‘Ingredients’ for change are within your organisation
The pace of change is increasing and there is a human cost to it.
At a leadership sharing session recently, some senior managers lamented that there is a general sense of fatigue and exhaustion setting in with their teams as a result of unrelenting change being thrust upon them.
This is an all too familiar feeling that most people have when there seems to be no end in sight when organisations launch one initiative after another in the name of being the best and outdoing the competition. It’s all well and good to turn up the pressure and work hard to keep the results favourable but at what cost?
Human beings are not designed to remain motivated when there is a sense of disconnect from the purpose of the change. Our reserves run dry and inevitably we “check out” emotionally.
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Luckily for us, in spite of what is happening emotionally, our physical selves can still show up for work and pretend that everything is okay. But, who are we kidding? Studies have indicated that when this happens, productivity, engagement and ownership drops. This is not an outcome anyone wants.
I recently binge watched the TV series Billions, which is about the lives of hedge fund managers in extremely volatile work situations. There is a character called Wendy Rhoades, who is a performance coach to these fund managers and her in-house role is to help them overcome mental blocks.
Through insightful conversations, she gets them out of their rut and sends them back to their trading activities with renewed vigour to take on the world.
Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a Wendy Rhoades across the corridor when we lack motivation or have doubts about challenges brought about by organisational changes we are going through?
Alternatively, we could also look at the idea of setting up the function and services of change management in-house so that we can anticipate and plan for change that doesn’t impact employees so badly.
I strongly believe that the competency to drive change is an essential requirement for all who call themselves managers. Many times, we take the view that driving change equals to ability to influence and make inspiring speeches. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
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Change management should be part of every manager’s playbook
If change management is defined as the ability to anticipate, adapt actions and prepare employees to work productively through a transition, then surely it is every manager’s responsibility to know and execute the steps towards this.
Yet, if you ask most managers “have you ever been trained or exposed to change management methodology or tools”, you are more likely to deal with a look of confusion than confidence.
So what exactly does a manager need to be aware of? Managing change is like baking a cake, you need a few essential ingredients to come together at the right time before seeing results.
These ingredients are the link to the big picture (vision). You also need a good business reason (business case and benefit), transformational leadership, communication, excellent management of the organisation’s supporting system and the ability to align all these to the intended vision.
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Elements for lasting change
Even with these ingredients in place, we have heard and seen cases of transformation efforts going down the drain. At times, this is predominantly due to a missing link. For example if there is no leadership – there is no forward momentum; if the rational or business case does not answer the question of “what’s in it for me”, people will lack motivation to change; and most importantly if the vision is not well articulated, there will be confusion as to having reached the point of success.
In his book The Heart of Change, John P. Kotter says the core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people and this happens when leaders “speak to” people’s feelings. He shares a story of an organisation that embarked on becoming a low-cost producer and did all the right things to drive change yet maintained an elaborate executive area. People would talk about being able to play basketball in the chairman’s office and that there were enough polished wood in the executive floor to build a very nice ship. Needless to say, this change was not realised until two years after the plan date, when a new chief executive officer took over and he literally tore down the entire floor and put up a layout that reflects a cost conscious organisation.
As I see it, when driving change, it is important to align your actions to your end goal and persevere to execute it in the best possible way. Closer to home, if any of you have been to Melaka recently, you will be pleasantly surprised by how clean it is, especially the Melaka River itself. Driving in, you see sign boards saying “Don’t Mess With Melaka”. Initially I thought it was an oversight, because it doesn’t sound very friendly to greet visitors this way, right? Then I realised this was a campaign launched a few years ago by the Chief Minister for locals (not tourists) to keep the city clean. Under his leadership and attention to cleanliness, the city transformed over a period of one year – a good example of aligning intent and actions to drive positive change.
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Starting the engine in driving organisational change
Typically, an organisation is faced with a trigger to change, be it an opportunity to grow through acquisition, loss of market share or creeping costs, this forces a response at an operational level.
It may mean many things: upgrading of IT systems, setting up of a shared service centre for more efficient backroom processing, harmonising of employee terms and conditions or introduction of balanced scorecard among other actions.
The main idea is to look at the desired outcome and map out your actions to ensure that the people in your team are geared up towards the new way of working.
This can be achieved in five to six steps, and these steps are not too different from one expert to another. Basically, you need to:
- Increase urgency, state the implication of not changing and drive the urgency.
