A path lit by words

Where writing and "real life" converge


Leave a comment

Six Tips for Becoming a Change Management Superhero

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 2, 2016.

It’s easy to recognize a new change manager. You can tell by the panic in their eyes, their trembling hands, and the beads of sweat on their brow. Believing themselves inadequate to drive the initiatives essential to business transformation, they might even be wailing, “I can’t do it! I don’t know anything about change!”

It’s no wonder change leaders are uneasy. Although all organizations face change, many are only beginning to realize that they can control it. As a result, it may not be obvious who is best suited to fill the challenging role of change manager. Hence, the senior team calls on the “usual suspects,” the same individuals they count on to lead special projects, task forces, and the like. That isn’t necessarily wrong, but change management requires much more than project management skills.

Individuals who have been tapped to lead change ask me, “What does it take to be a successful change manager?” Here are six tips.

Learn the fundamentals of change management. You have to start somewhere, and it only makes sense to school yourself in the philosophy, principles, models, and tools for change. These can be found in many excellent books, including Leading Change by John Kotter, Making Sense of Change Management by Esther Cameron and Mike Green, and Change Management: The People Side of Change by Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey. Becoming familiar with the field will calm your fears, raise your confidence, and enhance your credibility as you promote change to others. While you’re studying, make sure you understand the basics of project management.

Get familiar with the current state of your business and industry, as well as the case for change. Make sure you understand your organization’s business strategy, its challenges, and its short-term and long-term goals. Pay particular attention to the business rationale for change. Determine which units and individuals will be impacted and how, and focus on those with the most to lose as well as the most to gain. Helping others see why change is an urgent business necessity and what the new, improved organization will look like post-change is one of a change manager’s most important roles.

Research your organization’s track record for change. If this is your organization’s first formal change initiative, or if other major initiatives happened before your time, you may not know how proficient your organization is at change. Find out who led earlier projects and take advantage of their experience to learn the how, who, when, and why of circumstances that threatened or thwarted change efforts. Does the C-suite present a united front publicly but sabotage efforts behind closed doors? Is your organization skilled at communicating but weak when it comes to training delivery? Simply asking past project leaders, “What would you have done differently?” can yield a wealth of valuable information.

Find out how senior leadership feels about the upcoming change. As the change management leader for your organization, you should have full access to the C-suite and their direct reports. Senior level support is mandatory for project success. However, it is rare to find full consensus, rarer still to identify the dissenters before all hell breaks loose. Proactively getting to know the executive team and where they stand on the initiative you are undertaking will help you identify—and possibly avoid—potential obstacles before they become divisive and disruptive. Building rapport with this group early on will serve you well, as you likely will need their advice and support throughout the project.

Get to know the project team and their consultants. Like senior leaders, individual members of the project team have opinions and agendas. As a possible outsider and often a late addition to the project team, it is important for the change manager to take time to meet with team members to learn their history with the organization, the jobs they have held, and their experience with systemic and strategic change. Their personalities and profiles, their fears, and their biases about the current initiative will affect the decisions they make. As the change manager, your awareness will allow you to discern conflicts and influence outcomes.

Assess how you stack up against the skills and competencies of a change manager. Some organizations name a change manager before they fully grasp the extent of the necessary skills and attributes. Others write a profile so unrealistic that John Kotter himself wouldn’t qualify.

Characteristics of a successful change manager include:

  • 360-degree influence—personal presence and the respect of superiors, peers, and subordinates
  • Strong communication skills—the ability to promote a clear vision to different audiences, altering one’s style, language, and approach
  • A “big-picture,” strategic mindset—knowledge of the business and its people, and the wherewithal to translate change into an organizational context
  • Conflict-resolution skills—tactics that may be applied to win over opponents, bring competing parties together, and craft a win-win agenda
  • Personal willingness and talent for change—to serve as a model of behavioral change, influencing others to pursue self-discovery and self-development
  • Passion for the current change—the best person to persuade others to support a change is an ardent champion of the effort

An honest assessment of your skills, conducted privately or with help from trusted colleagues, will give you a clear view of your areas of strength as well as your shortcomings. Take steps to shore up your weaknesses or enlist associates who have the skills you lack.

