They say that The only person who likes change is a small baby, and they say it for a reason. Remember how many times you have heard of attempts to replace good with better only to learn that eventually the result was unsatisfactory, and everyone would have been better off without tempering with the system? Maybe you have even experienced the situations like this yourself, and have become wary of any improvements, transformations or tweaks. I cannot blame you. There is no question that the world has seen more failed attempts at change than successful ones.
A perfect recipe for change is like a mystical Holy Grail. Many have sought it, none have seen it, and many would like to believe that they have found it. Even if an organization succeeds in transforming itself, it does not mean that the next time, the exact steps will cause the same results.
They also say that Change is the only constant. Hence, in the light of what was said above, does this mean that we are doomed and not only will we wake up to a new reality every day but also achieve success due to a mere stroke of luck? I strongly believe that is not the case. There exist certain areas to focus on, certain actions that should be taken and certain things to avoid to have a better chance of succeeding in transforming an organization. This article aims at highlighting some of the points to be considered in such an endeavor but the topic is too vast and complex to be fully exhausted in such a form. The goal is to make you explore those ideas further.
Communicate, communicate, communicate - and then, communicate some more. However, don’t try to just sell your vision, tell people what you are actually going to do. It’s not a public election, and you will not have the time until next round to come up with new promises and incentives for people to vote for you. If folks see that you don’t walk your talk, they will walk - right out of your door and right into your competitor next door. A perfect vision without execution is an exercise in futility, and you will not execute without people. Also, you must say why you want to change, and what will everyone get from it. Ability to translate necessity to change into a sense of purpose and belonging for people at each level is key. Communicating in abstract numbers and flashing cards with better ROI, PE, EBIDA or other business KPIs won’t work miracles with your employees. On an intellectual level, they will understand business goals of the company but they will be meaningless for them as the human beings. Then, at best, you will get compliance where you could have inspiration.
Town halls or other all-hands meetings are good but don’t rely solely on them. People will shun sharing some things in public. You will miss a crucial feedback, and never address important concerns. You need to back all-hands meetings up with more informal sessions in smaller groups, including one-on-ones. Also, you will never get everyone to agree so don’t bother to have all people on board. Instead, acknowledge and consider all feedback even if it is critical. Ignoring the feedback not only increases the risk of missing something obvious (to the people, not to you) but sends a clear signal that you know best and lead top-down. Again, it's not good to boost morale before a change.
Oh, and one more thing. When you believe that all things should be clear to your people, probably you are mistaken. Do some leg work and check with those who were sitting further back in the meetings or not sharing much.
Look for influential proponents who will advocate the idea, and will be willing to work for the cause. They had better not all be at higher positions in the organization’s structure as it diminishes their credibility. People may think that such individuals have personal interest in making things work and will profit from the change when it is successfully executed. And they may be right. You are lucky when you have someone who shares your vision, and has a good rapport with more junior folks or generally people who get the actual work done within the organization. If not, working on securing such people’s support before you attempt to make a change will spare you a lot of grief and trouble once you embark on the journey. It’s a good investment to make ahead of time even if you need to postpone some actions. Identify individuals likely to embrace the change and help them recognize the need to do things differently before you share it with the team officially.
Embrace the costs
People will falter when they start recognizing costs, and see how much they have to pay to change. Even you may have second thoughts when the heat goes up. The cost may just be a necessity to follow a new process, start doing some new things or stop behaving in a certain way. This will be too tough to some and they will struggle. It’s a like a marathon, you can easily rally people to set off but you will see that even those who were in for the long run start breathing hard and looking for water after a few miles. It’s your job to keep them going once they realize how hard it is to continue and what a gigantic work is ahead of them. Be there for them, encourage, recognize, reward, share the pain, celebrate achievements and help them keep the eyes on the ball.
Your actions will make other business units incur some costs, too. Changes in processes and people’s behaviors may create friction and frustration in other teams as most likely they will know least about what’s happening. The last thing you want to do is surprise people and alienate your peers or friends from other teams. Building alliances and networking with people from other units is key to how well you do. You may lose quickly the reputation you have been building painstakingly for a long time. This is why you need to protect your people by working closely with external parties and communicate what’s going to happen ahead of time. You don’t need to be too detailed upfront, just make sure that major (preferably all) integration points for you team are covered.
All this will come at no small expense on your side. Make your family and friends aware so that they are not caught by surprise when you have less time for them or suffer from empathy depletion. There will be some personal cost that you will incur, too.
