“Top management support!” Everybody who’s selling a new method or system says that this is the key to success. As your monthly curmudgeon, I say that if you have to ask for it, you don’t deserve it.
“How’s the mileage on that yacht?”
“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!”
The same applies to top management support. If you feel you need it, something deeper is fundamentally wrong. And unless you address the root causes, even having top management behind you won’t save your project. Of course, if top management is against you, that’s a whole different story. In that case, you either sell top management or pack up and go home.
But I contend that a good idea combined with a good change process shouldn’t have to depend on top management support. This month’s column reflects on the fundamentals of change management, and the roles that top management should and should not play in bringing about meaningful change.
Why People Request Top Management Support
Generally, the cry for top management support means that someone is trying to implement some change—to be specific, trying to get others to change—and is running into resistance. It may be that IT is “sponsoring” an IT project—ERP, for example—and clients are resisting. Or it may be that well-meaning change agents or “process owners” are trying to force change on IT staff.
When faced with resistance to “The Right Thing To Do” from the very people they’re trying to help, some change agents ask top management to command people to accept the change; ergo: the plea for top management support.
Why It’s Dangerous to Depend on Top Management Support
Note that, in the last paragraph, I said “accept” the change, not “support” the change. There’s no chance of support. Once people are set against a change, top management cannot command them to modify what’s in their hearts. All that change agents can reasonably ask of top management is to compel unwilling compliance.
Consider this: I want you to help me put a hurdle (or so you see it) right in the middle of the door to your office. You’ll have to climb over it every time you come and go. Sure, you hear me saying that this will be good for the shareholders. But be honest with yourself; how do you feel about this project?
Wait, before you get uppity, let me explain that your boss’s boss supports the Hurdles project, and even commands you to cooperate.
So, tell me, now do you feel enthused about the change? Will you try to block the change? No, at least not overtly. That could be career suicide. Will you smile while the change agent does his job? Of course. You’re a professional. Will you do as you’re told and climb over the hurdle every day? I guess you’ll have to. Will you help the change agent succeed at this project? XX no (where “XX” is the expletive of your choice)!
With top management support, maybe you’ll go along with this lunacy. But do you like the idea now that you know the big guy wants you to do it? Of course not. But how can you fight city hall?
Confuse meetings with plausible, but pointed, questions. Be too busy to do what’s expected of you, e.g., fail to supply data or other resources. Or send a subordinate in your stead—the guy who can barely find his way to work each day. Shut down the business for a day while you work on the change. Do exactly as you’re told and show everybody how idiotic that turns out to be. You don’t need me to tell you how to torpedo a project that you don’t like.
When people resist change, bringing top management support down on them only solidifies the antagonism and drives resistance underground. And of course the change agent ultimately gets blamed when somehow the change doesn’t come off as well as you promised.
Why People Resist Change
Top management gets to decide whether to fund a change. And top management can get adversaries out of the way. But if success depends on others’ contributions and cooperation, then this is not the way to overcome resistance.
Consider resistance to change from a different perspective. It’s a signal from the organization that something’s wrong with this idea. Either the change is badly designed, or the change process is faulty.
There’s no way to “deal with” resistance to change once it’s been generated. But if you can figure out the reasons why people are resisting, you can deal with the root causes and resistance will melt away. And without resistance, you won’t have to cash in your chips to get top management to force change on people.
The way to wean your project from dependence on top management support is to address the underlying reasons for resistance to change. Consider three of the most common reasons for resistance to change, and how to address people’s concerns.
Reason for Resistance #1
If a change is not in people’s best interests, then rational people fight it. That should be obvious. But for those who aren’t sure of this common sense, the research on change management throughout the 1970s clearly confirmed this. (Cf. force-field analysis.)
Would a rational person (like you) resist the following proposition? “Come help me streamline your business process, so that we can fire you or one of your peers and make your job structured, routine and boring.” Of course people will resist this! Who would be so silly as to even propose such a thing!? Many readers will remember the “business process reengineering” fad of the 1990s which ignored everything known about change management. It saved money, but it often destroyed companies’ spirits in the process.
People resist changes that are bad for them personally. If their subjective cost-benefit analysis is anything less than positive, then meaningful change is unlikely. Not only must there be “something in it for me,” the individual benefits have to be enough to overcome the discomfort and disruption that’s inevitably the cost of change.
If the change is bad for the people involved, then don’t do it. Period. Don’t even think about it.
Reason for Resistance #2
People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.
I’m not saying that everyone is a perpetrator of the “not invented here” syndrome. It’s never fun to lose control of something as important as your livelihood. Change must come from within. People must change themselves. Otherwise, they’ll fight the loss of control.
This means that the change process must be participative from start to finish. The people affected by the change have to admit the problem, diagnose it, design and implement the change and accept accountability for the results. Real support requires more than token participation. Everyone affected must be involved somehow in the change process.
It’s OK for staff to choose not to participate, as long as they’ve been sincerely invited. And it’s OK for management to make decisions when questions rise to their level. The goal is meaningful participation, involving those who are interested in an open, empowered change process.
Reason for Resistance #3
Complacence. Despite their complaints, most people are pretty comfortable with the status quo. Change is a nuisance; it’s often hard work; and it’s scary. People tend to say, “Why bother? We’re okay as we are.”
Successful change is accomplished by people who are motivated to change. There are three elements of motivation:
First, dissatisfaction with the status quo (the proverbial “burning platform”). Staying where we are has to become not OK. There must be a compelling reason to change. Otherwise, the prevailing feeling will be, “Things aren’t so bad.”
Second, a vision of the destination (the safe place to jump to). People won’t sign up for a trip to an unknown destination. Remember the old saying, better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Leaders have to get people to see a desirable end point, the kind of organization which the change will create.
And third, a clear path from here to there (next steps). People have to know what they’re supposed to do to effect the change. There must be a project plan that tells staff who has to do what, and when.
Roles of Top Management
While I’m scornful of the need for top management support, leaders absolutely do have an important role in well-managed change processes. In fact, leaders have a number of roles, including providing the following:
- Why change? The view from the top. A broader understanding of the reasons the organization must change, including the threats that motivate change and the opportunities for success for all staff.
- Stretch objectives: A goal for the change that’s visionary and challenging, ideally one that’s a step in an even larger vision and plan.
- Accountability: Don’t accept excuses or mediocrity. Demand excellence, and hold people accountable for its delivery.
- Empowerment: Set the objectives, define the bounds, provide the resources, and then let people go. Empowerment means measuring people on results, not on how they get there.
- Participative process: Design the change process to engage people in defining the three elements of motivation to change (see Resistance #3, above), and then in designing and implementing the change itself.
- Resources: Top management must provide the budget, the specialized teachers/facilitators and other resources that people need to accomplish the change.
- Coach, don’t dictate: Share information and offer help in a way that doesn’t disempower staff or relieve them of any authority or accountability for results.
The one thing top management should never do is command people to change. Top management support is a good thing, but if you have to ask….
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Dean Meyer coaches CIOs on organizational, political and leadership issues. He listens, and offers perspective with his compelling business-within-a-business paradigm and the common sense built over 35 years in the IT industry. He works with you to plan practical solutions, drawing from a wealth of implementation experiences and proven systemic change processes. For a no-obligation get-to-know-you chat, contact his office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-431-0029.