The mental life of organizational change

The mental life of organizational change

“That won’t work with us. It might have worked where you’re from, but…”

This statement is often justified by saying that what the organization does is highly exceptional and it can’t be compared with anything else in the world. “We’re a nationwide / international / academic / established / public sector operator.” I’ve heard every possible excuse for why change isn’t possible. Each and every time I have refuted these excuses.

The projects that organizations buy from me are often seemingly anything but change management but in the end they prove to be just that. At the same time what is often sold as change management is anything but change management.

A typical change project starts from silent signals. The need for change has been recognized, but its scope hasn’t. This is the reason why an external expert’s estimate of the size of the change is often shot down. The customer acts like an unbelieving patient diagnosed with a disease.

Getting a grip of what’s going on isn’t made easier by an external consultant offering hourly rates and giving only abstractions of a better tomorrow as a result. That is when the customers see only chaos and costs in front of them. Neither the consultant or the customer can say what should be done and in which order.

Successful change management requires change of culture and is therefore, above all, communication. This is why actual change and a successful result is a rare sight. Measuring change and the success of communication is damn difficult.

This is due to the fact that every change is different. Organizational change has been researched a lot on a theoretical level but there’s very little academic research on it’s practical elements.

When the indicators of change and communication are not set properly or at all, the whole project is doomed from the start. This in turn is the result of pencil-dress-press-secretaries and handkerchief-strategists not understanding the importance of communication. Communication shouldn’t be done just for the sake of communication.

When facing change, it’s natural to do comfortable things instead of doing what needs to be done. Inside the organization, everyone are justifying their own expertise based on what has been done before. External change communication consultants justify their competence based on completely irrelevant follower counts in social media.

The only way to measure the success of change and communication is to view their effects by indicators most appropriate to the company strategy. The utilization of new software and the key figures of social media are tools, not the proper indicators.

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

The function of corporate culture is to lead the organization in the direction defined by its strategy and vision. That is why the goal of change should be a new corporate culture. The culture of an organization is changing continuously in any case, but it can be led by goal-oriented communication. Communication is the number one tool in change management.

Unfortunately, only a few change leaders take responsibility of communication, because no one wants to be shot as the message man. It is an ungrateful job to tell people that what has been required of them so far is now a bad thing. Their ability to uphold the old isn’t needed anymore. This causes the recipient to fear not just the unknown, but also for a possible loss of a job.

In addition to this, resistance to change is also created by the expectations. Almost every change project is associated with a demand for cultural experiment and more agile operations. This requires courage to do mistakes, a concept completely foreign to many organizations. The bigger and older an organization is, the more likely it is that they’ve managed to hack it by only avoiding mistakes.

As if this wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, the worst case is that the change is attempted to be ruled from above. In this kind of situation the organization doesn’t utilize the expertise that it already has. Silent information is unknown to the management, which is why decisions made are not the best possible. This is in its turn reduces the will to change inside the organization. Characteristics of an organization like this are employees who sit quietly and passively during meetings and tell of their opinions only to their colleagues in the coffee room.

At worst, the staff feels that they are not listened to and that their expertise is not appreciated. What to do?

The first step in change communication is to bring out why change is necessary. Don’t regress to bashing the current situation. A better alternative is to present a clear vision about what’s changing and what it will lead to. When everyone is given a chance to understand what change means to the company’s strategy and future, the change itself is also given a chance.

In change communication the recipients’ will to listen and understand the message varies as it does in every other form of communication as well. Good communication helps find those who see the change positively and who support it. Finding these people is a good starting point. They will help the change project reach the critical first profits.

You mustn’t settle for these first successes though, they are only the beginning. Managing change is not a one-time element separate from the organization. It must reach to every level of the organization. A good change leader takes care that the change and its goals are not seen merely as additional work, but as a practical benefit in the day-to-day life of the organization.

In my other blog post, I wrote about how to avoid the worst mistakes. That’s a good start. But avoiding mistakes isn’t enough. By deciding what not to do, you only reduce the probability of failure. To improve the likelihood of success you need to plan what to do.

When an organization decides to change, it takes a huge step. Planning and executing the change are matters too big to be given to unskilled hands. A bad change leader will only bring forth destruction.

A successful organizational change begins from the following realization: change management is always managing a change of culture, in other words communication. That is why change is just as successful as its communication.

About the writer


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.
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