Professionals Guide to Planning & Leading Good Change

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Leading Good Change

Introduction

You need change. Change is good and necessary. Simple, clean, positive change within your organisation will help improve morale and raise profits.

Why then, when we know change is good, do we baulk at implementing it? One clue as to why we avoid change comes from research collected from senior executives on culture and change management, where it was revealed that the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent.

The costs are high when change efforts don’t follow your plan. Not only financially but in misperception, lost opportunity, wasted resources, and diminished morale. Compounding the problem, the next round of changes are immediately met with contempt if the last round was not successful.

Avoid the Common Pitfalls for Successful Change

There are three major hurdles to overcome. The first—no surprise—is “change weariness,” the exhaustion that sets in when people feel pressured to make too many transitions at once. Management sees change from a different perspective compared to those who are being affected by the change. Some change initiatives can be poorly thought through, rolled out too fast, or put in place without sufficient preparation. Weariness is a familiar problem in organisational change management, especially when initiatives are driven from the top only.

Change initiatives also struggle because organisations lack the skills to ensure change can be sustained over time. Leaders might set out enthusiastically to raise product quality, but when production schedules slow and the pipeline starts looking sparse, they lose faith. Lacking an effective way to deal with production line problems, they decide their targets were unrealistic, they blame the production technology, or they accuse their employees of not being up to the task.

The third impediment is that transformation efforts are typically decided upon, planned, and implemented in the boardroom. This limits opportunities to ensure the much needed frontline ownership of the change. In a change management survey, 44 percent of participants reported not understanding the changes they were expected to make, and 38 percent said they didn’t agree with the changes.

Leverage the Power of Your Culture

In a recent management survey, 84 percent said the organisation’s culture was critical to the success of change management, and 64 percent saw it as more critical than strategy or the operating model. Among respondents whose companies were unable to sustain change over time, a startling 76 percent reported that executives failed to take account of the existing culture when designing the transformation effort.

Culture is often ignored because change managers view their culture as the legacy of the past. More often executives are focused on structural detail, reporting lines, decision rights and formal processes. The biggest error is to assume that culture, is malleable and employees will quickly adapt without requiring explicit attention. This of course is wrong because research shows in large mature organisations, cultural change can take up to three years.

Make the Tone Congruent with the Change

All successful change management initiatives start at the top, where the future tone is crafted and set. Work must be done in advance to ensure that everyone agrees about the case for the change and the particulars for implementing it. If there is any lack of unity with the ranks of senior management employees will notice it and pick sides. One side will be doing their best to implement change and the other will be doing their best to defeat it. Meanwhile clients suffer and the organisation loses momentum.

One in, All in

Strategic planners often fail to take into account the extent to which mid-level and frontline people can make or break a change initiative. The path of rolling out change is infinitely smoother if these people are tapped early for input on issues that will affect their jobs. Frontline people tend to be rich sources of knowledge about where potential problems may occur, what technical and logistical issues need to be addressed, and how customers may react to changes. In addition, their full-hearted engagement can smooth the way for complex change initiatives, whereas their resistance will make implementation an ongoing challenge.

Organizational Leadership Must Change First

Key personnel working together on cross-functional teams will start collaborating because that is their job. Managers will become clear communicators because they have a mandate to deliver a message about the new strategy. Most important to the success of any change initiative is ensuring employee’s daily behaviours reflect the imperative of change. Start by outlining important behaviours that will be essential to the success of the initiative. Then conduct everyday business with those behaviours front and centre. You must visibly model these new behaviours, right from the start, because employees will believe real change is occurring only when they see those at the top acting appropriately.

Leaders must adopt three specific behaviours:

  • Make major, visible decisions in days instead of weeks or months.
  • Spend time with staff at the supervisory level, asking for their input and engaging them in open discussions.
  • Ensure the middle and lower ranks have direct contact with real-life customers.
  • Leaders will act as if the organisation had already adopted the new changes. By living the change, it removes the excuse of not implanting the changes because others had not.

Participate, Involve, Engage

Just conveying a strong message of change at the start of an initiative, will not ensure employees understand what they are to do. Powerful and sustained change requires constant communication, not only throughout the rollout but after the major elements of the plan are in place. The more kinds of communication employed, the more effective they are.

Some ways of communicating change is to convene a series of town halls where large groups are given the news. The town halls can be followed with department meetings where employees could learn about the prospective impacts on their day to day tasks. An internal presentation could be planned where employees would be required to provide a short explanation of some of the changes and their impacts.

The goal is to communicate the change so often that it becomes boring because it has been heard so many times, and has trickled down to all employees. Make sure there were forums to allow queries to be answered and then shared across the firm.

Leverage Both the Formal & Informal to Achieve Results

The firm’s established culture has more than likely been around for years and has delivered success in the past. It will be strong, deeply embedded, and will be very difficult to amend, and as such, it can undermine the green shoots of change if employees revert to doing it “how we always used to do it.” This is why formal and informal solutions must work together. Through process we must make all employees responsible for what they are doing and that they agree and believe the new way is the right way. If you have pockets of employees only doing certain tasks because “they just do what they are told” you know there is resistance. Employees must not only feel they own the process but actually own it and agree this is how things are to be done now.

Measure and Adjust

A recent management survey revealed that many organisations involved in transformation efforts fail to measure their success before moving on. Leaders are so eager to claim victory they don’t take the time to find out what’s working and what’s not, and to adjust their next steps accordingly. This failure to follow through, results in inconsistency and deprives the organisation of needed information about how to support the process of change throughout its life cycle.

Conclusion

The above principles offer a powerful template for organisations committed to effecting sustained transformational change. The work required can be demanding and challenging. However the ever changing needs of your clients and the aggressive productivity initiatives implemented by your competitors make it imperative to be continuously improving.

The reality is your culture must be one of expecting, embracing, and implementing change. A culture that treats change with suspicion, fake support, and trepidation may lose the choice to change.

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