- Set up a guiding team – a team of people ready to help you coordinate and execute the various activities to come.
- Get the vision right, this is not about the organisation’s vision but the vision of a change initiative that is completed. Know what the finish line looks like and describe it in terms of the physical world, document world and digital world. If there are significant gaps in either of these worlds, close it through training, testing and support from those who know how.
- Communicate for buy-in especially to the groups who you need to see behavioural or competency changes from.
- Empower action and follow through to check understanding and alignment.
- Make change stick. Make it your culture, pay attention and reward the right behaviours, otherwise there will be regression.
There is a sequence and a sense of timing for all these actions and you ought to be mindful of operational realities such as year-end closing or plant shut downs as big events can take people’s attention away.
Driving change from within has advantages
In the 80’s and 90’s the nature of work was more predictable and you could plan for changes as time was not as compressed as today.
So managing change was viewed as a one off or more ad-hoc activity. Given this luxury of time and affordability, organisations would put a tender out and buy consulting resources to deliver change management solutions.
Other than to keep up with the speed to execute change today, the approach of looking outside for change management solutions, has its drawbacks. The two obvious disadvantages are in sustaining the change and the lack of contextual information when executing the change.
1. Keeping it sustainable
This requires effort to ensure that the final outcome of the change effort say, an ERP (enterprise resource planning) or system implementation, is fully reflected at the workplace, with team and individual KPI’s, development targets and career progression all aligned to this initiative.
2. Lack of contextual information
Change really is situational, it starts with a deep understanding of the terrain (i.e. your people, culture). If you know your people, their appetite to learn new things or their likelihood to resist an idea or perhaps the person pushing the idea, you are in a better position to plan and influence outcomes.
Also, driving change from within gives you the advantage of having insights of past failures and future plans so you know what to avoid and what to leverage on, without spending too much time before hitting the ground.
At the end of the day, real change does not happen at roadshows or in classroom training sessions, it happens because someone believes in what you say, and is willing to trust you. And this, in a Malaysian context is more likely to happen, at a mamak stall, over nasi lemak and teh tarik.
Let me share an example, a few years back when I was implementing change in South Korea (pulling out transaction processing and placing in Malaysia), my colleagues there indicated that there were three union representatives who could spell trouble, so we had to do the groundwork and prepare the managing director and head of HR to have a few off-line discussions, karaoke sessions and such, until trust was established and both sides were on the same page.
Only once this was achieved, did we go ahead with the roadshows and the final stages of implementation.
Setting up a change management team in-house
Firstly, to justify the need to set up an internal change team, there must be a base volume of work for the team to undertake so if the work is not there, you can potentially serve other locations of your operations as well. For example, you can have an entire team based in Kuala Lumpur but the work done covers the whole of Southeast Asia.
The nature of change itself should be transformational and not transactional. If it’s transactional, equip your teams to deliver change at team level. There is no need for central support and coordination.
Secondly, it’s important to leverage on the team’s existing skillset and experiences and look to place them closer to the higher management for hierarchal reporting. Setting up of the team should come from a process background (impact of change), communicators (engagement) and human resources (implications to employee welfare, terms and conditions of service and the concept of internal equity).
Thirdly, inject change skills to this team (business partnering, employee engagement, influencing) and allow them to experiment and drive change for smaller projects but with strong leadership support.
As a one off initial investment, perhaps get external help to get a proven set of tools for diagnostic and execution purposes.
A good change management practitioner is someone who is curious and inquisitive by nature and is able to relate to others and see things in their point of view.
With this, you are able to learn from the process of IT experts who have designed the change (architects), but often they speak in a technical language, so you need to play the role of “translator” and break it down to the language of ordinary business scenarios to engage impacted employees more effectively.
In my experience, this is the hardest bit and yet it is the most rewarding.
The other thing I’d like to add is that there are times that change management initiatives are not well understood as you start to undertake activities such as impact assessments, pulse surveys, etc.
So you need to do your groundwork and get support from the various levels in your organisation so that you can execute more effectively.
While setting up an in-house change management team is relatively new, quite a few Malaysian organisations are already taking the lead in this space.
Clearly, they see the need and are reaping the rewards. As the poem by Robert Frost says, take the road less travelled and it will make all the difference.
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