Preparing for Major Change

13 March

In a down economy I see many organizations kick off major change initiatives without being prepared for how difficult it is to accomplish.

Major change is a complex undertaking and there is no specific formula that applies in all situations but what I find consistent across many of my clients is that for fundamental change to occur the following conditions must be present.

There must be real pain. By pain I mean that people sense a major gap between the way work is done now and the way it must be done in the future. Few organizations manage major change unless its leaders and employees feel dissatisfied with the status quo. However not only does the way the work need to change but the behavior of leaders and employees need to change as well and behavior is much more difficult to change than work processes. Stating that pain motivates change isn’t a negative comment about people. It’s a realistic one. In our personal lives as well as our work lives we usually need to feel some tension between where we are now and we want to be in order to make the difficult choice to change. Without that tension or pain most people and organizations take the path of least resistance; they maintain the status quo.

In organizational terms the pain can come from several sources: a budget shortfall, customer dissatisfaction, loss of customers, manual and labor intensive work processes, outdated technology or lack of political support.

Senior leadership must articulate the pain in a way that doesn’t blame staff for the problems. After all when hired into an organization employees are trained on current tools and work processes that leaders have accepted. Don’t blame employees for labor intensive and cumbersome processes. Leaders own the implementation of change not the desktop. So there must be consistent and frequent communication where problems are talked about honestly and openly. The key is to do this without suggesting that the employees are to blame or that all of the employees’ past efforts were for naught. Leaders must discuss the gaps between current performance and desired performance in a way that motivates employees to seek solutions.

There must be a strategy for change. A comprehensive plan that describes what all the change is going to accomplish needs to be documented, communicated and visible to all. When I ask employees if they know what the big picture is they often say no. I wonder if that’s because no one has bothered to show them the big picture. Without an explanation that is honest and delivers both the good and bad news employees will see the change initiative as another ‘flavor of the month’ that, in their eyes, will be forgotten once the initial enthusiasm passes.  In many organizations multiple change projects are going on simultaneously. The leadership challenge is to paint a picture of the desired state, describe the strategies that will help the organization create and sustain the future and illustrate how each change project fits into that strategy. To avoid the change initiative from becoming another ‘management fad’ consistent and frequent communication needs to be part of the strategy. It needs to be talked about openly and directly with employees so that they see where the change is headed, how it may affect them and how they can contribute. Employee inclusion will gain their support of the change because they will feel they have a role to make a difference as opposed to change being forced on them. “Change can be exciting when you feel prepared for it and terrifying when you feel you have no control.”

Senior leadership must be actively involved. Senior leaders can not just speak at a kick off meeting and go into hiding. Leaders must become personally involved in the change effort. People watch their leaders and emulate them. One of the ways we judge our leaders’ priorities is by noticing the areas to which they devote time and attention. Leaders who announce change but keep a distance from it are sending very clear signals. Leaders who invest time, attention and energy in a change effort are also sending clear signals.

I’ve seen many leaders begin a change effort with great intentions. They invest many hours only to see that investment fade as the change becomes overtaken by “SMI” or something more important. All of a sudden meetings get cancelled, resources get pulled, communications stop, and reporting becomes non existent. Employees watch these signs carefully especially if they have committed to past efforts that went nowhere and wonder if leaders will ever learn. What I usually hear from leaders is that employees are always cynical about change, however can you blame them from protecting themselves from further disappointment and wasted time and hope?

Leaders have very few ways to convince employees that a change is for real. One of those ways is to commit large amounts of their own time and energy. I find from a consulting perspective implementing change is getting organizations to do what they don’t want to do so that they can become what they want to become and I advise clients if any of the above preconditions for major change is not in place organizational leaders must take appropriate steps. It is unfair to staff and it greatly reduces the likelihood of success if leaders jump into any change effort without being prepared.


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