The 4th Challenge - Changing the Way We Change
Organizations face four challenges. Three of these challenges have existed as long as organizations themselves. The fourth has evolved over the past few decades and is perhaps the greatest challenge organizations face during today’s turbulent times. That fourth challenge is the focus of this article.
So what are the four challenges?
1. Do the work.
2. Manage or help others do the work.
3. Change the way you do the work.
4. Change the way you change.
Do the work – refers to fulfilling the promise for which the organization exists. Every organization has a reason for being, whether it is to build products, provide services, do research or govern constituents.
Manage or help others to do the work – focuses on the role of supervision and management in ensuring the work gets done through the efforts of other people. It also refers to people who are simply willing to help beyond the scope of their own work so that others can do their work.
Change the way you do the work – relates to the endless flow of changes organizations undertake to do their work more effectively and efficiently. Process changes, technology changes, structural changes, budget changes, and procedural changes are but a few examples. In some cases, not only are organizations changing the way they do the work, they are also changing the actual work they are doing.
Change the way you change – has become a major challenge for many organizations over the past few decades. The habits and track record of how they have historically balanced the first three challenges have resulted in a consistently low success rate of implemented changes.
I have conducted informal surveys with hundreds of leaders in changing organizations. These leaders rank their success rates with change from below 30% to just over 50%. The cost of this failed change in dollars, time, energy, and lost opportunity has become an enormous burden.
How well does your organization address this challenge? If yours is like many others, you spend significant time on the first two challenges and inadequately address the third and fourth, especially the fourth.
There is no best allocation of time spent balancing each of the four challenges. What is clear is that everyone in a changing organization must put some effort each week into the third and fourth challenge if change is to be successful and sustainable. We might have to spend literally as much time on changing the way we do the work and changing the way we make changes, as we spend doing and managing the work itself.
Changing the Way We Change
If changing the way organizations have been changing is a major challenge, how then is the best way to approach this? There are four key areas required to address the problem. They are strategy, change, transition and communication. By themselves, none are foreign or unknown to organizations. However, rare is the organization that provides a balanced, integrated approach to leading change that weaves the essential aspects of all four areas.
Strategy refers to the ongoing decisions an organization makes that determines its nature and direction. Change is the act of making something different, the result of decisions an organization makes to ensure it indeed goes in the right direction and fulfills its true nature. Transition is the internal reorientation or process of adapting to the changes underway. Communication is the effective exchange of information necessary to continually engage everyone with the essential strategy, change and transition messages.
As shown in this table, there are many ways to describe each of these four dimensions.
Ideally, each of these four areas receives the same attention.
All should be woven together in a way that is easily understood by everyone. One way to think about this integration is shown in the following image:
Unfortunately, organizations seldom approach change in a truly integrated manner. Some organizations put excessive emphasis on the strategy dimension. Others are more project-focused and emphasize the change dimension. Most organizations tend to underemphasize the transition dimension and significantly underestimate the communication required.
Let’s look at each of the four areas of “changing the way we change” separately:
Effective strategic leadership usually requires fine tuning for most changing organizations. That is because organizations have been addressing the strategy dimension for as long as they have existed. Too often, however, the strategy is needlessly complex and poorly understood. Leaders need to ensure the organization’s strategy is simplified and fully engaged throughout the organization.
There are two strategic forces that must be profoundly clear to everyone if an organization is going to change successfully. They are:
1. A realistic sense of urgency.
2. A compelling sense of hope.
The realistic sense of urgency must clearly spell out the major pressures or opportunities facing the organization and the consequences of not addressing them effectively. The compelling sense of hope should outline the direction the organization is taking with indicators to show when they are on the right track.
Most organizations can articulate their vision or the direction they want the organization to go. It is the sense of urgency, however, that is significantly underemphasized or missing altogether. Human nature is less likely to be motivated by the pull of a vision than it is to avoid the unpleasant consequences of inadequately addressing the sense of urgency.
There are three other aspects of strategy that can be clearly spelled out to provide the essential strategic message that must fully engage everyone:
3. The mission or purpose describes what the organization does, the value it provides to its customers, and why the organization exists.
4. The principles or values are the beliefs that provide guidance or boundaries for appropriate behavior. These are especially important in times of uncertainly when people often don’t know exactly what to do.
