What Isn't Changing?
What’s Not Changing?
Changing organizations are filled with an unending flurry of questions. “Who is the new boss?” “When does the new system get installed?” “How are we supposed to get this done without any help?” “Why are we doing this anyway?” “What is the end result of all of this mess actually supposed to look like?” “Where did all these new people come from?” Some of the questions have answers readily available, others have details still being worked out, and still others will be a long time in getting resolved.
The pace of change continues to unfold at a rate where most organizations are stretched beyond their comfort level in their attempts to keep up. Usually, there are more questions than answers, which add a level of instability and confusion at a time when there is more than enough of both to go around for everyone. Wise is the leader at any level of the organization who can provide something that will add stability and reduce the confusion throughout the changing system. This is where the often forgotten or overlooked question is helpful.
“What isn’t changing?” is a question I don’t hear nearly often enough in my work of helping organizations change. That’s unfortunate because the answers to that question add a level of stability to a very fluid situation. When everything around us seems to be changing, we need something we can count on, something that grounds us when so much feels up in the air. That question can be answered at both organizational levels as well as individual levels.
Recently I was asked to speak to the senior leadership group of the largest finance and accounting organization in the world. In preparation for my presentation, I learned about the scope and volume of changes they had underway. They were about a year and a half into a massive overhaul of almost every aspect of their business that would continue for the next several years. During my short dinner presentation, I asked them to discuss the question of what’s not changing for them in the face of this unprecedented amount of change. I was very pleased when one group announced they determined that the essential mission of their organization actually remains unchanged. “We still ensure people are paid on time, all the bills are paid on time, and the financial statements are timely and accurate.” In their case, the “what” remains the same, but the “how” is changing dramatically.
Sometimes it is the core values or principles that provide the needed stability. I worked with an electrical generation and transmission company a few weeks ago that has more changes underway this year than at any other time in its history. Their top two values of safety first and excellent customer service remain unchanged, even though they were no longer providing many of the direct customer services they had in the past. They had to redefine who some of the customers were, and what excellent customer service meant, but the value remained the same. They were also initiating changes that strengthened the focus on the safety first value.
There have been many situations where temporary stabilizers need to be established in the face of so many changes. I remember a team that initiated regular 30-minute meetings at 7:45 a.m. for everyone who could attend, either in person or over the phone, for a period of about five weeks. Every morning over coffee, everyone who could attend would provide whatever information or updates they had learned from the previous day’s activities, raise questions and issues they needed to be resolved, and simply reconnect. This took place while their team had been reduced in size by almost half, reorganized in with another department and a new manager had not yet been appointed. In another situation, the dean of a university faculty held open coffee sessions every Wednesday in the cafeteria for half an hour, answering questions and providing updates to employees. Simple temporary structures can provide a level of predictability during a period of deep uncertainty for everyone.
On an individual level, clarifying what isn’t changing is as important as it is at the organizational level. One of the reasons I live in a part of the world that has four distinct seasons is that I truly count on the constancy of the seasons while working with a very fluid schedule that involves much travel and a wide variety of different clients. Not long ago, I remember a manager describe how much she appreciated being able to come home to the same house shared with the same family when everything at work was changing. She admitted how she was upset when her husband had rearranged the living room furniture on his day off as a surprise, as she counted on sitting in her favorite chair next to the window, reading the paper and enjoying a glass of wine at the end of a hectic day at work.
There are times when stability comes from the mundane. I remember a woman who told me how much she counted on spending a couple of hours each week shopping for groceries. She had just started a new career with a brand new organization in a role she had never had before and had moved across the country to do so. She found it reassuring to know fruits and vegetables are still fruits and vegetables, the new bakery smelled like her old favorite bakery, and that it was very calming to walk up and down the aisles of dairy products and canned goods. I remember a long time ago I found watching reruns of MASH each night to be one of the few things I could count on when enduring a prolonged period of change.
On an individual or organizational level, find ways to answer the question “what isn’t changing” when faced with any significant change. The result will provide you with some things to count on when there seems to be very little that is stable. You might be surprised on just how much is actually remaining the same when you begin to examine your situation from both sides. The perspective is helpful.
If you’re interested in learning more techniques to effectively communicate change, please check out our e-resource Communicating Organizational Change.
Copyright 2017 Chris Edgelow, Sundance Consulting Inc.