Oh No, Not Another Blog Post About Change!
How can you say anything new about change? Discussion and debate about it go back millennia to the era of the great Greek philosophers. More recent times have seen umpteen methods and theories, most of which are variations on a theme of how difficult it is for individuals and organisations to make change.
Why is change, especially in business, so often difficult?
Short answer? People.
The Challenge of Change
Leading change, especially strategic change, is challenging. Ambitions for seamless change and the abilities to deliver them are usually far apart because far too often we take a simplistic view of complicated human behaviour, made more complicated by organisational systems.
The common objective of change projects is some form of gain in performance through either improving effectiveness (doing more of the right things) or increasing efficiency (doing more things right).
The challenge is that leading change for performance improvement means plotting a path through many choices, most of which depend on changing human behaviour in some way or another.
Let me rephrase that … the path usually depends on confronting human behaviour or at least that’s how it is seen from the perspective of many people who find themselves the subject of change.
Leading change is about anticipating the realities of making some form of transformation while reducing or negating tension and uncertainty amongst those affected by change.
Change in Action
In action, leading change requires:
Properly establishing the purpose of the proposed change
What happens if we do nothing? What’s the vision? What needs to change?
Developing momentum through the 3 ‘Cs’ – communicate, communicate and communicate, as well as aligning and involving people, providing leadership and support, and instilling a sense of urgency.
Designing the change by developing a creative plan with the affected community where possible.
You have to prepare for left field surprises here and you have to provide support.
Implementation. The hardest part, especially where change is in the form of tough love.
Communication is key as is the ability to deal with the unexpected.
And you need to monitor change against objectives.
Wherever possible, we can assure successful change by involving stakeholders, although sometimes we can’t.
The most important thing to understand in leading change is that you can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t try. But you should communicate with everyone, ensuring as far as possible that explanations and messages get through.
It’s Like a Fast-Flowing River
Many centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Herclitus compared change to a fast-flowing river, where everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before. If that’s not a great metaphor for change I don’t know what is.
A Long Time Ago …
In another life, I led a major change programme. The objective was to turn around an organisation’s substantial operating deficit to a surplus. It meant making redundant 30 employees out of 200 and reducing the range of service offerings. It’s not something I’m proud of; it’s something I was directed to do; I always thought there was another way. But I was given a directive and the other option for me would have been to resign, which would have been pointless and damaging to me and my family.
The purpose was clear: to bring down operating costs.
We wrote a clear and comprehensive case, which we communicated directly to the stakeholders. It was, of course, disputed vociferously. My character, morals and ethics were criticised publicly. I was shouted at and disparaged. Throughout I kept up the communication, conveying the urgency. This was what I called earlier, tough love. We involved people as far as possible. We were as creative as we were allowed to be by our managers. We had the odd interesting dilemma to deal with. As we implemented the plan, we kept going back to look at how close we were to achieving what we wanted.
By the end, 28 people took redundancy, 27 voluntarily and 1 involuntarily following a lengthy legal dispute. We substantially reduced the range of services as well and the enterprise came back into surplus.
Would I do anything differently?
I’m not sure I worked hard enough at communicating the severity of our position at the outset. I think I was a bit too short and sharp. I also think the conversations needed to be fiercer, more candid, yet more empathic. I don’t think it would have made that much difference to the outcome, but it might have eased the process for many.
It’s Difficult Because it’s Difficult.
Change is difficult because it is difficult. It’s about managing human behaviours, expectations and habits with all of their richness and complications. There’s no secret to leading change; essentially, it’s about engagement, involvement and especially communication. Executing them is the challenge.