A New Tent?

I had one of those Antics moments in March 2008 when Terminal 5 (T5), the £4.3 billion new terminal at Heathrow Airport, was opened. Heralded as a brilliant technological project it quickly turned into a passenger nightmare with the simple addition of people.

Much of this ambitious project’s time was spent on getting the technology and the building right and since perceived as overlooking the needs of the people who were responsible for implementation and meeting customer expectations.


As travellers joined ever lengthening queues and their luggage disappeared into the bowels of the building, not to return for weeks, one frustrated woman gave her reaction to a broadcaster. Her analysis was short, incisive and insightful: “New tent, same circus”
This fantastic phrase struck a chord, one second was all it took.  From this has come a whole raft of new ideas about organisational change. 
How many ‘New Tents’ do we come across?  Ok, when an organisation moves into a new building this is literally a ‘New Tent’.  We were working with a Hospital Trust on a Patient Experience Programme.  There was a reluctance to embark on the work because the hospital buildings were old and the new hospital would only be ready for occupation in phases over the following three years.  The argument was that the most appropriate time to work on improving the patient experience would be following the move. 
If you move the people who you know have bad habits, poor mindsets and weak performance into a new hospital are you sure they will do something different?  What would really change?  I believe the result of moving into the new buildings would simply be a ‘New Tent, Same Circus’ scenario because the mindsets would remain the same. 
I witnessed the aftermath of doing this in a new-build school in Dorset.  It was a brilliant building, everything teachers, pupils and parents could wish for.  As I sat in their new school hall watching the children getting ready for the activity we were delivering, my heart sank.  Their behaviour was appalling.  I mean the teachers. They were tired, not caring, not taking responsibility for the children and preparing them to learn.  They had simply moved old habits and attitudes from their old failing school into a brilliant new tent.  Having trained teachers and taught for 12 years I know what I should have seen.
New Tent doesn’t have to be literal; any change process, technology, systems or premises creates a New Tent.  And new tents are important – we need to move these things forward too. But how often do the architects of this change achieve the benefits they envisaged at the outset?  
I often ask people if they have been through a restructure or change process recently, and of course all of them have.  Sadly, when I enquire how it went they rarely report that it was brilliant.  What does it take to achieve a New Tent and a New Circus?