Transformation traps

 By Bob Empson. http://www.whitemaple.com 

See the original article at http://www.whitemaple.net/pdf/The_Review_Issue_17_White_Maple_Consulting_oct_10.pdf

© White Maple Consulting Ltd

 

"  ...there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” So wrote Machiavelli in The Prince, 500 years ago. Not much has changed since then. In September 2009, Executives Online conducted a survey about change management amongst over 1,200 executives in the UK; this showed the majority think companies are poor at it. I focus here on some of the traps when trying to implement “transformational” change, ie. large-scale, revolutionary” change that involves an organisation reorientating and/or redefining itself, rather than evolutionary, gradual and adaptive change.

Timing of change.

All too often transformation is not initiated soon enough. Machiavelli had a view on this: “...disorders can be quickly healed if they are seen well in advance... when, for a lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to grow... remedies are too late”.  A compelling, evidence-based case for change is needed. Creation of a sense of urgency is also important to overcome complacency, prevarication and inertia.

Vision.

Successful transformation needs a clear vision of the future organisation, what needs to be changed, and why. Without such a vision, or with a vision which is unrealistic or inappropriate, failure of the change process is almost certain.

Continuity.

The change message can be exciting. However, even if we embrace change, most of us are also reassured by some sense of continuity. Trumpeting “all change” can undermine the perceived value of what has been achieved and laboured on before. It is best to try to weave some sense of continuity into the message about change. Areas for continuity might include, for example, certain values or some performance indicators (eg. customer satisfaction).People and leadership. The people management and leadership traps are legion. Too often the change is imposed on people without their buy-in, commitment, engagement and motivation. Or staff are not empowered to make changes: “A prince should show his esteem for talent, actively encouraging able men...”. The senior team might not be working as a team. The politics and power relationships in the organisation might not be fully understood. The approach to leadership might focus on one or two senior executives, rather than individuals or groups throughout the organisation. There might be a lack of appropriate leadership skills (see the article on page 3). There are no simple, generic and off-the-shelf solutions to themyriad people traps; however, the following paragraphs address some specific people issues.Typical communication failures include: not explaining why there is a need for change and the practical implications for individuals; inadequate 2-way communication; not segmenting the internal audiences, nor evaluating insufficient dialogue with and between staff so that they can explore the issues; too much communication causing people to switch off.

 

Communication.

Celebrating successes. It is usually a mistake not to plan, create and celebrate successes on the transformation road. Celebration of milestone achievements, or so-called “quick wins”, can give confidence in the direction and about progress. Such successes can also help to re-energise the committed and sway the cynics.

Too much change. Some argue that the momentum of change must always be maintained, perhaps with exhortation, restatement of the dangers of not changing or even with a relaunch. But my experience is that sometimes people can become exhausted with too much change. So, consider the potential benefits of giving individuals, or even the entire organisation, a break from change when the focus is, even briefly, on business-as-usual.

Resistance to change. There is often an assumption that everyone who resists a proposed change should be dealt with forcefully. In my experience, few who oppose change do this dogmatically or deliberately destructively: again Machiavelli “...men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience”. People might be demonstrating “negative behaviours” as they go through a transition experiencing psychological reactions such as shock, denial and even depression. Kotter & Schlesinger suggest six possible approachesto handling resistance: education & communication; participation & involvement; facilitation & support; negotiation; manipulation & co-optation; and coercion.

Modes of intervention. Inappropriate modes of intervention can lead to failure. John Hayes (see references) suggests five types. Advising is seen as a prescriptive mode; whilst four other modes are collaborative: supporting, theorizing, challenging and information-gathering. Advising and instructing can produce dependence on the “change agent” (whether s/he is external or internal) because people don’t learn. The collaborative modes are not prescriptive and have many potential benefits; but they are not always effective because of barriers such as lack of skills and confidence, or because a very urgent situation needs a more prescriptive mode.

Incompetence. This must be the No.1 and most frequent trap! Organisations embark on transformation without having the necessary skills, experience or knowledge. All too often it is not arrogance or stupidity which allows an organisation to do this; it is just not knowingwhat is unknown! Following an assessment of what competences are needed, the possible solutions include: training/development; coaching; recruitment; using interim managers/staff; or engaging consultants.

Too much change. Some argue that the momentum of change must always be maintained, perhaps with exhortation, restatement of the dangers of not changing or even with a relaunch. But my experience is that sometimes people can become exhausted with too much change. So, consider the potential benefits of giving individuals, or even the entire organisation, a break from change when the focus is, even briefly, on business-as-usual.

 

“Business-as-usual”. A common trap is that the organisation becomes engrossed by the change and loses focus on delivering the day job: business-as-usual. Customers often suffer. Front-line staff become demoralised. Ideas for maintaining focus on business-as-usual include: appoint a director as champion of business-as-usual; dedicate some meetings completely to day-to-day business; and ensure that business-as-usual targets feature prominently in the organisation’s performance management system.

 

“Teflon” outcomes. Transformation frequently produces beneficial changes which do not last: they are non-stick! There are many reasons for this lack of sustained change; some of the most common include: leaders of the transformation move on; new initiatives are planned which divert resources; there is no resource for sustaining and spreading the change; • “mission accomplished” is hailed when in fact it was only a victorious battle, and resources are directed elsewhere.

 Project management. Ineffective and inefficient transformation is often a result of non-existent or inadequate project and/or programme management (co-ordination and management of a series of related projects).

It’s messy! “...fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves”. Thus with transformational change there will usually be unintended consequences, unidentified or unanticipated influencing forces, and unexpected or even illogical reactions. Expect some mess and mistakes, manage expectations and try to anticipate the traps.

 

 

 

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Bob Empson
30.04.2012