Organizations are constantly challenged by the forces, fall-out and fulfillment of change. So what do you as a business leader truly need to know about the why, what and how of change? Sit up straight and pay attention, because it may be different from what you think.
1. Be uncomfortable when you’re comfortable
If you’re questioning why your organization needs to change, we’ve identified your problem. Complacency. When things are going well and there are no major problems, it’s easy to succumb. Yet complacency is like a narcotic that dulls the drive for change. It dulls your vigilance for the need to change and slows your reaction when the need for change arises.
Consider Swiss watches. The Swiss dominated the worldwide watch industry from the early 1900’s through the 1960’s. In 1968 Swiss watches accounted for over 65% of worldwide sales and over 80% of profits. Why? Meticulously crafted watches that were both very accurate and long lasting. The Swiss were so confident in their superior craftsmanship that when newly invented quartz movement watches were unveiled at the World Watch Congress, Swiss manufacturers rejected the concept outright. How could those cheap electronic devices possibly compete with the springs, gears and bearings of a finely crafted Swiss watch?
Seiko, a Japanese company, saw things differently. They realized that not only were quartz watches simpler and less expensive to produce, but they were more accurate than purely mechanical watches. Seiko pounced on the opportunity. By 1980 Swiss watches accounted for less than 10% of worldwide sales and less than 20% of profits. Eighty percent of the jobs in the Swiss watch-making industry disappeared. But here’s the great irony: electronic, quartz watches were invented … by the Swiss. Complacency kills.
Be uncomfortable when you’re comfortable. When you’re comfortable you lose your edge and become vulnerable. Find the pain that will drive you to change.
What to Do:
When you sense your team getting complacent, try the following exercise: Break them into two groups – two fictitious companies – and give them 90 minutes to figure out how they would crush you as a competitor. What would they do related to products, processes, structure and people?
2. Don’t assume people resist change
I’ll offer you a job blending drinks for four hours a day at a beachside hut on a safe and stable Caribbean island. I’ll pay you $10 million per year and give you a three-year guaranteed contract. Of course I’ll cover your moving expenses, return trips home, and private schooling for your children. Did I mention the generous pension plan and platinum medical benefits?
Can you imagine a bigger change in your life? I’ll bet a lot of people would jump at that offer.
People don’t resist change. They resist change they don’t think is in their best interests. We try to sell people on the benefits of change but what are the benefits to them? And what are the costs?
Like uncertainty. Uncertainty makes people fearful so they resist the change that causes it. When an organization announces a major change, it’s natural for people to think: Will I like it? Will I be good at it? Will it be easy to learn? Will it affect my job security? Will I have the same status? Uncertainty makes people feel insecure. And people who feel insecure resist change.
What to Do:
Communicate, communicate, communicate. In groups and one-to-one. Emphasize the “why” of change. What are the consequences – pros and cons – for them and the organization, of changing or not changing? Acknowledge their concerns. Discuss how to address them.
3. Don’t get everyone on board
A common temptation when implementing change is to focus on getting the naysayers on board. Turn around the naysayers, goes the thinking, and the organization will be more likely to change.
Don’t bother. When you focus on the naysayers you neglect the promoters of change. Feeling neglected, even the most passionate of promoters will eventually surrender; disillusioned that management let them down.
Encourage the promoters, support and coach them, and then visibly recognize and celebrate their successes. By doing that you create the pull for change that attracts the mass of people you want to influence. If you try to push change on the naysayers, they push back. Don’t feed that dynamic.
You don’t need to get everyone on board. What you need is critical mass. Once you’ve achieved it, then the naysayers become outliers. Now, there’s a fork in the road. Either they get with the change – and they’re welcomed with open arms if they do – or management helps them exercise other career options.
What to Do:
Identify the promoters of change early on. Select people who are highly capable, well-respected and strong influencers to spearhead the effort. Give them lots of encouragement, support and recognition.
4. Do less, take longer, use more resources
Every organization I have ever worked with takes on too much. Too many strategies, too many projects, too much change. And for some reason, everything needs to get done yesterday. Oh, and by who? Of course, the usual cadre of get-it-done types who we continually bury.
So what’s the solution? Do less, take longer, use more resources. What?! What kind of counter-intuitive, capitulating leadership mantra is that? Depending on your history, it could be the right one. If your track record is one of being overly ambitious and not meeting those ambitions, then your track record is failure. Which means your people come to expect failure and you create a culture of failure.
Create the conditions for success. That doesn’t mean the goal is to accomplish whatever, whenever with how-much-of-ever. It means reflecting on the past and recalibrating your thinking: what can we realistically get done by when given available resources and the myriad of other demands? Factor in how you typically overestimate what can get done and underestimate the time and resources required to do it.
What to Do:
Rate every potential change initiative against a set of criteria: cost, people resources, time, organizational trauma, probability of success, payoff, urgency and strategic necessity. Based on total available resources, decide which initiatives you will take on and which get deferred.
5. Put the exec in execute
“I don’t like to micromanage,” says the leader. “I like to give my people the freedom they need to be get things done.”
We all know that to get the most from our people we have to empower them. Yet so-called empowerment can quickly turn into abandonment. And abandonment leads to failure.
Too many leaders dismiss the execution of change as merely tactical – something to be left to their people. Unsurprisingly, they fall out of touch and the change initiative flounders. They’ve fooled themselves into thinking that leadership no longer involves leading.
Employees want to feel empowered but not abandoned. The role of an executive sponsor is to continually provide guidance, offer support, remove obstacles, monitor progress and recognize successes. In short, a leader has to stay engaged, even when they empower their people. And staying engaged sends a strong message about the importance of the initiative and the people working on it.
What to Do:
Validate that your people are clear about the objectives and scope of the change initiative. Determine up front what guidance, support and resources they need. Regularly attend team “progress tracking” meetings to keep a pulse on execution and to recognize successes
6. Create alignment to create change
Look back at the history of major change initiatives: quality (67% failure rate), acquisitions (77%), I.T. implementations (85%), strategic planning (75%). Discouragingly familiar, isn’t it? Most change initiatives fail. Why?
In a word: inconsistency. Organizations that fail take a piecemeal approach to change. They put everyone through training. Or form teams. Or have managers continually promote the change. Yet taking a piecemeal approach leaves other things misaligned. “I’ve been through lean training but the only thing that seems to matter is getting the product out the door.” “I’m supposed to be on a lean team but no one has the time to meet.” “My manager says lean is important but no one’s held accountable for waste and rework.”
Unwittingly, leaders send mixed messages about what’s important and what isn’t. And when they send mixed messages it demotivates their people, kills their credibility and undermines their efforts. The change initiative withers and dies.
What to Do:
Alignment means more than just a pinch of training, a dash of teamwork and a dollop of communications. It takes a systematic approach to aligning everything that impacts people with the desired outcome (see sidebar).
It all starts with you. Maintaining a healthy level of discomfort. Understanding the dynamics of people and change. Not being overly ambitious. Staying engaged. And recognizing that consistently aligning everything with success is the best predictor of success.
Michael Canic is a TEC Canada speaker and co-founder and president of Bridgeway Leadership (www.bridgewayleadership.com), a strategy + execution consulting firm with offices in the US and Canada. Bridgeway’s purpose: Making Strategy Happen through a relentless focus on alignment, commitment and execution. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by text / tel at 303.947.4999.