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Source Manager's Journal: Changing Things, Part Three — A Simple Formula


Part One of this series dealt with broad aspects of change. Part Two addressed impediments to change — why change efforts often fail. In Part Three, I will try to lay out a simple process for achieving planned change. The process is simple. But as we all know, change never is. The process is linear. It describes a way to get from A to B. But life and change efforts are not linear. As Gilda Radner used to say on "Saturday Night Live," "It's always something." This approach assumes that "somethings" are going to happen along the way. The "somethings" are the source of rule number one.
Change processes are also a mix of the mental and the emotional. It is one thing for change to be explained, understood and accepted. It is another thing — and a lot more powerful — if the change connects on an emotional level.
Rule One: Be Realistic. Being realistic takes three forms: First, define the problem to be solved in accurate terms; second, set an achievable goal; and finally, do not put people in the position of being asked to do something that cannot be done. A good starting point is to reject both optimism and pessimism. The optimist says that if we all just give 110 percent, this will be a great success. It doesn't work. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we believe it can't be done, it will not be. Taken together, false optimism and pessimism are the parents of cynicism, the death knell to any change effort.
The starting point in bringing about change is an acceptance that the outcome is unknown, but that a good faith effort by everyone is what is most likely to produce success. The likelihood of success multiplies if key people share this commitment.
Rule Two: Build a Team That Can Get to "Critical Mass." The most effective changes are the ones that are "owned" by large numbers of people, not those that are imposed on them. Start with a core group and build out. The core team should have the following qualities:

— It is built on trust. Members know that they are in this together and that they can count on one another;
— Goals, visions and messages are shared. The members of the team speak with a single voice, so everyone hears the same thing;
— They focus on simplicity and clarity, especially with respect to who will do what and when they will do it;
— They make success seem inevitable;
— They create a sense of urgency that makes the status quo seem totally unacceptable.
Rule Three: Define a Vision. People do not respond well to abstract solutions. They need hooks. Give them a vision of how things will look different at the end of this change effort and also a description of the path to that vision that makes them believe that it is achievable.
Rule Four: Build Out to Mobilize Groups That Are Needed. This is where the team's cohesion becomes critical. Building out is a political process of winning over those whose support is needed to make this change work, whether it is a business innovation or implementing a public or social-sector policy. It is a process of winning over the uncommitted and isolating the opponents of change. It involves anticipating the question, "What's in it for me?" and having answers that bring different groups and individuals on board. One thing that should always be included in the rewards is recognition and credit, distributed as widely as possible. Change efforts often fail simply because the leaders try to hog all of the credit and alienate people who should be supporters. Successful change typically leaves a trail of submerged egos, sacrificed to a larger cause.
Rule Five: Use Benchmarks, Measures of Success and Little Victories. These are three different things. Benchmarks are qualities of other organizations that we want to measure ourselves against. Measures of success are "hard" achievements and completed tasks. For purposes of mobilizing change, little victories are very important, especially in the early months when big changes are just incubating. It doesn't matter that they are small; what is important is that they are visible and noted. These are signs of movement on the way to fulfilling the vision.
Rule Six: Overcommunicate. The concept of "stickiness" has perfect application to change efforts. A consistent set of change messages should be communicated over and over again, modified regularly to reflect the progress that is being made. At some point they gain traction and stick. A good rule is that if you believe you are communicating adequately, triple the number of communications to these groups and audiences. In reviewing recent change efforts made in their organization, leaders who were surveyed almost invariably say that they had under-communicated.
In many instances, it should not be the top leader who is delivering these communications but other trusted persons who are closer to the individuals and groups in the target audience. Front-line supervisors are often the best communicators of change.
Rule Seven: Move Opponents Out of the Way. In the early stages of a difficult change process, a client once said "I have to take a life every month." This requirement only lasted three months before the opposition melted away. Several years ago, I worked on a project to simplify the convoluted work processes of a major service organization. Fixing these processes would have saved large amounts of money and markedly improved customer service. Three mid-level managers in a single department were able to sabotage these efforts because management was unwilling to remove them, for political reasons. The change effort failed, and as usually happens in these cases, it has not been effectively restarted. There should be zero tolerance for negative blocking behaviors.
Rule Eight: Don't Declare Victory Too Soon. Let's take a recent example: "Mission Accomplished." The mission has not been accomplished until the change is the new way of life, the new processes, systems, relationships and behaviors are locked in and the old ways forgotten. By then it is almost time to think about the next set of improvements.
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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