5. The priorities or strategic goals provide the discipline for decision making regarding what changes will be made to move the organization toward the vision or sense of hope. Ideally there are only two or three strategic priorities at any given time to ensure there is adequate focus rather than a diffuse array of activities and changes that won’t move the organization forward.
When an organization outlines its strategy using these five elements on one sheet of paper, the essential strategic message is much more clear and accessible. It becomes much easier for the senior leaders to bring all levels of management, including supervisors, onto the same strategic page. When the supervisors then use this same page to engage their respective employees, the strategy becomes a well-established foundation for activities and changes throughout the organization.
Implementing successful change is another area that usually requires fine tuning.
There are a handful of areas that must be fully addressed to ensure the plan yields desired results. And these areas involve people. Rarely does a change fail on paper. The plan is usually in good shape. It is when the plan begins implementation that problems begin to surface.
Here are five aspects of planning and implementing change that often need some attention.
1. All changes align to the strategic priorities.
People need to see a direct connection between the changes underway and the direction the organization is going. Every change, whether it has already occurred, is now being planned, or is currently underway, must clearly align with strategic priorities. Major changes might align with two or even three priorities. Others will align with only one. The problem comes when changes don’t align with any.
2. Each major change is clearly owned by the senior executives.
If major changes are going to be taken seriously and be ultimately successful, people need to know who is in charge. That responsibility must lie with the people with the highest level of power and authority in the organization. Ownership of the changes requires much more than simply announcing the decision to change, launching the project teams and waiting for the desired results. Senior executives must be visible and vocal in their involvement.
3. Project teams are effective.
Project teams must represent the system that will be both implementing the change and affected by the change. And they must be using a thorough project-management methodology to guide their activities. Most importantly, they need to be aware of both dimensions of their mandate as project teams. One half of that mandate is to develop the change plan. The other and equally important half is to do everything they can to increase the willingness and ability for the system to implement the change once the plan is complete. This requires ongoing engagement with senior executives, managers and supervisors while the project team still exists. It is this second half of the project team’s mandate that is most often underestimated.
4. Middle managers and supervisors are fully engaged.
Neither project teams nor senior executives actually carry out the detailed implementation of the changes. That ongoing task is up to functional line managers and supervisors. If this group is left out of the loop until actual implementation begins, the change will fail miserably. Project teams and senior leaders must do everything possible to get and keep the middle managers and supervisors up to speed prior to implementation. From the staff perspective, their immediate supervisor is their most important source of information and leadership. Without the supervisor’s full engagement, the changes will never succeed.
5. People know what they have to do differently.
Beyond the Gant charts and PERT charts and complexity of the project plan, people need to know how they must change. Don’t expect them to figure it out for themselves by reading the project plan or visiting the project web site. The staff looks to their supervisor for ongoing direction. And if that ongoing direction does not clearly spell out the newly required behaviors, attitudes, and processes, successful implementation will not be showing up any time soon.
Leading people through transition almost always needs much more than fine tuning. This is one area usually misunderstood or overlooked altogether. Often, transition is used as another word for change. It isn’t.
Change is the event – transition is the experience. Transition is the gradual, internal reorientation process people (individually and collectively) go through as they adapt to the change. This reorientation process unfolds over three different phases – separation from the way things were, getting through the in between phase that is confusing and unsettling, and eventually ensuring the integration into the new way is successful. Leading people through transition requires leaders to intentionally address each of these three phases.
The first phase of separation has two sides. First is the pragmatic, practical aspect. Here leaders must clearly spell out what must stop. Nothing helps people take a change seriously and get through it more quickly than telling them what must be left behind. It is equally important to clarify what will remain constant. Once those two things are determined, leaders need to send very clear boundary messages to leave no doubt as to what is over and what isn’t. Shredding the old procedure manual, burning the old org chart or having a last lunch together with the people who are moving to another department all clearly signal something definite is underway. The final practical aspect of separation is to ensure there are no lingering reward systems (formal or informal) that continue to support the old ways.
