The rate of change is accelerating
Throughout history, our ancestors have always experienced change. From hunter-gatherers to farming to the industrial revolution, the quest for productivity and efficiency has been around for centuries. With the explosion of technological advancements, the rate of change is on a huge trajectory. We hear mantras like ‘Change is constant’ and over decades, the consultancy industry has boomed in the quest to help organisations to ‘manage change’.
Catalysts of change
Change in organisations always has a catalyst. Perhaps it’s a new leader brought in to create change because financial results have dropped and the competition is gaining market share. Perhaps there’s a surge of customer complaints, a drop in sales, or outdated products and inadequate service. Perhaps operational costs are too high or expectations for share price haven’t been met. It may be that the decisions in the past have led to a top-heavy organisational structure: too many managers squeezing too much work out of too few workers. Whatever the reasons, change invariably means change in direction, change of thinking, and changed working practices. Inevitably, all that change means someone wants to manage it and that’s where “change management” comes in.
Wherever there’s a change initiative, change management is sure to follow
There are of course logistics and communication to consider. Change initiatives don’t happen by osmosis. But so many change initiatives fail and so few organisations stop to question why. In fact, we see the same things happen often: the rush to another change initiative and the same change management mistakes. More than any other well trodden management expression, ‘change management’ is the one most likely to have the same effect on me as, well, as a child of the seventies, and before the advent of smart boards in classrooms, chalk on a blackboard… makes me shudder. Constant change initiatives create cynicism and ridicule, sometimes well deserved, often understandable, always painful. People in organisations are not robots to be programmed, sheep to be rounded up, nor the ‘them’ in a game of ‘us & them’ where ‘us’ are the ones who have to change ‘them’. During change initiatives, we hear that questions or challenges about the change are viewed as ‘old style’ thinking in the brave new world of change. Where will it end? If the new change thinking is the only language allowed, how long before it too is frowned upon? How soon before it too is outdated and needs a change initiative of its own?
The failure of change initiatives
Change initiatives fail for multiple reasons. Why? Often because of a backlog of other failures: failure to relate, failure to listen, failure to communicate, failure to view Change as a continuing series of incremental changes. Change is rarely a one off event to be managed. Change initiatives can fail because of mixed messages from those leading the change. Sometimes changes are communicated as being beneficial for the customer or the employee when they are not. If a company needs to radically restructure the organisation and make significant reduction of jobs to increase chances of continuing to trade, then that’s the message that needs to be heard. Misguided protection from the truth of the market economy serves no-one and can lead to a patronising or manipulative leadership style.
Calling time on change management
So let’s call time on viewing change as a one off initiative and change management as the plaster for the pain of change. It’s rarely change itself that is painful. What’s painful is the uncertainty. It can be painful when an employee doesn’t understand why the change is happening and what it means for the business, the customer and the individual. It certainly can be painful to see change happening that harms the business. But pain is mostly to be felt in that limbo time between what was and what will be. It’s the uncertainty, the anxiety, the unknown, the waiting that causes most of the pain
So, if not change management, then what?
Our perception of change as something to manage until we can reach a status quo until the next change is, in itself, the very thing that we should change. So how is that possible? How can we move from change management and viewing change as a one off event to viewing change as an ongoing process? It’s about creating a culture of change. Here are 3 steps to shift the culture:
- Create a culture of ‘us and us’, not ‘us and them’. When people are involved in the vision and direction of a company, they connect with the purpose. When people connect with a purpose, they care what happens next and when that applies to a business, good things happen… like commitment, loyalty and desire to provide good products and service.
- Create a culture where complacency can’t thrive, where you expect yourself and others to be in touch, to listen to customers, to question spend, to be nimble in decision-making. We lurch from recruitment freezes to recruitment frenzies and then feel the pain of redundancies because of poor and complacent decision-making. Ask questions and create change because it’s a good thing to do, not something to enforce in a painful way because complacency took a hold.
- Create a culture of communication. Involve people, invite opinion and initiate dialogue. Communication or rather, the lack of effective and honest communication, is one of the main reasons why change initiatives fail. By the time it’s filtered through the layers of the organisation, who knows how the messages are being interpreted?
Creating a culture where change isn’t a big scary surprise, but an ongoing process, may seem daunting. It’s more daunting to face change as a one off initiative and the inevitable prospect of ‘change management’.
Change management? I think it’s time for a change.