A path lit by words

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March Madness at SteelBridge: A Change Management “Dream Team”

Originally posted for SteelBridge BASKETBALLHOOPSolutions on April 6, 2016:

While the NCAA Basketball Playoffs were in full swing, the sound of referees’ whistles filled my house. I wasn’t the one glued to the TV until the wee hours of the morning, although I followed the brackets and even had the conference apps on my phone. The biggest influence March Madness had on me was that I thought a lot about what it takes to be a championship team.

You may remember when the NBA’s top players went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Sports Illustrated dubbed them the “Dream Team”—every coach’s fantasy and every fan’s delight. Countless articles have analyzed the athleticism, skills, and competitive drive that made them so great. I don’t know the difference between a point guard and a power forward, but experience has shown me that, in general, the best teams have complementary skills, each member uses their strengths, and all have a deep desire to work together to win.

The change management teams SteelBridge works with on technology implementations like Workday are cross-functional—including HR, IT, and Finance, at minimum—so they represent different viewpoints and skills. When they operate as a team, implementations are more successful—deadlines are met, resources are shared, and the lines of communication are open. Often, however, the functions engage in turf battles or work at cross-purposes to get what they want out of the initiative. In the end, no one wins.

A complicating factor is that it takes more than day-to-day skills to manage change successfully. Call it an orientation: a mindset that puts the organization first, so that all parties cooperate to reach a solution that works for everyone; an appreciation for each other’s diversity, maintaining open dialogue and respect for each other’s point of view; and sharing best practices across silos to avoid duplication of effort and provide a fresh perspective.

With all that in mind, we at SteelBridge have assembled a wish list of characteristics for our Change Management Dream Team. They include:

  • The CEO’s competitive mindset: Thinking like a CEO means viewing change capability as a strategic advantage over less agile competitors. My Dream Team would understand the broader context in which change occurs and factor in the speed and scope of change—in social, political, and economic forces, in the advancement of technology, in the composition of the marketplace, and in the needs and demands of customers, shareholders, and the public. The result would be that every initiative would advance the organization’s mission, vision, and goals.
  • The Finance function’s ability to build a strong business case: Change management is often considered as a cost, because monies expended to plan for, communicate, train for, and implement change are easier to track than the benefits realized from it. For example, productivity, engagement, and retention are outcomes of good change management, but it is difficult to show a direct, causal effect. The rationale behind articles that urge Finance and HR to collaborate on predictive analytics makes sense for change, too: Using finance’s skills, the Dream Team could translate the language of people and change into the language of business, harness the data from HR and business systems, and develop appropriate, balanced measures to demonstrate the return on investments in change.
  • The Marketing function’s expertise in driving awareness and buy-in. Marketing’s value-add to change management goes well beyond the obvious communication and presentation skills, because the goal of change management—gaining user acceptance—is primarily a marketing exercise. Research and market analysis identify key “segments” of users with different needs and preferences. In change management, stakeholder assessments are one important research vehicle. They uncover types of users, what they want, which communication channels are most likely to reach them, and which forms of learning they prefer. Using marketing skills to tailor offerings to various groups would allow the change team to meet their needs more precisely, leading to a higher level of user adoption.
  • The CIO’s emphasis on portfolio management: IT’s evolution from a cost center to a strategic business unit has required greater control over IT project selection, execution, and status. To align IT with business goals, CIOs have learned to manage initiatives, projects, and upgrades as though they were a portfolio of investments. Given the potential for multiple initiatives and numerous process owners, taking a portfolio approach to change management ensures that initiatives work together to meet core business needs.
  • The HR function’s sensitivity to the factors that influence employee engagement and commitment: Recent studies have demonstrated the impact of an engaged workforce on productivity and profits. As we pointed out in an earlier blog, engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. The factors that lead to engagement – culture, work environment, management and leadership style, challenging work, performance feedback, fair rewards, and growth opportunities—are largely considered HR’s domain. However, every line and staff function must consistently carry out the organization’s promises in order to get the most from their workforce.

