If you’ve ever been in a meeting and uttered the dreaded word “change,” you’ve probably had the experience of watching the faces of the attendees express emotions ranging from horror to glee. It’s been my experience in the corporate world that no two people have the same reaction.
It’s important to understand that to many people the idea of change feels threatening. Even if the current process, organizational structure or focus is outdated or even obsolete, employees are familiar with it. Sometimes no matter how inefficient or emotionally painful a situation is, they’ve developed a certain comfort level. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve worked with a company that said, “But we’ve always done it that way,” I could retire right now.
The way they’ve always done it may well be the way it was originally organized in 1980 or 1990. If a company wants to expand instead of contract, it must self-reflect. If the C-suite is composed of a majority of yes-men and -women, change is unlikely to happen until it’s too late to reverse the slide. In cases such as this, it’s often helpful to bring in an external perspective to evaluate the business and recommend a plan of action that can initiate meaningful change. In fact, you might even want to have the consultants initiate the initial changes themselves, so as to reduce the opportunity of backsliding once they’ve left.
In his book Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change, Leonard Mlodinow points out, “Today’s society bestows rewards as never before upon those who are comfortable with change, and it may punish those who are not, for what used to be the safe terrain of stability is now often a dangerous minefield of stagnation.”
One of the important pieces of the puzzle in the beginning stages of any plan to change is to bring the new vision into complete focus. Trying to begin implementation before this phase is completed will ensure failure. I worked with a large retail company whose upper management decided to introduce an entirely new ordering system for their multiple call centers. It would save money because it was more efficient and would allow the agents to perform their jobs in a faster time frame per call.
The problems were legion. They never bothered to show it to any focus groups from the company. They did not test the system in beta mode long enough. They never asked anyone who worked with the existing systems to explain the pros and cons of the existing programming.
Instead, they filmed an announcement from the CEO, who had only been working with the company for under a year and had never even touched the current system or traveled to any of the call centers. The filmed announcement was basically a pep rally with no helpful information, but it was required watching for every employee.
The resulting premature rollout was a predictable disaster. There were multiple malfunctions, employees having meltdowns because they couldn’t meet their stats and supervisors tearing their hair out because with no training beyond a PowerPoint presentation, they were expected to troubleshoot every problem that arose. You can only imagine how frustrated the customers were, and you wouldn’t believe how many of them threatened to take their business elsewhere.
With some forethought and focus, it all could have been avoided. The only people who didn’t seem to realize that were in the C-suite. They could have done so much better (they couldn’t have done much worse, after all). They could’ve communicated their new vision for the company by email, social media, video, corporate intranet, motivational posters showing the benefits and meetings at the individual call centers where someone from upper management actually bothered to visit.
There’s no shortcut to effectively implementing change. It involves a process, and time and effort must be invested for it to be a success. After a clear explanation of the vision, there must be a high sense of urgency from management. Momentum must be maintained, or entropy will take over.
For progress to continue, obstacles to that progress must be removed. The obstacle could be a process, a tool that isn’t working properly, a lack of monetary commitment to the project or even a leader who overtly opposes the change and actively works to undermine it. If these hindrances are not removed, change won’t flow.
Real and lasting change cannot gain a foothold unless it’s broken up into smaller, more digestible pieces. The goal of expansion into European markets, for example, might be segmented by country, region or demographic. Whatever it is, once the first goal is met, it’s time to celebrate the victory. Those on the front lines will mostly just see the mountain of work ahead, and rewarding them for each success keeps them motivated to continue.
John P. Kotter, in his book Leading Change, advises, “Real transformation takes time. Complex efforts to change strategies or restructure businesses risk losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate.”
Frequent feedback meetings are also imperative. If you’re not listening to your people on a regular basis, you’re not in touch with what’s actually happing on the front lines. You can look at reports all day long, but if you don’t actually make yourself available to hear what the problems and triumphs are, you don’t have a clear picture.
As a manager of people, it’s your job to motivate them to embrace the changes, listen to their fears and suggestions, and cheerlead the new company vision. Reward innovation and positive behavior, and share stories of success, no matter how small.
As the innovator Walt Disney pointed out, “Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.” If we don’t, we’ll surely fail.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes