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Organizational change management

One of the most difficult parts of leadership is fostering and managing change. Only a small proportion of change efforts actually succeed, a fact which has led to an entire industry of fad change models and, for that matter, to the more productive practice of organizational development.

Involvement

One advantage of trying to gain the support of other people in a change effort is the way it focuses your own attention and helps you to formulate your thoughts. In gathering the information that supports your case for a change effort, and in discussing it with those who will be affected by it, you can clarify your vision, anticipate and resolve potential problems, and sometimes even realize that the change is misguided, or that there are far better alternative solutions. (Hence the term "two heads are better than one.")

Involving other people is also important because it helps to make the change their effort as well as yours. Generally, people won't care too much about your effort, but theirs will be a priority. The difference between success and failure is often how many people have a "this too shall pass" attitude, and how many have a "this is my project" attitude. The only way to give people a sense of ownership is to involve them.

Measurement as an organizational change tool

Measurement (including employee and customer surveys) can actually be used as a change tool:

  • The numbers or interview content provide evidence that change is needed
  • It can help to clarify the purpose and direction of the change effort, by forcing people to consider its specific impact in unambiguous terms
  • Measurement is a form of communication - it tells people what you care about
    • Tracking the effectiveness of the change effort both tells people that it is important and provides a way to judge how well it is being implemented, or how well it was designed
  • The results can be used as a justification for future projects
  • The measurement effort can be set up as a framework for expecting and anticipating change, making it seem more controllable and less threatening

Surveys are a good way to build buy-in because:

  • if you involve people in design and feedback/action planning, it shows your intent more than words
  • they provide a way to get everyone, including nay-sayers, involved
  • the data usually provide an impetus for change
  • the feedback meetings may break the resistance of individuals who are afraid to speak as others chime in

A traditional top down approach doesn't work as well - you need to train people to cascade it (or cascade it yourself) so that people at all levels get their individual results along with corporate results, and have an opportunity to work with the data and implement solutions.

When done right, surveys are a good way to overcome resistance to change. Think about some of the areas where resistance comes from:

Loss of trust due to past problems

  • With the survey you can show who you are and that you are trustworthy, by deeds rather than words, helping to overcome this

Belief there is no need to change

  • The survey results will show the need

No way to overcome the inertia of day-to-day events - "this can wait"

  • The survey event brings some immediacy to change efforts and makes them top of mind, in the same way that a political demonstration gets the attention of journalists who normally wouldn't find a continuing problem to be newsworthy.

We have developed a special change preparation survey to help in laying the groundwork for change efforts. This survey is designed to find obstacles to change before they imperil the success of the change effort. It is also ideal as a communication vehicle, from leaders to employees - it shows that this initiative is important, and also that employee support is needed.

Resistance and change management

Many managers complain that their people resist change. Generally, though, resistance to change is a matter of not gaining consensus at the start of a project.

The best ways to avoid resistance to change are, oddly enough, also the best ways to assure that people are motivated to support the change effort. Involving people from the beginning, clearly explaining the reasons for the change, having a clear strategy, direction, and vision, and respecting the viewpoints of other people are all parts of the process. Using strategic measurement can also be a way of building support.

Starting out with a problem, and working with other people to come up with a solution, can be far more effective than proposing a specific solution and trying to rationalize it. The quality movement has refined many problem-solving techniques which can be used. Often, cross-functional and multi-level teams (to cross both functional and level-of-management boundaries) are used to both solve problems and implement solutions, with minimal involvement by top management. This brings more involvement and dramatically cuts resistance to change, while magically giving top managers more free time.

People often do not like change they cannot control. However, if they lead or have a substantial influence on change, they are more likely to embrace it. This is one reason why Toyota's system at NUMMI - of giving people who make suggestions the power and responsibility to carry them out (if they are approved) - works so well. Many nonprofits use the same system.

Process consulting can be very helpful in ensuring that the contributors to the change effort are fully involved and committed, and also in avoiding groupthink issues that can "turn off" other parts of the organization.

Timing is often a reason for resistance to change. Organizations tend to have many initiatives going on at the same time, which diffuses the importance of any particular program while stretching resources too thin. Most organizations can only deal with one or two major initiatives at a time.

A follow-through survey can be very helpful in finding pockets where changes have not been implemented, or not implemented well. Follow-through surveys should be used to help managers, not to club them! We have found the follow-through survey to be a fast, inexpensive way to ensure the success of changes.

The other side: barriers to change

One major barrier to change can be people who have seen change efforts fail in the past, either at this or at other organizations, and assume if they keep their head down, everything will return to normal. Getting the active involvement of these people is essential.

Measurement systems and surveys are both also useful for tracking the effects of change throughout the organization for effective follow-through - including finding pockets of passive or active resistance. These should be addressed through persuasion and "co-opting" rather than force. Many successful change efforts can boast of higher productivity and quality, with reduced costs, and no "lost jobs."

One helpful tool, our change preparation survey, can determine in advance where communication and involvement efforts need to be focused, and what change issues people are most concerned with.

Technology and people

Nearly all of the issues in change efforts revolve around people. You can change technologies, but unless people support the new systems, problems are bound to crop up. It is much less expensive to anticipate and work with the social issues than to blindly throw money into systems, then clean up the mess afterwards.

There are many documented cases where companies tried to install new technologies or systems of working without considering the impact on social systems (the way people work and interact with each other), or without giving thought to how the people who actually do the work feel about the changes. The result is usually an expensive failure, with employee reactions ranging from simple misunderstandings (resulting in lost productivity or damage) to outright sabotage and organized labor actions.

Because of this, the best way to bring about change is to first gain the support of the people who will be affected by it, and the people whose support you need to implement it. No matter how good a change seems on paper, if nobody will support it, it's probably not a good idea.

Are you a consultant?

If you are a consultant, you may be interested in our backroom and private label services. We can work with you on a project, side by side, under your company label; or we can provide coaching and support on change management, helping you to refine your efforts, in person, via phone, or via e-mail. Contact us using the following form for details.

Next steps

Contact us for information on how to manage change at your organization.

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Fostering change, organizational change, and managing change: some guidelines for managers and change agents.