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Source Manager's Journal: Changing Things: Part Two

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Why don't things change? Why don't the schools improve when the problems have been obvious for years? Why can't General Motors make cars that people want to buy? Why can't Franklin D. Roosevelt Park be completed on time? Why don't businesses improve customer service when the need is clear? Why don't social agencies improve services as needs change?
There are no simple answers to these questions, and in this article I will explore what seem to be some of the most important ones. If Part One of Changing Things was basically a "to do" list, Part Two is a checklist for those things that will block effective change.
In the United States, there is a widely held belief that government is highly change-resistant, and that business is more nimble and reacts faster. In general, change in the non-profit sector doesn't get a lot of attention. Government bureaucracies are, in fact, highly change-resistant, but there are many examples of successful change initiatives. Businesses have the great advantage of the bottom line: If you lose money long enough, you go out of business. That is a useful spur to change when it is needed, but many large businesses are also lumbering bureaucracies that don't change. The non-profit sector does not have the organizing discipline of the market or the bottom line, so it must find other tools for spurring change. It often fails to do so and, as a result, these organizations sometimes face the problem of irrelevance well before they confront the threat of extinction.
With this framework, here is a checklist of sources of failed change. It is worth viewing this list as a self-assessment tool for the organization, whether a business or a public or non-profit agency. These are prerequisites to successful change. If any of them are present, the first order of business is to eliminate or sharply limit them. Often this step will be the hardest part of the change process.
Misdiagnosed Problems: Misdiagnosing the problem to be addressed is a straight path to a failed change effort. If the actions that are to be taken don't eliminate or sharply reduce the impact of the problem, something is dramatically wrong, and an opportunity is going to be lost in very short order. Getting only part of the problem right is a form of misdiagnosis. Let's take the example of school performance. The lines tend to be so clearly drawn here and the fear of being blamed is so strong that it is difficult to do the prerequisite diagnosis. For example, it is quite striking to see how often the most basic tool is left off the "reform" action list: To succeed, students have to study much more than they do now. How can we get them to study? It can't be done if the problem isn't identified. This is just one example. It is important to spend time actually thinking through what the problem is and what happens because of it. These definitions are the platform for all effective change that relates to a problem or issue.
Cultures of Indifference: Change requires a sense of urgency. We want to get this done. The absence of any sense of urgency translates over time into static organizations that are not capable of bringing about change. It also produces low standards. Indifference and low standards are almost always accompanied by a lack of accountability. If people do not do what they are committed to do and there is no consequence, it is a death knell for effective change. And each new failed change effort reinforces the pattern, which leads either to decay or explosive change in which someone is willing to upend the apple cart to move things. If people are unwilling to change, there are in the end only two real choices: accept defeat or move those people out of the way.
Ineffective Leaders and Managers: In the final analysis, leaders and managers are responsible for bringing about change. Failed change efforts are managerial failures, pure and simple. Why does this happen? Let's leave out human stupidity, although it is clearly an important factor, especially if you expand the concept of intelligence to the social and emotional. Albert Einstein once said that "there are only two things that are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not certain about the first." Simply stated, there is a need for leaders and managers to think. Many do not.
A more prevalent problem is that managers view their jobs as property or a title rather than a set of functions and a responsibility. These managers create change-process failures in two ways. They don't focus on execution because they either don't take the time to understand it or they see it as being beneath them. ("What? Me, a commissioner or a vice-president getting my hands dirty doing this kind of stuff? Not me.") People whose primary focus is on being a big shot are usually not very good at changing things. It's hard to really understand what is happening when you are flying at 37,000 feet; real change takes place on the ground.
These leaders and managers also cripple change efforts by modeling exactly the wrong kinds of behavior. Albert Schweitzer may have exaggerated when he said that example is not the main thing influencing others, it's the only thing, but he wasn't far off the mark.
Opposition and Lack of Trust: The National Basketball Association started this season with a new kind of basketball. It made the decision to adopt the new ball without consulting the players, the only people who were going to use it. Why ask when you might get negative comments? The players were angered on two levels. First, they hated the ball for a variety of reasons, and, second, they resented the fact that it was imposed on them without their consultation, let alone approval. A round ball became a respect and trust issue.
Imposing change is sometimes necessary, but it is done far more often than needed. Imposed change typically deepens the levels of mistrust that produced the imposition in the first place. Getting ownership or buy-in through discussion and joint planning is the most effective method of launching change processes that succeed. But even in these instances, there can be a lack of commitment to making changes that have been decided. At that point, managers cannot back off or give up, because failed change usually becomes a precedent. One way or another, those blocking change need to be brought on board or moved out of the way.
Finally, in many settings people demand consensus before changes can be implemented, but consensus is a dead end: it means that every person, however unreasonable, has a veto. The goal is commitment.
Poor Systems and Processes: Hooray!We are going to launch a new program, product or service. The only problem is that our systems and work processes are too weak to support the effort. Enthusiasm will only get you so far, usually about three weeks before the withering away begins. There has to be a system and a process that will get you from A to B. If there isn't, build one before starting.
Bad Communication: This is a management failure that we understand better each year. People can't implement what they don't understand, including where they fit in the process. The keys to communicating]change are over-communication, clarity and using the right communicators.
Inadequate Resources: Change can't be accomplished without the resources to bring it about. One of the great lies of the Reagan era was that everyone needed "to do more with less," a maxim that did not apply to military spending, corporations or the rich. The right resources — measured in dollars, equipment, time or people — have to be in place if the promise of change is not going to be an empty one.
The biggest challenge posed by this list is that any one of these problems can derail a change effort. It is why starting with a self assessment is so important, especially if the burden of previous failures is hanging over the project.
Next Time: Part Three
— A Simple Model for Effective Change.
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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