Because readers have submitted questions regarding the issue of dealing with change, I have decided to respond to their questions in this column by rerunning, with a few major changes, a two-part series from a few years ago.
This month’s column will address “When It Is Time to Change” and October’s column will discuss “How Employees Adapt to Change and What to Do About It.”
When It Is Time to Change
I heard a story about a man attending a reunion who was shocked to see his old high school friend now had a peg leg, a hook in place of one of his hands and a patch over one of his eyes.
When he asked his old friend what had happened the friend told him that after finishing school he did what he always had dreamed of doing. He had become a pirate.
When asked about all the injuries he appeared to have suffered, the friend explained, “Well, like I said, I became a pirate and one day we were attacked by a British ship. As they fired upon us, one of the cannon balls caught me just below the knee and tore the lower part of my leg off. I knew that they would be boarding our ship and I would need to be able to stand up and fight so I took a piece of the broken mast and used a piece of the sail to tie it to my leg so I could stand up. It worked so well that when I got to shore I just had them make me a peg leg.”
When asked about the hook, the pirate explained, “Well, when they boarded our ship, I got into a sword fight and during the fight, I got my hand cut off. They left me lying there to die. I knew that I would need both hands to do what it took to man the ship and get it to shore. I took a piece of metal and tied it to the end of my arm so I could do what was necessary to save the ship. It worked so well that when I got to shore I just had them make me a permanent hook to use as a hand.”
When asked about his eye, the pirate explained, “The way to find land is to look for sea gulls because they do not go far from land. In my search I spotted a flock of seagulls and as I was looking up, one of them made a deposit in my eye.”
When his friend said, “but that would not put out your eye,” the pirate responded, “it would if you had not adjusted to having a hook for hand.” While the above story is humorous, it illustrates well the point that there is nothing more damaging than the failure to adjust to necessary change. This truth applies to organizations as well as to individuals.
Driving the Change
When change is necessary, it is better to drive change than let change control your organization. It’s also important to identify any need for change early on. Think ahead to where your organization needs to be in one, three and five years’ time. What do you need to do to get there?
Decide which changes are most important and focus on the changes with the biggest potential benefits – not the easiest ones to implement.
Aim for continual smaller changes rather than a few large ones. Large changes are harder to digest and can interfere with one another, while small-scale changes are easier to manage. Focus on getting some small wins on the board. A string of successful small changes will breed a positive culture of change in your business.
Remember to consider both the personal and organizational implications of the changes. The end objective can seem so desirable that important details can be overlooked. For
- Change usually involves extra work and expense. Is your budget strong enough or will you need some financial assistance? If so, how do you access those funds?
- Will any existing skills and experience become redundant? If so, how will you overcome the resistance from those affected?
- How will your employees embrace any new technology?
Change usually involves going into unknown territory, but others will have been there before you, so seek their input and advice. Talk to others in the field and learn from the experience of people who have made similar changes. Is there a consultant who has expertise whom you could bring in on a temporary basis?
Test the change
If the change you are contemplating is risky, run a pilot project and evaluate the results to identify any necessary adjustments before rolling.
Establish a timetable for change, and preferably phase in the change as it allows you to address any problems early on.
Selling the Change
Whatever the area of change, you will need the cooperation of your employees. However, resistance from employees is often the biggest stumbling block to successful change.
Some possible sources of resistance include:
- Natural wariness of change. Never underestimate people’s fear of change or of moving outside their comfort zone. Acknowledge that employees may not want to give up familiar and long-established working patterns.
- Suspicion based on misunderstanding. When employees aren’t told enough they may think there’s a hidden agenda, such as downsizing or loss of jobs at the end of the change.
If you’re implementing change for a good reason, you should be able to sell your idea to the people affected:
- Explain the benefits to employees and to the organization,
- Make people understand the cost of not changing, such as losing state funding,
- Point to examples of successful change carried out in the past by you or by other organizations like yours.
Avoid overselling the benefits so you maintain your credibility. Stick to what is achievable.
The key to managing change successfully is to keep staff informed. Start communicating the change as early as possible, so people have time to come to terms with it.
Avoid communicating any ideas that aren’t concrete as to avoid confusion. Allow time for feedback and listen to the views of any skeptics – they may help you avoid costly mistakes.
Even small changes can backfire if they’re not handled sensitively. Consult with those affected before implementing any changes. Those involved may be able to suggest alternatives that deliver the same results more effectively or less expensively.
Talk to everyone who will be affected, including stakeholders outside your organization. Make sure everyone knows their role in the change process and encourage employees to get actively involved and “own” the change. Resentment can grow if people feel left out.
Spell out the implications of change for everyone, such as revised job descriptions. Be clear about how the change will affect individuals, teams and the whole business.
Make sure you address people’s concerns. Your biggest allies can also be your cynics so don’t be put off by their comments – they often know the pitfalls and difficulties. Get help from the early converts in selling change to the cynics. If you can persuade them, persuading other employees becomes easier.
Implementing the Change
Make some bold early moves to let people know that change is really happening.
Make the Change Stick
It’s critical to follow through on your plans. Keep monitoring and reinforcing the change. When completed, point out the benefits achieved from the change and how the organization has moved on so employees see the value of change.
Create a Culture of Change
If change is seen as the norm, employees are less resistant to it. They’ll begin to see that any system or process can be improved.
Encourage continuous input from employees. Ask for suggestions on other areas for improvement. Give feedback and credit for any ideas implemented and reward people for their contribution to success.
My challenge to you is to learn not to fear change, but to embrace it and drive it.