“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.” — Peter Drucker, in “Management Challenges for the 21st Century” (1999).
Try to get any new programs or initiatives started in an organization and you are likely to run into some resistance. In fact, I have never known anyone who has not encountered at least some friction with an organizational change. What is it about change in our companies that leads to opposition?
People often think what they currently have is perhaps more valuable than it is. In the classic change book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, the characters (Hem and Haw) could not comprehend that anything could ever be better than what they currently had. As Johnson pointed out, “the more important the cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it.” It became difficult for Hem and Haw to even think about exploring the maze for new cheese.
Getting people to go along with a new program often depends on how the change is communicated. I once consulted for a sales firm undergoing a large-scale organizational change. The senior vice president responsible for the initiative went to each work site to not only let the employees know what was changing, but more importantly — to let them know what was staying the same. This was incredibly helpful for employees to hear so that they could feel some level of comfort in knowing that not everything would change.
People want control over the change. As organizational change expert Peter Senge noted: “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Employees may actually be positive to a change, but if the change is imposed on them, their reaction is often more obstinate. Leaders have to help employees feel a sense of ownership in the change process and outcomes.
So how can an organization implement change? In 1996, John Kotter wrote “Leading Change,” and followed it up with another book in 2002 with Dan Cohen, “The Heart of Change.” He describes an eight-step change process, briefly outlined below:
1. Create a sense of urgency around the need for change. Kotter notes that to really change behaviors, it is important to share information to influence a person’s feelings, not just their thoughts. He suggests that 75 percent of an organization’s leadership must buy into the change for it to be successful. Data from clients and other external stakeholders can be very important in presenting the need for change. It must be strong enough data to enable people to give the extra effort to go beyond the status quo.
2. Form a guiding coalition. For change to be successful, strong leadership is critical, as is support from a team of influential people, including those who represent all important areas and departments in the organization.
3. Create a vision for change. A vision is critical for helping to direct, align and inspire employees. The leader must define a clear and compelling statement that captures what he or she sees as the future of the organization, as well as a strategy for executing that vision.
4. Communicate the vision. It is imperative to communicate the vision frequently and powerfully, and to embed it in everything the firm does. The top leader must “walk the talk” and demonstrate the type of behavior that is desired of others.
5. Remove obstacles. Put in place the infrastructure to support the change. This might involve changing the underlying compensation system or other human resource systems. It also may mean identifying leaders who are resisting the change and helping them to see what’s needed. Quick action on removing any barriers (whether people or systems) is critical.
6. Create short-term wins. It is important for employees to experience some short-term wins that will build momentum. People need to see compelling evidence of benefits within six to 18 months. Without short-term victories and celebrations, critics can impede progress.
7. Build on the change. Don’t stop after the first win. After each win, analyze what went right and wrong, and set new goals and targets. Keep focusing on continuous improvement.
8. Anchor the changes in the corporate culture. For the change to stick, it must be made part of the core of the firm. Leaders must show employees how the new behaviors or actions have helped improve performance. The leadership ranks must be advocates of the change for it to stay.
Recently, we marked the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy, where much has been written about his leadership impact on the United States and world. As he said: “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
That’s something today’s leaders and organizations would do well to remember.