posted 3 Sep 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
In the second of a two-part masterclass, Andrew MacNeil examines ways of engaging employees in the process and overcoming potential resistance.
In my first article, I talked about the definition of change management, about why successful business change is so hard to achieve and introduced what I have found to be the four robust foundations of successful change.
I proposed a definition of change management: “The skills (and methods) that enable successful planning and management of the business-change agenda, on behalf of the accountable executives.” I also asserted that this definition was a holistic one – it requires the mandate, the skills and resources to tackle the whole agenda, and not just the training, the communication or the people-related aspects. The four foundations that I introduced were as follows:
The overt and committed ownership of the change by the appropriate leader in the organisation;
2. The solution
The new way that business will happen to achieve the new results: complete, robust and credible;
3. Looking after people
The appreciation that it is natural for employees to resist change, and that acknowledging this and supporting employees will give quicker and better results than forcing the change upon them;
4. Organising to deliver
Every business change involves doing ‘something that has never been done’ before, and therefore the approach used needs to recognise this.
In the part one, I promised to examine these principles in more detail and to illustrate them with examples. In doing so, I would like to use the concept of ‘positive deviancy’ or ‘catching people doing something right’. Positive deviancy points out that in any given situation, some individuals, operating with the same resources and constraints as everyone else, achieve better results. By identifying these situations, and copying or adapting these strategies, others can be more successful too.
Rather than use ‘war stories’ of things that have gone wrong and what should have been done instead (surely we have all heard and/or experienced enough of these already) I will use examples of specific actions that have worked well, and that can be copied or adapted by others. The examples, they are each based on real experience and real success, and I have ‘italicised’ them for clarity.
Sponsors and supporters
There are two key roles in change that are very similar; that of the ‘sponsor’ and that of the ‘supporter’ (sometimes called an advocate). Both individuals must have a commitment and strong desire to see the change be successful, a willingness to put in effort and resources to see it happen. The two roles are, however, distinct. The key difference between them is that the true sponsor has the authority to make it happen because (at least a majority of) the people affected report to them and have their objectives and appraisals set (directly or indirectly) by them.
Often, it is an individual in the role of the supporter or advocate who takes action first to initiate the change. This is typically a finance director of a company or business unit. They see and understand the need for change, they control the critical resource – money – and so they take action. However, when an issue arises, they do not have the direct authority to make the compromise decisions required. When the progress of the change and the performance of the ongoing business are in conflict, the supporter/advocate can help facilitate the resolution, but it requires the sponsor to be fully engaged.
When a ‘change agent’ (the person with the skills invited to plan and manage the change agenda on behalf of the accountable executive) is invited to undertake that role, their first task is to understand the change and assess whether they have been invited by the sponsor, or by a supporter/advocate. When it is the latter, it is vital to ‘have the conversation’ and explain to this person that they cannot be the sponsor, but that this need not be a negative discussion. A business leader who can sponsor the change with their finance director as a committed supporter/advocate is in a far better position to achieve success.
A successful sponsor must be clearly and overtly committed to the change – be prepared to make ‘at stake’ commitments to its success. However, it is not just the big gestures that are needed, but the accumulation of smaller gestures and actions that are critical. Staff will read the signs to make an assessment of their intent. If the sponsor’s support seems half-hearted, the staff will notice – and act accordingly.
For example, in the broad area of knowledge management (KM) or knowledge sharing, leaders’ overt declarations of a project’s importance and support are necessary, but seeing them contribute frequently to feedback on entries in the knowledge base, for example, will have a far greater positive impact.
In another example, the back office – customer service, finance, human resources (HR), logistics and so on – of a medium-sized business was facing a major change; the integration of newly acquired business, a systems upgrade to address the ‘year 2000 millennium bug’ (remember that?) and then an outsourcing of the functions.
Because of the issues that arose, the timing slipped on several occasions. Yet the staff remained committed and loyal, while being fully aware that their jobs would be eliminated, at a date that kept changing – because the sponsor demonstrated his commitment.
