Friday, June 10, 2011

Change is not a four-letter word

Change is a four-letter word - at least to many of the people outside the small group of decision-makers who just made change the goal for your organization.  Of course we're speaking figuratively here, but you can expect, and plan for, resistance to your change concept.  This resistance might be of varying intensities and duration from situation to situation, but it will be there.  Count on it.

In particular, if this is the first big change that your leadership group has initiated, or the first in recent years, you're going to bump up against the cultural traditions.  This happens in households as well as in companies:  "Why aren't you making turkey for Christmas dinner??  We always have turkey for Christmas dinner!"  Even small changes can upset the stasis, the stability, that people like to feel in their lives.  And the upset intensifies when your change is going to mess with something to which they have developed an emotional attachment.

Institutions in the change sense aren't buildings - they are culturally accepted habits.  The turkey example above is an institution.  The "Every Monday All-Day Management Meeting" was an institution in one company that comes to mind.  It might be that nobody knows anymore why you started to have the meeting, or the menu item, in the first place.  But now that it has been repeated over and over again, it's "what you do". 

When you are contemplating change it's important to anticipate the impact on the institutions, the sacred cows, in your organization - and the people who are attached to them.  There is a variety of methods that can be effective to help bring people along with you:
  • Listen - When you know there are groups who are attached to a specific method of doing things, ingrained in a habit, they have their reasons why, and the reasons may be valid.  If this person or group is impacted by your change you need them to be part of your team, and step one in doing so is to give them the respect of an opportunity to share their feelings, even (or especially) their negative ones.  It might be that there are alternative means to a mutually beneficial end, and if you demonstrate openness to be negotiative, or at least to hear them out, you will at least not add them to your list of obstacles.
  • Consult with the informal leaders - There are some highly influential individuals who can make your life easier or stab you in the back, and you want these people on your team.  They are used to having their own way, being deferred to, and if you do not help them see the benefit in your change they will be active in working against it.  They might have longer tenure than you, or connections with other powerful individuals in the organization that together can sink your change.  In a company setting you can take a hard line of "off with their heads!" for people who won't come along, but in a volunteer setting they could choose to leave, taking their work and their contributions with them.  If you have already determined that your desired outcome is worth the potential fallout, talk to them one on one.  Share your rationale.  Ask for their help.  Field their objections and reservations.  There will be no instant conversions, so you might have to have multiple contacts with each one in order to engage them.  Remember, these are the folks with the most to lose in the change, so they might not come easily.
  • Enlist champions - Some people in your group are not all that invested in the cultural institutions, or they may be able to see more readily the same benefits in change that you see.  Particularly if they are interpersonally skilled, bring them onto your team early to help you navigate the choppy waters of culture change.  They can help you manage the conversation into a productive direction, and provide more sets of ears out in the field to identify current and potential obstacles.  Once a critical mass of people with "new" perspectives is reached, it's easier to make converts of the more resistant individuals.
  • Look all around for solutions - People dislike being changed, feeling out of control.  They, on the other hand, tend to like changes that they initiate.   At every opportunity, when you are communicating the goal of the change you are implementing, ask for ideas on how to accomplish pieces of the bigger change.  You might be surprised to find some progressive minds, creative ideas, in unexpected places.  Then USE their ideas if you want the change to be owned - and supported - by a larger group of people.
  • Take one small step, and then another, and do it now - Change is often a game of inches.  When you make small changes often, you reduce the fear that every one is the end of life as we know it.  You won't get it all done at once even if you want to.  But start now.  Choose short-term goals that can become early victories for your change process, and you can build on their success.  Some people can't see the benefit until they see the benefit.  Show them by doing something.
  • Talk about victories and heroes - This is an internal public relations process, intended to raise the profile of the benefits of the change.  Incorporate this into agendas for standing meetings, share success stories on the in-house newsletter, generate awards or rewards associated with the new direction, show relevant statistics on bulletin boards.  Place the information in multiple channels to increase the likelihood that people will see them and retain the information.
Most "Big C" changes aren't accomplished in one fell swoop.  They are the product of dozens, even hundreds, of smaller changes.  You might be the person whose job it is to put the stake in the ground and say, "Here is where we're going" and to stick to the direction.  But regardless of the compelling business case for change, you have to be effective at bringing the people along with you if you want the change to succeed for now and also to create the foundation for effective future change management longer term.


Veronica Lee said...

Hi! Stopping by from MBC. Great blog.
Have a nice day!

Lisa Rossetti said...

Leaders can help the change process by harvesting & adapting company "legends " and crafting new stories for the future in which everyone is a Hero.

Julie Poland, certified business coach said...

Veronica - thanks for stopping by!

Lisa - I agree with you, and in two ways I want to be sure that other readers notice in your comment:
1. Taking note of the legends already in existence and using them, and
2. Give everyone an opportunity to be a Hero. Real and sustainable change happens one person at a time. The extent to which each feels like an important contributor is the extent to which each will become actively involved in the creative process.