperfect way, that’s what we managed to do.

  • Interviewee Chris Rapley
  • Duration 00:03:12
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Paul Merchant
  • Date of interview 8/18/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/40

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