Keep your ear to the ground. It’s important to listen…to hall conversations, to rumors passed on by friends and colleagues, to managers complaining about disgruntled employees or ineffective training. Not only does listening provide early warnings about misconceptions and burgeoning issues, it will help you begin to identify allies and supporters who may join the change team as it expands. You may feel alone at the beginning, but ultimately the change team will grow to become an extended network that will participate in training and communication activities.

In a world where two out of three major change initiatives fail, one finding stands out: Organizations that consciously manage change, by activities like communicating, leading by example, and engaging employees, as much as double their chances for success. That is an astonishing statistic, and one that makes the role of change manager vital to business survival.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Taming the Change Management Monster

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. October 20, 2015

“Abominable! Can you believe that? Do I look abominable to you? Why can’t they call me the Adorable Snowman or…or the Agreeable Snowman, for crying out loud? I’m a nice guy.”

The Yeti in the movie, Monsters, Inc.

As Halloween approaches, my thoughts keep turning not to ghosts and goblins, but to the big, hairy monster we know as Change. Lately it seems that all of my new clients have one thing in common: They view change management as huge, complex, and scary. One is so terrified of it that he won’t speak the words, referring to our work as “user adoption.” Another knows that change management is critical, but she frets that her company doesn’t know “how to do change.”

Change is rarely a walk in the park, but stark terror of change still surprises me, for one simple reason: Change is a daily occurrence in our personal lives. Whether it is a new haircut, a move to a strange city, a different job, marriage, or the birth of a child, we deal with change, sometimes happily, sometimes not, knowing it is part of life. So why is change a catastrophe when we encounter it in our organizations and our jobs?

The truth is, it can’t be. Change is how we do business. The days of five-year strategic plans are ancient history, replaced by agility and the need to turn on a dime. Agile organizations survive and thrive through the mantra, “Without change, we die,” yet many others seem to believe that “Change will kill you.” How did we arrive at this disturbing dichotomy?

I’ve concluded, regretfully, that I’m partly to blame—I and the other change management practitioners who have perpetuated the myth that change is abominable. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the way we present change to CEOs and change sponsors. First, we make calamitous pronouncements like “seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail”—a spine-chilling statistic whose legitimacy can’t be proven. We pile on jargon like stakeholder assessment, leadership alignment, and mitigation plans when we should be speaking plain English and asking simple questions. And we trot out tools like a “change curve” that is based on the five stages of grief and littered with terms like “fear of the unknown” and “the valley of despair.”

We must sound—to our clients—like prophets of doom. “People hate change,” we tell project teams. “Be prepared for resistance at every turn, from sluggishness to out-and-out sabotage.” As experts in change, it’s our duty to coach them, yet we end up scaring them out of their wits. The same can be true of employee communications. A statement like, “Change means new ways of doing things” is fraught with risk, prerequisite for failure.

Clearly, we need to reconsider the way we think about change. Remember the Abominable Snowman, that supposedly scary monster? It turned out that beneath that frightening exterior, he was a real softy, profoundly misunderstood—just like change. Change is innocuous. It means “to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.” That’s hardly scary, especially when change in our context offers benefits such as cost savings, improved efficiency, enhanced quality, or an enriched customer experience.

Is change hard work? Most certainly. Can change be abominable? I have to say yes, because ill-conceived, badly executed, and poorly managed change is a monstrous betrayal of everyone it touches. Consider, for example:

  •  Knee-jerk Change—based on hasty decisions made without due diligence or sufficient input from affected parties
  • Cinderella Change—expecting to succeed without seeking out and addressing the reasons for the failure of previous initiatives; requires a Fairy Godmother
  • Do As I Say Change—when leadership teams speak the right words but do not demonstrate their commitment through actions
  • Yo-Yo Change—unpredictable, exemplified by ever-changing priorities, plans, and promises
  • Tightrope Change—when employees are asked to “work without a net” of education and training to perform their altered jobs
  • Dishonest Change—featuring communication that is unclear or glosses over expected negatives like possible job loss

Pitfalls like these can make Change a big, hairy monster, but when you get to know the beast, it can be a real pussycat. Organizations that commit to make change a strategic capability gain a powerful vehicle for learning and growth, for progress and renewal.

 “Terrifying Change! Can you believe that? Do I seem terrifying to you? Why can’t they call me Invigorating Change or Stimulating Change, for crying out loud? I’m not a monster! I’m a good thing!”


