The Source of Successful Change Management

The success of change initiatives depends on employee enthusiasm rather than leadership directives.

Most leaders seem to interpret the phrase "change management" to mean "a way to get the organization to do what I want it to do." They follow the letter rather than the spirit of change management. As a result, their change management plans are a weak, tasteless broth of communication meetings, logos, Lucite paperweights, T-shirts and employee idea programs. One of my favorite sayings is "People don’t hate change; they hate the promise of change unfulfilled." That is, everybody hates le grand programme du jour that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. With each successive program launch, workers become increasingly more cynical and, over time, stop listening and lose hope.

The promise of change for the better goes unfulfilled because the vision never migrates from the head of the leader to the hands of the employees. Leaders must accept the fact that even the best strategic planning processes result in flawed visions—flawed because there is much that is unknown and not directly controllable. Some of the unknown lies outside of the organization and in the future, but the bulk of the unknown can be found in the head of the people who were not involved in strategy-making.

The true spirit of change management is enabling all employees to express and apply their knowledge in a way that benefits each of them and the organization. If you really want to create a better tomorrow, you have to engage the heads and capture the hearts of your people before the hands of the organization can be mobilized.

Engage the head. You need to give people a reason why change is nec-essary and why it is necessary now. Create a sense of urgency by using the voice of the customer. Take your fuzzy vision and clarify it by talking to the people who serve the customer. Then work on your vision until it is crystal clear, and you can communicate it in five minutes. Your five-minute elevator speech should be structured like a story, respecting the past by recognizing accomplishments and strengths, frankly discussing current challenges and what change needs to occur, and painting a picture of the better day ahead. As corporate change guru Terry Paulson says, "The difference between a vision and a hallucination is the number of people who can see it."

Capture the heart. People are motivated by purpose, affiliation and security. You need to build all of those into your change program. Motivations are personal, so you must enlist people one at a time by understanding what drives them and bringing their resistance to the surface. Ask questions to make it easy for them to tell you what is working well, what is going wrong, ideas they have to make things better, and all the reasons why change should not happen or is not going well. Keep in mind that silence is resistance carried out by other means. Again, remember to give your staff a "noble purpose" by articulating the vision in terms of what’s good for the customer. Help people affiliate by teaming them with others on an important initiative. Finally, be honest with employees about the likely implications of change. Offer "soft landings" (such as education programs, severance packages and retention bonuses) for those who will lose their jobs or will need to change jobs and skills.

Free the hands. To build momentum for your change program, pick some easy projects so that people can taste early wins. Set up clear performance measurements so that progress is transparent to everyone. Define rules to ensure that people are operating consistently with your vision for change, while at the same time giving people plenty of freedom to apply their creativity (for more on how to do this, see the Harvard Business Review article "Strategy as Simple Rules," Jan. 1, 2001). Help people recognize when they are overloaded, and make it easy for them to ask for help.

There is nothing more exciting than working for a visionary, passionate leader. And there is nothing more frustrating than seeing visionary leaders hamstrung by their inability to create the future. In the words of organizational theorist and author Peter Senge, "What [many wannabe leaders] never grasp is that the natural energy for changing reality comes from holding a picture of what might be that is more important to people than what is."

Reader Q&A

Susan H. Cramm answers questions on "The Source of Successful Change Management."

Q: How do you get people to back change without letting them know about sensitive information—such as that they could be laid off?

A: You can keep sensitive information confidential and still ensure a successful change effort if you treat people fairly. This requires developing clear HR policies and establishing communication channels. You need to clarify how the change-related job transitions will be managed—including announcement dates, the scale of layoffs and redeployment, and availability of early retirement severance and retention bonuses. The two-way communication mechanism must equip frontline managers with the information that will allow them to work effectively with employees and ensure that employee concerns are telegraphed back to those managing the change program.

Q: If executives have to sell a change program so hard, doesn’t that point to a weakness in the new plan?

A: If executives are trying to sell a change program, they are missing the point of change management. Selling something implies that you have a finished product. The spirit of change management recognizes that the product isn’t finished without significant experimentation and input from the organization. Executives are responsible for focusing the organization on the right issues, sketching out some guesses about the future and mobilizing the organization to help fill in the details.

Q: I am from Brazil, and as a project manager implementing ERP systems, the difficulty of change management is one of the huge issues I usually have to face. I am about to start a new project in an old company with many employees who have worked there for more than 20 years. What would you recommend to capture their hearts and heads for this implementation, which will deeply change the way they work, and also probably cost some employees their jobs?

A: Go after their heads before you try to capture their hearts. The head will ask, Why is this good for the customer? Figure out how to expose the workforce to the voice of the customer on current issues—for example, the effect of the lack of coordinated supply chain management. Emphasize that the change is a customer mandate, one that cannot be ignored because of the competitive threat that exists. You will know that the case for action is firmly rooted in employees when they can articulate the customer issues and are demanding to know what comes next.

The heart only asks, Why is this good for me? The answer to that question is personal and differs for different people. You must work through the organization, one layer at a time, to obtain commitment before you try to move one layer down. If you try to gain the support of the frontline employees before you have captured the hearts of those they trust (that is, their managers), you will be fighting a losing battle. The only way to win the hearts of the middle of the organization is to guarantee job security or very nice severance and retention bonuses. You must also identify and neutralize those managers who remain opposed to the change, either by changing their roles or moving them out of the organization.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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