He broke all the news, both good and bad, personally. He took every opportunity to talk to the staff and reassure them of his commitment to see that they would be looked after. He made the key decisions, including those that delayed the eventual closure, himself. Because of his personal actions, both large and small, the staff stayed on through to the end, delivering the business performance and the business change in a situation where you would reasonably expect people to leave and find new jobs (in a hurry) rather than hang around to see it through to the end.
The solution – complete, robust, credible
There are many models that show how the different aspects of an organisation must fit together for the whole to work correctly – Leavitt’s Diamond or the ‘Business System Diamond’ of Michael Hammer and James Champy are two examples. These models advocate that process, technology, roles, structure, skills, culture, measures and rewards must all fit together for an organisation to perform sustainably. It follows that a change to the organisation must ensure that all these factors are suitably re-aligned, where necessary. Inconsistencies need to be addressed and direct incompatibilities eliminated.
A salesforce re-organisation, intended to improve revenues by ‘up-skilling’ the salespeople and deploying their time more effectively by segregating customer types, needed to have the technology improved (to give access to more up-to-date information) the measures changed (to highlight revenue instead of volumes) and the rewards changed (to reflect the importance of retaining existing customers and not just acquiring new ones).
New solutions – especially technology-based changes – often suffer from the ‘ritual budgeting dance’. The initial estimates for the budget are considered too high and are required to be reduced (often to increase the projected return on investment figures) before they will be approved; the enthusiastic project manager agrees because he wants the project to go ahead (otherwise he and his team might not have a job); contingencies are cut (‘it’s your job to make sure that things don’t go wrong’). The project is approved and gets going, and each early issue eats away at the funds available for testing later on.
In my experience, the value of testing follows the illustration above. Some amount of testing is – obviously – needed to eliminate errors in the design (zone A), but then further effort (and cost) does not deliver any incremental robustness (zone B). However, further and deeper testing then uncovers the tricky issues and eliminates them before they go into use and are discovered (to the frustration of) the real users (zone C). It is this zone C that is worth the effort (and the budget) as it is this degree of rigour and robustness that will make the new design more usable and credible.
On a supply chain re-engineering project, we designed a completely new planning process using a new technology. We had thoroughly tested the process in ‘conference-room pilots’ and the technology in extensive system-tests (zone A). However we also made sure to complete several trial runs, using real data, where every dataset was tracked and checked as it progressed from raw forecasts and inventories to schedules and plans (zone C). Apart from the number of additional errors that were found and corrected, it gave the new users great understanding and confidence in the solution, which helped them when it was first used ‘for real’.
Most testing is intended to prove that the solution does what it is meant to. It is equally important, but often overlooked, to prove that it doesn’t do what it is not meant to, as well.
Finally, ‘credible’. If we want employees to embrace and adopt new ways of doing things, then these new ways need to be believable. Employees usually have a wealth of experience on ‘how things actually happen’ (as opposed, sometimes, to how management thinks it happens) and their concerns that the new solution will not actually meet real needs will increase their resistance to its adoption.
Technology-based solutions are especially prone to this problem – intranet/internet based systems do not always have the accessibility that is promised, owing to different PC builds, software glitches or incompatibilities and network bandwidths around a large organisation. Mobile solutions often work well in limited office testing, but can be ill-suited to life on the road.
The team delivering the change needs to listen to these concerns and to take action, even though this may entail additional effort and frustration. The effect of ignoring users’ advice, however, and then having the new solution fail is hard to recover from.
Looking after people
A typical major organisational announcement starts with an update on the performance of the company and the wider market conditions. This is done in good faith, in the belief that an understanding of the situation the company is in will help employees understand why the acquisition/investment/outsourcing/re-organisation/cost-cutting programme is needed. In times when everyone’s immediate fear is redundancy (the few times companies announce increasing employment it makes the national press – redundancies rarely do so nowadays) everyone’s immediate question is ‘What will happen to me?’