That is the same message we want to convey with the structure of our Change Management Dream Team: Organizations that treat change management as an enterprise-wide initiative create an environment that views functional differences not as a deterrent but as an advantage. In that environment, HR can be the catalyst for encouraging all parties to learn from and adapt each other’s unique perspectives to reach creative solutions. When organizations leverage the wisdom gained from functional diversity, strong partnerships flourish and everyone wins.


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Why your brain views change as a saber-tooth tiger


Copyright: 123rf.com

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 10, 2016

Change management articles and white papers warn us about the havoc change wreaks on employee engagement. Employee fear, resentment, and resistance during major modifications to strategy, structure, culture, systems, and processes are among the biggest obstacles to successful change. In healthcare, where new mandates like electronic records are cause for concern, report by Cornerstone on Demand calls change the number one threat to employee engagement. Fortunately, the experts conclude that sound change management principles can improve engagement.

What surprises me is that hardly anyone seems to notice that employee engagement can have a positive effect on change. Engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for an organization to defer engagement work until it is in the middle of a change.

Insight about how people react to change comes from the field of neuroscience, the study of the human brain. In Neuroscience: Helping Employees Through Change, consultant and author Hillary Scarlett takes us back to prehistoric times, when humans had more to worry about than a new strategy or a different payroll system:

Back then, the brain had one key driver: survival. To do this it worked on the simple principle of avoiding threats and seeking out rewards. Of the two, avoiding threats, such as the saber-toothed tiger, was far more important to survival and so our brains developed five times more neural networks to look for danger than they have for reward. As a result, our brains today are still subconsciously looking out for threats, five times a second.

No wonder it is hard to be engaged in the face of change, especially when the feeling of threat is contagious. Seeing our organizations in upheaval and our leaders and colleagues worried and fearful makes us worried and fearful, too. We become more emotional, less able to focus, and less perceptive. In such situations, humans revert to a natural tendency to minimize threat and maximize rewards.

Neuroscientists speak of that response in terms of two states: “Toward,” the reward state that people flock to, and “Away,” the threat state that they flee. In the “Toward” state, they are positive, focused, and willing to collaborate with others. They are innovative, creative, and more resilient. In the “Away” state, they are distracted and anxious, resulting in cortisol and stress, and a weakened immune system. They think less clearly, have reduced memory, and perform poorly.

The factors that activate the brain’s circuitry to proceed in one direction or the other are known as “domains” of human social experience. David Rock’s SCARF model identifies five:

  • Status is about one’s importance relative to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

The parallels to the drivers of employee engagement are striking enough to support the conclusion that engaging first and changing later is has considerable merit. In an organization with high engagement:

  • Employees would already understand and buy into their organization’s mission, vision, and strategy, so they would “get” why change is necessary.
  • Leaders wouldn’t have to scramble to build employee trust or to demonstrate their support for an initiative because that would be everyday behavior.
  • Change readiness wouldn’t be an issue because organizations with high engagement keep their fingers on the pulse of employee attitudes. They already have established channels for employees to express their concerns and opinions.
  • It wouldn’t be necessary to build a change network, because engaged employees do that themselves. The actively engaged aren’t just engaged with the organization or its leaders. They’re engaged with each other, and they take responsibility for bringing along the fearful, the skeptics, and the malcontents.

Given that change is a persistent condition of organizational life, shouldn’t we make it a priority to build a workforce of engaged employees who are confident in their ability to change? To date, we have pursued that result through repeated change management efforts, one initiative at a time. Neuroscience, with its insights into how our brains react to threats and rewards, offers an alternate approach: making our organizations change-capable through employee engagement.

Whichever route we choose, the goal is the same: An environment where change is an everyday practice and communication is easy—no warnings, no fear, simply, “This is the challenge we’ll be taking on next.”

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Is Employee Engagement Dead?

