When I first started working in the field of organizational development, my mentors told me three things that I always needed to remember about change: people don’t like it; people don’t understand it; and people won’t like you for trying to implement it. For the most part, I believe that is the case. Why? Because people are comfortable with what they know and do, and anyone that tries to change anything is often met with resistance.
I have worked in a number of good companies over the years that tried to implement positive changes in their corporate culture that ended in failure. The lack of success of these change-efforts usually occurred because those leading the change effort failed to count the cost of success.
Before we consider the factors that one must address when undertaking a change, we would do well to define what the culture of an organization encompasses. Every organization has a stated set of values that supports the purpose of the organization. People have beliefs, whether they be positive or negative, about the organization’s values. From those individual beliefs, people behave or perform, and that behavior in turn leads to the results that the organization creates. In short, values are expressed in beliefs that drive behavior that create results.
For example, if an organization values teamwork and collaboration, then individuals may be rewarded for working in groups. Those that believe that a team approach contributes to their success will work hard to be inclusive and collaborative with one another in order to achieve the desired results. However, those that believe that teamwork is too time-consuming and obstructive, will do everything they can to work autonomously and may avoid working with others when they believe that the outcome will be less than effective. When the results are not what was expected, they ironically want to say, “See, I told you so.” Their lack of collaboration becomes the justification to continuing their behavior, which most likely contributed to the lack of results to begin with.
When an organization adopts different values and beliefs in support of new behaviors to create different results, there is a period of transition that occurs between endings and new beginnings. The longer one stays in transition, the greater the likelihood that the change-effort will be unsuccessful. To move more quickly through transition, there are a number of questions that every agent of change should be asking and answering for themselves:
1. How complex is the strategy for implementing the change? The more working parts, processes, and procedures that need to be changed, the harder the change is to initiate. People become overwhelmed if they believe that they have too much to address. You will increase the likelihood that people will get on board if you can create a plan for change that is doable and believable. Change agents should have a clear blueprint of steps to initiate a change. Especially if the change is quite complex, doing less is often doing more. When one aspect of a change is successful, then add another piece to the puzzle.
2. How many people are involved? The more people are involved, the longer the change will take. You only move as quickly as the slowest person is willing to move. By starting with a smaller group of people, you give yourself and others the opportunity to find out what is working and to make corrections or improvements before bringing the next group on board.
3. What is the degree of uncertainty? You must be clear about the outcome you are trying to achieve. And you must communicate your vision of the future repeatedly. Failure to provide clarity about the proposed change results in significant “wondering” that consumes people’s energy and causes them to answer questions about the change in the worst possible way. People want to know not only what the change will accomplish, but also what impact it will have on them.
4. What are the desired outcomes? This question is intended to help you specifically identify the desired outcome. Try to keep the outcomes to only three specific objectives. If there are more than three desired outcomes, people may struggle to know where they should put their energy and focus. They will become confused about priorities and then not be able to meet your desired objectives.
5. What is the degree of leadership commitment? Leadership becomes the critical mass of moving a change forward. If the leaders are not on board, others will know it, and they will be less likely to implement the desired change. When the leadership of an organization is committed, they will become a positive example of involvement for others to follow.
6. What is the strength of tradition? When things are going well and employees have enjoyed a degree of success over a long period of time, it is much more difficult to get them to change. They just don’t see the need. To overcome the strength of tradition, you need to start new traditions and demonstrate the value for changing. One way to do this is by broadcasting positive stories or examples of success that people have experienced. Still others will need facts and data about how time and the bottom line may be impacted. If you fail to provide the information that people want or need, they will continue to tell the old stories that support the old ways of doing things. This keeps people stuck in the past and doesn’t help them to try doing things differently. Consequently, the new results are never achieved nor shared which makes the change more difficult.
7. Are new beginnings experienced as loss or gain? I know of a situation where the repairmen for a major cable company complained for years that their trucks were continually breaking down. The company finally took steps to buy an entire fleet of new trucks. The only problem was that in addition to the trucks having manual transmissions, none of them had air-conditioning. Saying that no one was happy about driving these new trucks through Texas in the middle of summer would be an understatement. It is important for anyone initiating a change to understand what people value and then to make changes that will address that value. If you are out of touch with the workforce and what is important to them, then you may initiate a change for which there is no perceived value—no gain. When that happens, very few people will support the change.
8. How patient are you? As you probably already gathered, change takes time. The more people involved, the more complex the change, the longer it takes. Some companies just don’t have the patience. They may try to change too much, too soon, and in a shorter time span, and then when they don’t get the results that they expected, they pull the plug. The problem with backing out in this way is that it sends the message that the company wasn’t really serious about changing things from the beginning. This leaves those that threw their heart and soul into the change frustrated and angry. Those that never believed what was being proposed want to tell everyone, “I told you so.” The next time the organization decides that some changes need to be made, it will take even more energy to overcome the negative stigma the company has created by their lack of patience in seeing the change through to completion.
9. How committed are you? If you are sincerely committed to making a change, then you will stick with it no matter what. That means you will be willing to learn from your mistakes and make course corrections as you implement or roll out different aspects of the change. Another important question you could ask yourself is, “Am I willing to learn and be flexible?” If your answer is in the affirmative, then you will be committed to doing whatever is necessary to make the changes that will yield more positive results. You don’t want to get stuck in the process of the change at the expense of results.
One thing we know for certain, nothing ever stays the same. Everything changes. The key to initiating a successful change is to carefully plan, address, execute the different steps involved, and ask yourself the questions that will insure that your change-endeavor will yield the desired results. By asking yourself the questions above, you will be better equipped to make the desired change a reality.
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