The second side of separation has to do with the more social, emotional aspect. Here leaders need to be aware of the perceived losses people experience as the old ways are left behind. This sense of loss will be different for everyone. Those who built the old system many years ago have a distinct sense of ownership and won’t take its replacement easily. It may be appropriate to have people bring along a small piece of the past with them into the future that has special significance, as long as it doesn’t keep people clinging to the old ways. It is very important that leaders don’t denigrate the old ways. With any major loss, there is a normal emotional reaction of shock, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Leaders need to be aware of these reactions and provide help to those who are struggling. Not everyone will experience this sense of loss. Those who have been frustrated with the limitations of the old ways often can’t wait to get on with the new.
Getting people through the confusion and disarray of the time in between requires leaders to build trust throughout the organization. This is the time for encouraging people to explore, learn, innovate and be much more creative. At this stage, leaders must be much more physically present with people. In short, leaders must show up. They must follow through on commitments and demonstrate the same behaviors they ask of others. They must make the decision-making process as transparent as possible. And they must tell people the truth.
Encouraging people to raise the bar on creativity and exploration requires that leaders experiment. Getting groups of people who don’t normally work together to surface new ideas is always a good idea. Focusing people on the specific problems that need to be resolved, providing clear timelines for rough ideas, and then getting out of their way, beats micromanaging solutions every time. Bring vocal dissenters and new hires in on the problem solving. Publish, don’t punish mistakes. Provide opportunities for people to tinker with new things in low-threat situations. All of these things go a long way toward increasing the exploration and creativity level when it is so desperately needed.
Integration is the third and final phase of transition that leaders must attend to. Actually this is the easiest part of the journey. Here leaders need to clearly point to the signs of success as they become available. They won’t all happen at once or across the whole organization, but they will happen and people need to know. Everyone must know what they need to do differently now and the formal and informal reward system must support these new behaviors. All groups, teams, departments and divisions must align. Any lingering dissenters must be dealt with fairly.
Engaging communication is the fourth and final aspect of changing the way organizations change. Every organization understands the importance of good communication, but few know how to fully engage everyone during times of change.
Common approaches to the communication challenge involve cascading change information down from the top, having the communication department broadcast information to everyone at the same time, or having the senior leaders do large-group presentations. Technology is too often seen as the great enabler. Unfortunately, emails, social media, web sites, slide presentations and broadcast voice mail fall short in actually engaging people.
What level of communication is required? Are leaders trying to simply build Awareness, or are they trying to ensure a high level of Understanding as well? Is that enough, or do they also need people to demonstrate a level of Commitment followed by the appropriate Action? Awareness can certainly be achieved by using technology-supported communication. Understanding can come from printed materials, comprehensive web sites, and interactive e-learning sessions. Rarely, however, will people change their behavior based on these mediums. Commitment and action are the result of respected leaders showing up to talk about the changes and why they are necessary.
There are three groups in any changing organization that must communicate effectively. Each of these three groups makes a specific and unique contribution. Senior executives are held accountable for the required results and they must be on the same page before they communicate with all levels of management. This group provides the necessary power and authority to ensure that everyone takes the changes seriously. Project teams have the most current details specific to each change. They must stay connected with both the senior executives and all functional areas their specific projects impact. Middle management and supervisors communicate changes within their functional areas. Supervisors have the task of engaging their direct reports. Employees want and need to get their change information from the leaders they are closest to, and that is their immediate supervisor.
Simple communication tools can work well. One-page briefing notes that outline the most current facts relating to strategy, change and transition messages are very useful. Investing in short, frequent, highly interactive dialogue sessions between senior executives, project teams and management, as well as between supervisors and employees, will engage everyone far beyond what technology can.
Who must take ownership for changing the way organizations change? Ultimately, that responsibility lies with the senior executives. They are the only group who can hold the organization accountable to fulfill its strategic promise by changing more effectively.
Certainly the project teams along with all levels of management have a role, as do all the employees. No doubt the human resources department has a key support role in providing the corresponding programs, resources, ongoing consulting and training. The internal communication professionals also play a major support role in helping to simplify complex information.
How successful is your organization at leading change? Does everyone in your organization allocate balanced time and energy across each of the four challenges?
1. Do the work.
2. Manage and help others to do the work.
3. Change the way you do the work.
4. Change the way you change.
If not, there has never been a better time to develop an integrated approach.
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