Leave a comment

When human bias creeps in…

surveytableRecently I worked on a change readiness survey for a large employer replacing their payroll and human resource systems. Among the interesting results, one area caught my attention: Employees’ perceptions of their own, their departments’, and their organization’s adaptability to change. The table shows what they said.

It made me wonder: If so many employees consider themselves adaptable to change, how is it possible that their departments and the organization as a whole lag so far behind?

I’ve had some experience with cognitive biases, errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions. A long list of biases includes “illusory superiority,” often referred to as the “above-average effect,” “superiority bias,” and my favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Many studies document the human tendency to rate ourselves higher than others in academic, work, and social settings, on intelligence, job performance, and positive personal characteristics. However, most research lacks an objective standard to determine if, in fact, respondents are rating themselves accurately—that is, if they really are above average. To address that gap, one study used a population considered irrefutably negative:  prisoners convicted of robbery or violent crimes.

Researchers asked the prisoners to assess themselves against the average fellow inmate and the average free man on nine positive traits. The result: The prisoners rated themselves above average on eight of the nine traits—moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, generous, compassionate, self-controlled, and kind—against both standards. On the ninth trait—law-abiding—they considered themselves only average.

Not surprisingly, the researchers declared these results conclusive evidence that the above-average effect is caused not by rational judgments but by people’s self-enhancement needs. Other studies have shown that the tendency to evaluate oneself more positively than other people is more apparent for important traits than for unimportant ones. So, consider my client, in the throes of major change. What trait could be more important to its employees than individual adaptability?

I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet that the above-average effect is at work in the results shown above, and in many surveys that ask employees to report on themselves and their abilities. In the case of a change initiative, taking employee responses at face value could be a huge mistake. It might cause leadership to become complacent; or the change team to back off project communication; or employees who overrate themselves to take training efforts less seriously than they should. It might cause the change effort to fail.

In short, organizations should err on the side of caution, knowing bias creeps in. To do anything else would be to succumb to another type of bias—the tendency to believe what you want to be true.

 


Leave a comment

Just the facts, Ma’am!

Image

Recently I (re)learned an important lesson in journalism. It’s about checking your facts—no matter how reliable your source appears to be. An old lesson? You bet, but one overlooked by several well-known academics with best-selling books.

Researching a white paper on change management, I uncovered a shocking statistic: Seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail. Seventy percent! These are mergers and acquisitions, technology/systems overhauls, culture reinventions, and a host of other strategic undertakings—multi-million dollar change projects, intended to improve business results by leaps and bounds. Apparently, they don’t.

The infamous “70% failure rate” first appeared when Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation in 1993. Hailed as “the most successful business book of the last decade,” it set off a movement the authors called “business revolution.” A consultant then, I witnessed the competition among professional services firms to be crowned the one that could guarantee transformative, enduring business process redesign.

Through the years, other change experts—among them Beer and Nohria (Breaking the Code of Change) and John P. Kotter (Leading Change, Heart of Change)—picked up the 70% failure rate in some form or fashion. It became entrenched in the management consulting literature—until recently, when (I surmise; no empirical studies have confirmed it) some change management proponents got mad.

In 2011, Dr. Mark Hughes, of the Brighton Business School, decided to debunk the myth. He traced its evolution from Hammer and Champy, source by source, quote by quote, and concluded, “Whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.” In other words, it was not derived from a controlled, scientific study. It was someone’s opinion or worse, someone’s guess. (Hughes added a few words about “opportunistic business consultants” who may have deliberately promoted an exaggerated figure to sell their consulting services.)

Other change practitioners continue to challenge the 70 percent figure. “Change Whisperer” Gail Severini, Jennifer Frahm, founder of the Australian group Conversations of Change, and others continue to attack the claim as totally lacking in evidence. “Nothing to support it,” Frahm sums up. “No mention of where this fact has come from.”

My point in all this? I don’t think it matters whether 40%, 50%, or 70% of change projects fail. It’s too many, and I would wager that any of those figures would have earned the business world’s attention, back in the day. What does matter is accuracy, and as a freelancer, I’m finding that more and more difficult to guarantee. With the Internet, so much information poses as truth. There are no barriers to entry, no certification required. The potential for many-layers-removed misquoting has increased exponentially.

All I can do is rely on trusted sources; double, triple, and quadruple check my facts; and make sure I document them. What do you do? I’d like to know!