Until this information is shared, they will pay little attention to the background and justification for the change. If handouts are given at the announcement, people will get their heads down and flick through until they find the slides that give them some confirmation or reassurance about their fears.
Once people’s immediate fears are addressed, their next reaction is typically, ‘What is expected of me?’ I will still have a job, but will it be different, will I be able to do it? What will I have to do to secure it?
All of these worries are huge sappers of morale and performance, and increase resistance. The first (and actually very easy) ways of looking after people are to keep them fully informed (thus avoiding the old truism that in the absence of official information, the worst possible rumour will be believed) and to do so by addressing their needs for information before the organisation’s own.
Tell them what will happen to them and what is expected of them, and be transparent and honest (if the number and location of roles to be made redundant is not yet decided, say so, and say what will be done and when it will be decided. If there are parts of the organisation that certainly will not be affected, say so, too).
Such measures will soften the immediate reaction to the announcement of a change, but cannot prevent people’s feelings of resistance. The resistance process is a natural one and will happen. However, there are interventions that can reduce the duration and cause less demotivation and loss of performance.
The Kubler-Ross curve and its derivatives are familiar materials for those dealing with people change. Above is my interpretation of the curve, and the interventions that can help people transition through it.
A technique that I have used is to gather groups of the affected people together and to ask them to indicate (anonymously) where they are on the curve in Figure Two. I then collate all the answers and draw it up on a flipchart. This can form the focus of a discussion, which enables people to share their thoughts and feelings. Those ‘ahead’ on the curve can support those lagging behind. Often people oscillate, that is to say, they move on, but then slip back, and such a session can help them secure their gained ground.
Another approach is to use regular ‘pulse’ surveys that assess employees’ awareness, comfort and confidence in what is happening. These enable the effectiveness of interventions to be measured and the timing of new interventions to be planned.
Organise to deliver
If you are going to be successful at ‘something that has not been done before’, then here are two prerequisites: be as clear as possible about what you are trying to achieve, expect issues and surprises, and deal with them effectively.
My experience has shown me that simple techniques can achieve this with minimal effort and overhead:
Be clear on deliverables
A very complex, but very successful, acquisition and merger was defined by just 11 deliverables. Everybody working on the challenge could understand these and ensure that all their work was helping progress one or more of these 11;
Control the scope
Every day, we know more than we did the day before, and this often leads to having to take on additional challenges. Do so consciously, estimating the additional resource and effort required to complete (scope usually increases; it rarely shrinks);
Be in control
Ensure that the sponsor has full authority over all the resources, make sure that they are all working on activities that further the deliverables (see above), and ensure that they ‘keep in touch’. A weekly meeting or teleconference and periodic ‘traffic light’ reports are often all that is required; not detailed progress updates and plans;
Deal with issues
It is not bad to have issues – they are a sign that the work is being done thoroughly and is uncovering the real challenges. But it is bad not to have a reliable approach to resolving them. Each sub-project/workstream should be expected to tackle the issues in their own area and to escalate those that originate from or affect other areas. The weekly meeting can be a great opportunity to do this;
Assess the risks
Suggest their likelihood and severity and take action to mitigate them. Apart from contributing to the success of the project, risk is a way of enabling people to talk about issues that might otherwise be uncomfortable or avoided. ‘I think there is a risk of X not working’ can help take a discussion forward where ‘I don’t think X will ever work’ can bring it to a grinding halt;
Use full-time resources
Business change is always time critical – the day-to-day business carries on and a ‘long’ change risks being left behind. Part-time resources slow the pace (it takes longer to complete tasks, convene meetings and so on) and increase risk (the chance that something will be overlooked or forgotten while people are doing their ‘real jobs’.
The complexity of modern business means that change is always a challenge. But the methods and tools required for success need not be complex or difficult – keep it simple and bear in mind the needs of employees in the context of the planned change. My experience supports the pleasing symmetry that the basic principles and activities that I have described can help deliver the most complex of business challenges.
Andrew MacNeil was formerly head of change management at Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company. He is now a freelance consultant specialising in successful business change. He can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.