Home Business St. Thomas business Source Manager's Journal: Changing Things, Part One

Source Manager's Journal: Changing Things, Part One

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Several years ago, I was discussing a strategic planning project with the leadership of a large, highly respected non-profit organization. At a certain point, I said that, in the end, all planning was about change. The CEO responded that he didnt think they needed to change anything, that everything was going great. I didnt quite know how to respond, but I was saved by a key board member who delicately pointed out several areas in which the organization could be improved.
That intervention saved the planning assignment, but the most interesting part was still to come. The organization had long seen itself as the unquestioned leader in its field, and it had grown complacent and self-satisfied. When I came back with the results of the external environment scan, the leaders were stunned to learn that they were not seen as the leader in the field; at least two other organizations were seen as more innovative and delivering a higher quality product. Corporate sponsors pointed to areas like visual presentation and customer service to accentuate this point.
What was particularly striking about this finding was that the organization had not gotten worse in any way. In fact, it had marginally improved in several areas. It was just that others had gotten better a lot faster. This experience reinforced the notion that to stand still is to go backwards. This is true even if there is not direct competition. A lack of any sense of urgency inevitably results in a static, non-learning organization.
Whether we are talking about business, government or a non-profit agency, change is an essential part of sustaining a vibrant organization and a productive workplace. It is the responsibility of leadership and management to drive that change in the most effective manner. This does not mean living in constant organizational turmoil, quite the contrary. Nor does it mean ceaselessly searching for the ultimate technology fix, since technology plays only a limited role in the changes that most organizations need to make to achieve excellence, or at a minimum, to effectively serve their customers, clients or constituents. Most of the changes in organizations are operational: better work processes and basic systems, skills development, customer service improvement, targeted improvements in quality, greater clarity and accountability for achievable results.
Sometimes change is externally imposed by a shift in the market or changing community needs or tastes, and it becomes instantly clear that doing business as usual will not work: something external has changed, and we must change and adapt to meet it. These are reactive changes, and they are essential. There are also planned changes in anticipation of some external shift or, in the most desirable cases, to better fulfill the organizations mission and vision for the future.
Urgency and Mini-crisis: Where do we start? Except in an emergency or crisis it is usually difficult for people to see why we need to change. Most people like to do the same thing that they did yesterday, so they find reasons to keep doing it. Lets take a big example. No one can absolutely prove that global warming poses a major threat to mankind, largely because it is difficult to predict the future with regard to anything, let alone something as complex as climate change. It also hasnt whacked us in the head in any indisputable way yet. But virtually all of the evidence says that it is occurring and that unless we make significant changes, it will have a dramatic and negative effect on the world. How do you prep people for change when its necessity is not absolutely certain?
On a smaller scale, this is the challenge that affects every change agent in any organization. What to do? In an organization in some kind of crisis, it is easy; the problem is right there, and the forces of the status quo have been discredited by the mess that they have created. There is a message here. If the leaders and managers see a problem emerging, it is useful to create at least some sort of mini-crisis to use as a hook for starting the change process, and in a certain way unlocking the status quo. This is classic change theory, and it works. There are times when change cannot take place because there is no apparent or immediate crisis and those opposed to change have legitimacy and enough leverage to block changes. The dynamic or lack of a dynamic must be changed.
Years ago, as an Assistant Health Commissioner in New York City, I was given the job of reforming health care in the Citys jails. The first step in this process was to make public as much of the bad news as possible and to discredit people who worked for me. This was not fun, but this frozen system was not going to change until it was shaken and left defenseless. Within a year people who had been unwilling or afraid to change had become afraid not to, but had also lost the leverage that had allowed them to block change in the past.
Vision of a Better Future: Clarifying what a better future might look like is critical because people generally fear leaps into the unknown. If we want them to buy into giving up A, we had better tell them what B is going to look like in the clearest operational terms. There are three stages in this process. First, the leaders and managers must define a clear vision for the future. This vision is not soft. It is a concrete operational description of what the business, agency, or organization will look like at some date in the future, and how it will be different and better.
Then the leaders and managers have to communicate this vision, and what it will take to achieve it, to everyone in the organization. It doesnt matter whether there are 10 people or 10,000, this stage is absolutely critical. It represents the difference between imposing changing and having people owning it. It is something that almost all organizations do poorly, but we know a lot about how to do it well. For example, we know that it is best to over-communicate, and we know that change is best communicated to people by their immediate supervisors rather than by the CEO. This means that there has to be a process rather than just an announcement.
Finally, the leaders and managers have to reinforce the same set of messages over time. This works best if two things are occurring: first, everybody is speaking with a single voice, eliminating as much ambiguity as possible about what is happening and who is going to do what. Ambiguity and confusion are the allies of the opponents of change. Second, there should be feedback loops so that the concerns and suggested improvements of line supervisors and staff can be incorporated into the change process. Having a mechanism for feeding back can reduce to almost zero the possibility of asking people to do something that cannot be done. It also builds ownership.
Execution: I once worked with a very smart man who had one big blind spot: he believed that having an idea and executing it were the same thing. They are not, but many people fall into a similar trap in making organizational changes. First they underestimate how long it is going to take for the changes to become the way that we do things here. As a result, things start to fall of the track or some people decide that they will do things the old way. To avoid these pitfalls, there are three useful rules: (1) make certain that there are short-term and visible achievements, even if they are small: people need reinforcement. (2) Dont move on to new things too soon. Monitor and make certain that change is taking place in the way that was planned. And (3) reward those who work to effect change and move those who block it out of the way. These are both process (orientation, training, formal rewards) and emotional activities. Each one should be thought through in advance.
Next Week: Impediments to Change and How to Overcome Them
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current
work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.

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