Altering perceptions

How do you distill the essence of good and bad change management into 1000 words? You quiz Dr Darl Kolb, a lecturer at Auckland University's business school, and hope he doesn't charge too much.

How do you distill the essence of good and bad change management into 1000 words? You quiz Dr Darl Kolb, a lecturer at Auckland University's business school, and hope he doesn't charge too much.

Kolb, a change specialist with many years of consulting and a PhD in organisational behaviour under his belt, argues that asking those who will experience the most change what they think is actually critical.

What's essential in effective change management?

Vision and communication skills, like most people say; but what most people don't emphasise enough are patience and compassion for those who have to live through the change(s).

What are the most common mistakes made when managing change?

a) Believing that your change programme is the only change people have ever lived through and that it will be the last real change anyone in the organisation is going to live through. Nowadays, change is (ironically) routine. And ignoring this fact can make a manager look naive at best, and foolish at worst.

b) Making minor changes when the fundamentals of your business are all wrong, that is, ignoring environmental and/or strategic constraints. For example, trying to obtain high margins for a commodity product is a problematic business model and so fiddling with 'quality' or 'culture' or 'team-based' change initiatives are unlikely to improve business performance.

c) Making major changes, when minor ones will do. For instance, managers often think their organisation needs a 'new culture'. I usually tell them what Ed Schein says, namely that to change an organisation's culture completely takes about 20 years and a complete turnover of staff. Having gotten their attention, he offers an alternative, 'If you can't afford a culture change, would you settle for better business practices?' I have used this in a New Zealand oil company and it worked well. What the company focused on was certain behaviours from a particular (albeit important) group of staff, not a wholesale 'culture change'.

d) Not managing consultants effectively. This is not to say that consultants are to blame for this problem. Too many managers hire consultants to do what they themselves don't have the nerve to do, but then wonder why their organisation has become dependent on consultants. To put it another way, I wonder if good change management is not just 'good management'. Good managers accept responsibility for their actions and understand that they must 'walk the talk' and lead by example, not just hire outsiders to make change happen.

e) Believing your own hype. Consultants and managers faced with change often ignore the humbling reality that most change efforts fail to achieve what was intended. Models, logos and silver bullet approaches, no matter how good they are, may not work in your organisation, so don't be too sure until "the fat lady sings".

f) Not measuring results or evaluating change programmes. This is related to the previous point, wherein by the time a change agent or consultant is finished, no one really cares or has the energy or money to ask, 'So, how did it go in the end, when it was all said and done?'

Are some sizes of companies/types/industry sectors better than others at managing change?

Not really. Again, ironically, some groups like the US Army, who were once seen as notoriously resistant to change, have become quite responsive in recent decades. There really seems to be a 'New Army'. And, high-tech firms living at the speed of change can be notoriously bad at managing their own change processes. There is no evidence I know of that suggests patterns of success. Probably the most important thing for anyone to bear in mind the factor you've listed, ie, size, industry, location, etc. all do have an impact on organisations and therefore on the way change should be managed in them.

How can staff, particularly experienced staff, tell if a change of policy or operation or management structure will have positive or negative outcomes for them or the organisation -- ie how can they tell if it's the right change?

First, the tricky part of this question is "right" for whom? I mean a good, comprehensive change model (for example, Kanter, Stein and Jick, 1992) suggests that change is very different depending on whether you are the "strategist" who thought it up, the "implementer" who has to make it work, or the "recipient", who has to live with it. So, a change model that is evaluated positively by all those roles is probably a very good change model.

Second, experienced staff will know it's a good change model if it takes into account their experience in the organisation and/or industry. Change models that are solely future-focused are almost certainly doomed to fail, because people don't forget their past. And, because experienced people are often the most valuable asset an organisation has, any programme that drives them off is suspect. This is not to say that redundancies are always bad or always unavoidable, it's just that really 'bad' change initiatives are usually recognisable by the 'wrong' people (ie, the ones you want to stay) leaving the organisation.

Third, any management 'fad' or 'fashion' should be questioned. This does not mean that it's not the 'right' change for the organisation, but just that the purpose of the change should be explored. If it is just because your neighbor or competitor is doing it, that is not the right reason for adopting a change. Change programmes that deal adequately with the question of 'why' change are more likely to enrol followers. And, since some 'trends' are mega-trends, they can not be avoided. Take for example, customer service, quality, continuous improvement and so on, these trends are unlikely to go away. (Shapiro, "Fad Surfing in the Board Room")

Fourth, a good change programme will be linked to strategy. As noted above, internal initiatives like 'team work', good though they may be (and I've made a lot of money developing teams), are only effective if individuals' work and rewards and ultimately company performance are fundamentally linked to team performance. Otherwise, there is no strategic imperative for working in teams. Similarly, raving about quality when you're strategically positioned to be a low-cost producer can make people a bit crazy. Put simply, a good change model should fit and support your business model.

Finally, the most critical success indicator for whether or not someone will believe a change is right for them is whether they've been asked what they think -- before the model comes to them in a package. We still don't know much about successful change management, but we do know that participation is the best determinant of buy-in to any change effort. Why it's not done more, well, I'll leave that question with you.

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