Pull folks In
People cannot feel that they are just cogs in a gigantic corporate machine that transforms their lives without them having any say or influence over how things turn. Bridge the gap between decision and information - it is a one way street. When you know your people are competent and up to the task, give the decision power to where the information is - people will cherish this. When employees understand where the organization is going and why delegating decision, this power will enable them to react fast to changing circumstances. Most likely you need to be aware but must resist the urge to step in and interfere as this will diminish their engagement. Obviously, sometimes they will fail and take a wrong decision. That’s natural and not to be feared. Help them understand where you are going and why so that they figure out the best course of action themselves. With time, they will surprise you. However, don’t let the reigns go before you know that competence is there.
Remember that old habits die hard
To your dismay and horror, people will fall back on old habits, patterns and behaviors. You need to be vigilant and react when you see your employees struggle and repeat the past mistakes. Put in place proper metrics that update automatically and capture major indicators in real time. These should show trends indicative of the results you want to get. If you exploit a system constraint, have some metrics showing how the bottleneck behaves so that you can quickly see how work flows, and whether you need to correct the course. Display some of the statistics on TVs or monitors for your teams to see - but don’t overdo. You don’t want to instill in their minds a sense of being continuously measured plus you cannot make an impression that metrics are an end it itself. They are just a useful tool, and they will no longer fulfill their purpose if people attempt to outsmart the system, and make some bars go up and other lines go down to make you happy. Guide your people patiently and don’t freak out when you see some old behavior kicking in. Don’t criticize and call this out in the public but rather have one-on-one sessions to address any cases like this. At some point when critical mass is gathered, peer pressure will suppress undesirable behavior.
Recognize and encourage
Look for ways to reward a desired behavior. Be instantaneous - not ostentatious. Call a quick meeting and praise someone, give them a small bonus, pat someone on the back in the corridor. As with each point in the list, a moderation is the key. You can easily overdo and gratification will become the goal. You can’t afford it, and it is not sustainable. All this will cause is people expecting more and more, and desired behaviors will stop the moment rewards disappear. Achieving mastery at something, having a sense of purpose, feeling that you are a part of something bigger than yourself and that you make a difference inspire best. You should focus on these aspects rather than resort to just monetary solutions that don’t have a lasting impact.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, change in behavior triggers a change in the way you think and feel. There is this funny claim that people don’t run from a bear because they are afraid of the animal but they are afraid of it because they run. The implication is that physical action of running causes fear. Along the same lines some time ago I discovered that when you force yourself to smile you automatically feel better. Unconscious effort is even needed to have the positive thoughts. Specific behavior elicits particular feelings and - if repeated regularly - can catalyze a lasting impact. Likewise, have people behave in some way at work, and you have a good chance to change the way they think and feel.
For example, you want to improve cross-site collaboration for geographically dispersed teams, you prohibit the use of email and shut down instant messengers. It might seem radical but when folks just pick up the phone and talk to one another, you will see miracles happen. Suddenly, problems that couldn’t have been solved for years will become manageable. Folks dreaded for their formidable character will soften with your each smile. Let them do video sessions, and even if they call from their laptops, cameras should always be on.
Mind the organizational context
Be mindful of the ecosystem you live in, and the forces that you must reckon with. Communicate early wins to your boss and peers in other teams (or you) will find out there is no more gas for you at the next pit stop. All stakeholders will come to the table with assumptions and expectations. Without a steady flow of solid results, their patience will run out before you implement a change. Some ideas will not translate into actions, others will take longer to implement due to corporate governance, heavy processes or simple small town politics. Know when to comply and when to stand your ground. Your boss is your greatest ally with most interest in your success. It would be a shame to ignore this and not to play it your advantage. At some point, there will no longer be more low-hanging fruits. But by that time you should have enough credibility and momentum to tackle tougher topics and secure more resources to fuel the next steps.
Majority of the people feels uncomfortable with changes as they may not only require operating in a different way but potentially also acquiring new knowledge or learning a new skill. People look for some order in their lives - repeatability instills comfort and makes an impression that things are under control. This is why the the fear of change and unpredictability of the future will make people cling to status quo.
Open, coherent and generous communication that explains what and why is going to happen (as well as securing internal and external supporters) will help you accomplish your goals and make it easier for larger groups to embrace change. Having employees behave in a specific way will influence how they think. Being aware of a broader organizational context will help you avoid traps as you build momentum, and gain support for your actions from your boss and your peers. There will be times when people will falter and fall back on old habits. You will need to guide them patiently through the whole process and remind why certain things are happening, and where you are going. Remember to reinforce positive behavior with quick and adequate rewards and never lose faith in your people. Give them the ability to have a say and listen to their feedback. They will reward you with creative ideas and positive energy, making your change a successful and lasting one.