If change is the new black, why is it so difficult?

If change is the new black, why is it so difficult?

This blog post is a bad sleeping pill. The words change management seem to increase blood pressure and so do the bad personal experiences around it as well. Yet I’m going to stir the pot.

Last week I wrote about the mental life of organizational change. Judging by the feedback, I hit a sore point. I haven’t had this many comments on my writings since I wrote to Helsingin Sanomat, the largest subscription newspaper in the Nordic countries.

Most of all I was flooded with frustration. Why aren’t the silent signals noticed? Why does a change always come through a painful crisis? Who believes that getting a new IT-system will change the ways people work? Why doesn’t the management react to the client’s need of change? Is the strategy made for the customers or for the management?

The management’s responsibility

A goal-orientated change always has a leader. The sign of an unsuccessful change manager is that the critique of a failed change never hits the the one who’s leading. This might sound paradoxical, but is completely logical.

Change management is always about leading the change of corporate culture, and therefore it is communication. A manager who is weak in faith hides. And when you are afraid to take responsibility, to get your hands dirty and to lead by example, you will most definitely not obtain critique. Neither will you obtain results.

A lion’s share of the feedback was about situations where the executive level managers kick off the change and then vanish from the stage. They don’t seem to be involved in or responsible for the success of the change. And when the management is afraid to take the risk of failure, the ungrateful role of a barking tree suddenly falls on the middle management. And when nobody is steering the wheel, the goal is never reached.

Being present in the digital age is not too much asked. Yet even in Finland, one of the leading countries utilizing digitalization, a bank manager using Twitter is news.

Maybe the problem is that the people leading the change have a solid track record in doing what has been done before: keeping up the existing. The change manager might be good in management but what is needed is leadership. And people can only be lead through communication.

The role of communication

Resistance to change is a sign of bad communication. If the internal dialogue is open, the need to change will not come as a surprise. A well-led organization with coherent communication is ready and well-prepared for a change.

Bad communication in its turn is irregular, obscure and inconsistent. It is the kind of communication where you first claim to appreciate everybody’s know-how and the week after sack every second employee.

Good communication engages the whole organization in the designing process of the new strategy and the new story. This way the story is not just a fictitious fairy-tale but a concrete, shared and understandable vision of what is pursued with the change. When the change is jointly defined, it will also be easier to jointly accept.

The obvious question is, how to get the whole organisation involved. Is it even possible?

Last week some of the feedback described me to be simple-minded (sic) when I defined the target groups involved in change. I do admit that one can’t make in-depth profiles of all the shareholders in a single blog post. But in the end there are those who have an open mind  towards the change as well as those who’d rather stick to the old and familiar ways and, of course, those in between.

What counts is that everybody feels they are appreciated and listened to. Step on no one’s toes, belittle no one’s know-how and don’t blame anyone for the operating models introduced by the previous management.

The elements of cultural change

One of the commentators in LinkedIn defined change management well: “Organizations don’t learn, people do. It is about changing the operational models in people’s minds.”

Changing corporate culture is a complex process. Still it is tried by carrying out simple processes equivalent to those guiding inventory management or payment of wages. But the change of culture is a psychologically heavy process that focuses on changing hearts. Replacing the old values with new is not a light process that can be applied from the outside.

It is human to expect change from others and equally human to not expect the same thing from yourself. This is why the lack of a vision is the most risky situation of all. A poorly reasoned change creates insecurity, whereas reasoning with positive views on the future creates motivation.

If the IT-systems are replaced, the organization must be explained what end it serves. You being the expert and being able to focus your time on your special field is a reason much better than cost-effectiveness.

Appreciation and measuring

Measuring wrong objectives is one reason for failed change and communication. Milestones, such as the utilization rates for a new IT-system, are merely tools and hitting these goals should of course be rewarded within the organization. But when measuring the success of the change as a whole the indicators defined in the strategy should be used.

Change can be called successful only when it is reflected in the key figures defined in the strategy.

Simplified: small victories should be celebrated. At the same time the change managers should be measured through long term goals. The rallying point is to accept mistakes. Only by making mistakes can one learn, and only by learning can one create something new.

There are always those who refuse to be measured because “there are so many things affecting the outcome.” It is true that intuition and surprises play their role. The change might feel good or bad, and this gut feeling should not be neglected. But if a change manager doesn’t dare to be measured by business indicators, the change manager is not competent enough.

The mortal sin and salvation in change management

A change that is ruled from outside and above is not motivating. Instead few of us resist a well reasoned change that in which one has been a part of planning. Most of us want to support a well defined change. Eventually resistance to change is nothing more than a humane reaction to insufficiently defined targets caused by poor communication.

Last week I also wrote about the most common mistakes in change management. After a week-long storm of comments I still claim that communication is the single most important tool in change management.

In addition to holding my stance I also declare the most common mortal sin: Change is doomed to fail if the new strategy is made only for the needs of the management, neglecting both the organization and the customers. Change should never be used to fill up the management’s spare time. Instead the management’s role is to support the organization in implementing the change that is based on the customers’ needs.

About the writer

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Tommi Hermunen

Tommi is best described with passion and professionalism. He has lived and worked abroad in Europe for several years and is specialized in change management within new geographical and cultural business environments. He has gained practical experience in General Management, Finance & Control, Human Resources, Sales and Operations owing to his various positions in private sector within an international group and in public sector as a public servant.

tommi@sivukonttori.se
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