Saturday, September 19, 2009

A great time to change?

Someone asked me recently, “what’s the most frequent change question you get asked?”. It wasn’t that hard to answer. “ Why didn’t that last change make any difference?” I replied.

I hear this virtually any time I am working with an organisation designing their change programme, or working with employees on how to cope with the change’s around them. Interestingly it is frequently asked by employees (more so than line managers). Employees take the changes that we announce very seriously. It’s not only because many of them are most affected by the change, but most of them take the fact that their leaders are there to lead quite seriously. Over the years I have met many “change-jaundiced” employees who have seen so many changes deliver so little that they ignore the latest change (lets face it history has shown them its not worth bothering about) or even treat it with contempt. Of course these people then become the target of bright new managers who want “change-agile” employees and whose mind-set is “if you don’t want to change, don’t stay on board”

In private many senior executives will tell you that the last change didn’t deliver everything that was needed. Short term it may have delivered some bottom line savings through reduced numbers or outsourcing, but the real wins of culture change, efficiency gains and innovative thinking often don’t materialise.

There are a number of key reasons’ why change fail’s to deliver so lets explore a couple here.

Change Management Mentality; “It’s just a task”
Many businesses see change as a technical project such as new IT, new production lines or a new system or process. They focus on the technical or task aspects of the change and plan the steps involved with physical installation, re-building or the new paperwork etc and believe that good project planning principles are all that is needed.

In my experience the success or failure of change is largely “belief” based. Belief in the hearts and minds of the people who use the IT, run the production lines or use the process or system. You cannot programme belief through a change management bar-chart. Unless your people “get-it” it is unlikely that they will use it or do it, whatever that it may be.

But people often say in response to this, “but we’ve built training in to the plan, and that’s about people”, and I often reply “is it?”. Most training is just another part of the process, another task step. If the training is “how do you” in style i.e. it is telling you how to use the system, run the line or enter your data in the new IT, then it is not addressing the vital “Why”. Knowing why we are changing, the intent behind the change, why it’s needed and what it will mean creates belief, not training. Training is a 'How', not a 'Why'.
And going back to process style training, lets face it if, you don’t take any belief in to the training with you it’s unlikely that you will take on half of what you are told. So if the training people is meant to get people on board then its too late. People need to be on board before they get to the training.
Many companies confuse training or learning and development with “Organisational Design” because of the belief that training is the change and fail to get real results as a result. So while training is a vital tool in your change programme it is not all it takes to have your change accepted or acted upon.

Empowered for a day; changing style for the sake of change
Some businesses launch in to change with a new found interest in their people that some employees can find quite scary! One minute you are happily doing your job and the next minute, every leader around descends upon you telling you that your voice is vital to the success of the change, only to disappear again once the initiative is over.

One of the standard questions in our on-line change readiness survey is “are your people empowered and involved in the business?” Leaders sometimes read that and think that it means that they should be and kick off their change programme with lots of involvement and use of the empowerment word. In case you’re wondering, I'm not advocating either way (but I always think that anyone who rushes off and does it for change is guiltily thinking they should be doing it anyway).

The key thing here is being congruent with the way you run the organisation day in day out. If you don’t seek opinions at any other time of the year, then don’t demand them as part of a change programme, you will only create unease and suspicion.

However, if you are looking to change your culture and leadership style (yes they are heavily inter-related) then a time of change is a good way to introduce that new style and develop that new culture. Any major change is going to have an impact on your culture (whether you want it to or not), so why not choose the change in culture that you want? A change of office, a new company-wide IT platform or a re-branding exercise for example, will all impact on your culture, and should be treated as a culture change programme like any other with appropriate leadership style and action used during the programme to re-enforce the new way of working required.

The fact that change is happening will mean that people notice the change in leadership style and associate it with the new world you are taking them to.

All you have to do is maintain that new style after you’ve moved office, installed the IT or launched that brand.

A time of change is a great time to change!