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc., on January 22, 2016

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain

Amid all the buzz about employee engagement programs, a growing contingent wants to throw them out. Rodd Wagner, in Forbes last year, predicted The End of Employee Engagement, calling it a “check the box exercise” at many firms. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, declares that engagement programs have failed us and it’s time for organizations to become “irresistible.” Both authors condemn annual engagement surveys. Wagner’s beef is that they aren’t confidential, executives and managers “game” them and employees are afraid to answer them honestly. Bersin says they lack “modern, actionable solutions.”

That’s a lot to expect of any survey, let alone one designed to be brief, so that employees will actually complete it. But what troubles me more is the feeling that we have been here before—ten years ago, when employee satisfaction was in the cross-hairs. The surveys were meaningless. “Satisfaction” and “happiness” were passé. Businesses needed employees who were committed, enthusiastic and passionate. The new goal was “engaged,” an elevated state of being that would propel organizations to unprecedented levels of performance.

Now engagement is under attack and a host of consultants and bloggers are rushing in to suggest alternatives, as if a different kind of survey or a new label for our “ideal” workforce will solve the problem. It won’t. Like the divorcee who blames her three ex-husbands, we fail to see that the problem is us—HR and the business leaders that allow HR to dither instead of acquiring vital skills. To quote Bersin again, HR still lacks people “who can translate a ‘finding’ into a program or solution that drives business change.”

That’s the point we are missing about engagement surveys: They are a source of findings and directional insights, not a comprehensive set of solutions. Gallup, the engagement pioneer, said early on that there were three keys to increasing engagement:

…measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning—then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.

In other words, managers and employees were expected to work together to interpret survey results and develop plans to address deficiencies. They were meant to implement those plans and revisit them, until they got it right. Too often, we have skipped those steps. Why is that? At least part of the answer is that we haven’t developed the analytics skill set that Bersin describes as “business understanding, consulting skills, data visualization, data management, statistics, and executive presence.”

Case in point: A manufacturing client I met with last week blamed noncompetitive compensation for a turnover rate that has doubled in the past eighteen months. Knowing that turnover is never just about compensation, I shifted the conversation to the factors of engagement, but the VP of HR shut me down. A recent engagement survey showed that 90 percent of their employees were engaged and 85 percent intended to stay with the company for the next several years. Sensing my doubt, the VP sent me the survey report with a note that said, “See for yourself.”

On the surface, the results did look good. A page of summary statistics showed high engagement, year-to-year improvements and favorable comparisons to industry norms. However, in the charts that followed, by line of business, department and job group, other story lines emerged—if one knew what to look for. In addition, those “engaged” workers provided nearly 100 pages of write-in comments. They had a lot to say, and very little was about compensation. Their concerns involved management honesty and approachability, the “hostile” work environment, the lack of feedback and direction, a desire for job enrichment and flexible scheduling, and pleas for more staff, better equipment and improved technology.

It was true that the consultant’s report lacked specific insights or recommendations. However, it provided plenty of data. This organization just didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they announced their lofty engagement rate with bold statements that their program was working, even though they—and their workforce—had to have known better.

All this to say, don’t blame engagement programs for the lack of improvement in worker attitudes around the globe. Clearly, annual surveys have their faults, but simply replacing them with real-time tools like pulse surveys won’t fix the problem, because it all boils down to data: Data that needs to be analyzed, interpreted and combined with other HR information such as onboarding and exit surveys, recruiting data, learning data and performance data—all of which needs to be integrated with customer, business and industry data, in order to uncover patterns, predict trends and solve business problems.

That’s a tall order, and so far, we haven’t had the heart for it, we haven’t had the skills for it, we haven’t made the time for it and we haven’t invested in it—either enough dollars or the right resources. In short, we have treated engagement like any other human resources program and that’s a mistake. It’s time to ante up, skill up and harness the potential of the biggest weapon we have in our strategic arsenal. Whether we label it satisfaction, engagement or irresistibility is beside the point, unless we call it what it is: a business priority.