Coping with change

The more things change, the more they remain the same, as the saying goes. And that’s what most employees expect of corporate change initiatives. Employees that I work with at client companies have freely admitted that they’ll work on the new project as long as I’m around to see them do it but that nothing will happen once they’re on their own and the everyday financial and operational pressure starts to mount. “What’s the flavor of the month?” they ask. They try not to get too excited about any particular project, because they assume that some new campaign will take over from this one, as sure as the week follows the weekend.

It’s not that people don’t believe in change. Both managers and employees often do. But creating change is much harder than merely hoping for it. It doesn’t matter if the change is as huge as a corporate merger or as small as shuffling the desk assignments in the accounts receivable department or even as consistent as the annual staff ramp-up for peak season.

In this, the first of two columns on surviving and thriving through a major change initiative, we’ll discuss some concepts to help you manage your expectations about the change process and get a change initiative off the ground. The next article will cover more particulars about managing the change process once it’s under way and how to handle yourself when change is happening to you.

First off, you need a vision, with big meaning and big goals — not a bunch of nits and grits about the various individual results you hope to achieve. When you’re developing the vision, try to start with the equivalent of zero-based budgeting or what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” Get as close as you can to tabula rasa about the organization; otherwise the potential of your conception will be weighted down by current barriers and modes of both being and doing.

This is brainstorming time. Everything should be up for grabs at the beginning, and no idea should be turned away. Once all the creative juices are flowing and loads of proposals coexist peacefully on the table, you can move to the second stage and start to evaluate the ideas. You’ll also apply beginner’s mind much later in the change process, when individual departments and work groups start to figure out how to adjust their functioning to support the new organizational developments.

Be explicit and compelling about the necessity for change and your objectives in making the change. It helps to be very specific about the impacts and costs of the problems that are the reason and impetus for the change. If you’re not sufficiently clear in this initial overview, no one is going to sign on for the long, hard road ahead. To help inspire and persuade the troops, it’s crucial to explain why you believe in the positive vision of the future you’re predicting.

In particular, stress why you’re personally committed to seeing the change through, and emphasize that you believe that you have the leadership team and the resources to get through the transition successfully. Also describe what the conditions will be like when the plan is achieved. Later you’ll provide messaging tailored to the requirements of your many diverse constituencies, but in the beginning it’s best to stick to the big picture.

As events proceed, you should be fielding the equivalent of an internal public relations campaign to drive ongoing strategic communication. Without a flow of news, the initiative can start to feel stale, and people will lose focus and momentum. Do play up the positive value of the novelty of the change whenever you can; point out what’s really different from the bad old days. The more positive strokes you can add, the better.

It’s not enough to trumpet your progress, though; couple the good reports with reminders of any hard times that are still ahead so that you give your staff the courage to keep moving forward. And keep in mind that in the real world, some facet of the plan is bound to go wrong; persistent outreach can act as a safety net when things go awry.

It’s unrealistic to think that anyone other than those at the top can see the whole picture. On the other hand, the folks at the top are unlikely to recognize all the implications of the change they are proposing, so a real partnership is necessary. Even with a strong partnership, though, it’s management’s responsibility to articulate the reasons and requirements for change so that employees can see them, feel empowered, and are willing to adjust as necessary. Therefore it helps a lot if the person driving the change has a track record in both highly collaborative and highly independent work.

Leaders have to demonstrate that they truly want the change for themselves as well as for the organization. Without this kind of personal engagement, they inspire only cynicism and foot dragging. The most important thing is for everyone on the change leadership team to believe that the change is both necessary and possible — that you will be able to make a real, concrete measurable difference, and that the difference will truly be an improvement over what exists today.

These leaders may be functional managers or “change agents” embedded within the organization. At every level of the organization you’ll want people who will take both the actions and messages further down the line, tailored to their work and their constituencies. They’ll be most persuasive to their co-workers if they’re both aligned with the big picture and recognized as being skilled and credible in their current jobs. Their more specific, detailed plans help structure decision making and flesh out the lofty principles and big pictures.

Consider having a broad diffusion of responsibility and accomplishment throughout the organization to help keep motivation high and focused. It’s also much easier to show accomplishment if you have lots of little goals and milestones to evaluate and report on instead of complex and comprehensive goals that never seem to be completed.

One of the biggest jobs of the leadership is to manage employees’ expectations. Try to anticipate and address their objections before they raise them. Help employees know what their options are — including when they have none — both structurally and personally. Otherwise they can’t make choices, certainly not well-reasoned ones, and your big plans can be stalemated by their lack of action.

It’s usually counterproductive to act or sound as if you’re trying to change people or even trying to change their minds or attitudes. You can provide information and sometimes tools, but you won’t be changing people simply by management fiat. So don’t talk as if you are. Employees don’t want to be discussed as if they’re dirty bed linens; they want to be valued participants. What you’re trying to change is the current context — how things get done or what things get done or the results of getting things done: rules, procedures, physical environments, and metrics. If anything about the people needs changing they’ll have to work on it themselves at a later stage of the process (as you’ll see in my follow-up column).

Hold as many face-to-face meetings as humanly possible, and then a few more. Nothing — not e-mails, not videoconferences — is a good substitute for being in the same room as others so that you can pick up the smallest of vibes. Facilitated workshops are a great way to help get people on the same page: getting their reactions, developing their understanding, generating ideas, crafting specific action plans, and making sure events are on target. If you can stay off the defensive, workshops are fabulous for identifying barriers to change so that you can get back on track as quickly as possible.

The more the whole group is involved in identifying the operational, real-life problems and in proposing and debugging plans and solutions to address them, the more they feel responsibility and ownership for the change instead of feeling that it has been imposed upon them. This sort of productive involvement is so much better than holding a few companywide pep rallies and struggling to get buy-in.

And a word of caution: In public discussions, don’t permit pickiness or piling on. Also watch out for and treat passive aggressiveness — behavior that consists of public agreement with opposition or avoidance afterward. It’s crucial to avoid that sort of Dilbertesque, civil-service stance that employees sometimes take.

Instead, teach employees to work collaboratively, to set goals, share info and thought processes, collect data, brainstorm approaches and choices, test, modify goals, resolve conflicts, get feedback from others, and revise, revise, revise. Wherever you can, incorporate the suggestions of the constituents who will actually experience the change. Not only are they often more realistic about actual conditions than those who are imposing change from above, but when you use their recommendations you demonstrate the value you place in them.

Always be conscious of and explicit about current status — and let everyone else in on your reality check as soon as possible. Putting a brave face on bad news is ineffective. Employees figure it out anyway, and then they don’t trust you afterward.

When progress is good, though, spread praise around liberally so long as you’re realistic. Don’t overpraise or praise just to get on someone’s good side, which can also wreck your credibility. And credibility is important if you’re going to survive until the end of the transition.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based operations and contact center consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.