June 2015: Executive Corner

Common sense change management

Columnist Bill Murray

Columnist Bill Murray

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today.” — Isaac Asimov

While mulling over what we might write about this month, we came across this quote from the writings of Isaac Asimov; a man who died more than 20 years ago. We think you would agree that his words are still relevant today, and even more challenging. The speed of change is accelerating exponentially due to the ever increasing rates of invention and innovation. We believe that most leaders view change as inevitable, and a dominant factor in every society.

The challenge for leaders is to deal with change effectively and efficiently. Some changes, such as new competitors and new competitive products, are thrust upon us. Other changes, such as the application of new technologies, new processes, and new organizational structures are initiated from within, and the hope is always improved performance. Regardless of whether the change is driven by external or internal forces, the real question is whether your organization is prepared to deal with change successfully.

People often fail to recognize the difference between project management and change management. In both cases the organization is moving from the current state, through a transition state, and into a future state. Project management deals with the technical side of change, whereas change management deals with the people side of change. Both elements must be managed in order for the change to be successful. We’ll save discussion of project management for another time. Today our focus will be on change management: the people side.

The consequences of not managing the people side of change are many. Examples include lower productivity, passive and active resistance, turnover, and absenteeism. Even though the change may be technically sound, a high percentage of change efforts do not reach their full potential, or fail completely. This is because many organizations fail to recognize the importance of managing the change. The reasons why change initiatives fall short — or fail altogether — most often fall in one of these categories:

  • Leaders fail to understand the nature of resistance
  • Leaders underestimate how disruptive change can be
  • Leaders view organizations as mechanical systems and fail to facilitate change
  • Leaders don’t align the change efforts with their business strategy
  • Leaders don’t have a model for change
Columnist Reg Carter

Columnist Reg Carter

We will now briefly explore each of these reasons in a little more detail, along with how they can be avoided. First, never underestimate the power of comfort with how things are being done in your organization today. Change is always disruptive, and the natural reaction is resistance. You should always expect resistance and plan for it, understanding it is very natural whenever you’re initiating any change. The key mitigation factors are early employee involvement and two-way communications.

Sometimes leaders think that change is simply a matter of “adding to” or “taking from” the current state, and that the rationale and benefits, will be self-evident to everyone. Although the planned change may be technically correct in every way, having the right answer by itself is not enough. Effective change leaders recognize the importance of facilitating change. They take steps to insure everyone understands the business case for the change, and provide a vision of what the new state will look like. Further, these leaders share action plans, continually communicate progress, and reinforce the change through their own behaviors and the recognition of others.

All organizations have a strategy. It may or may not be well defined and understood; it may be good or it may be bad. The idea is that some level of planning and direction exists in all organizations, and represents the strategy for achieving the organization’s goals. Lack of alignment with the business strategy occurs when it’s not clear how the change will help people better achieve their goals. This goes right back to the importance of facilitating change, i.e., insuring everyone understands the business case, providing a vision of what the new state will look like, sharing action plans, continually communicate progress, and reinforcing behaviors through example and the recognition of others.

We have touched on the basic model associated with successful change implementation: leadership involvement and facilitation, two-way communications, early employee involvement, and strategic alignment. Developing plans around each of these elements will dramatically increase your chance for success with the implementation of any change — which is sure to come.

Reg Carter & Bill Murray are executives with CITEC Business Solutions, a Canton-based nonprofit economic development consulting organization, with more than 60 years of business and management experience between them. Their column appears quarterly in NNY Business.