Change is tough. Anyone that has tried to lose weight or quit smoking can tell you that.
So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that changing organizational practices is tough, too. After all, those practices are the aggregation of individual behaviors and habits, most established over a period of time when the organization was successful, and resistant to change.
When I attended business school, we read case after case about change and change management. "Change agent" is something you find listed on half of the resumes you read today. Everyone claims to be open to change, involved in change, or a victim of change these days.
So what does it take to make really meaningful change in an organization?
In my experience, the most important requirement is for the leader of the organization to convince the employees that change is necessary, desirable and achievable. Desireable is often the easiest of these requirements to satisfy -- a logical argument that people can understand and buy into. Convincing people the change is achievable is best done by making the quantity of behavior that must be altered as small as possible -- not too much of a stretch, not too disruptive. Getting there is hard, but with clever planning, is usually possible. Necessary, on the other hand seems to be an emotional hurdle that is very difficult to get past.
Even if you know you should make a change (the health arguments to stop smoking), and everything is in place to make the transition as easy as possible (taper down time, patches, etc.), real change usually takes a motivating event (cancer diagnosis?) to get underway.
In business, this motivating event is usually called a crisis.
A crisis can be caused by a loss of market share, a distributor revolt, a major performance failure -- any number of things. But a crisis can NOT be fabricated. I know, I've tried.
One of my president jobs was with a division of a large corporation that had a terrible track record of on-time delivery performance. For years the leadership of the division had tried to implement changes that would improve their dismal record, and all of them had failed.
"You need to create a crisis," my boss advised.
Of course, he'd run the business himself, and hadn't been able to successfully "create a crisis." But I dutifully set about formulating new measures, and whipping up a whirlwind of words, in an attempt to make the delivery performance seem like a big deal.
And just like my predecessors, I also failed.
Then a curious thing happened. We were surprised by a substantial increase in demand, and suddenly dismal performance quickly devolved into horrible. At a distributor representative meeting, the participants united and delivered a clear message to me and my staff -- "you're killing our business, you have to fix this." The real crisis, the one I'd been trying to pretend was present, was now suddenly upon us.
But just having the crisis present wasn't enough. I still needed to use it as a motivating tool to make the changes happen. I did this by committing our organization to an improvement plan. Publically. To my boss, to the distributors, to my employees. I made it clear that jobs were on the line if we didn't get this fixed. And I appointed a change leader who had the horsepower and the desire to walk the changes through the organization all the way down to the shipping dock, if necessary.
Slowly, with continual focus over the next several months, we began to turn the ship around. After a year of continuous attention, I was able to say the crisis was over. And then only after installing systems and procedures to assure there would be no backsliding.
Making the change took explaining how it was desirable, convincing people it was achievable, and capitalizing on a real crisis to deliver the necessity.
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS (just released 7/19/12)