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Managing Change Must Be a Core Competency

April 3rd, 2013

President Woodrow Wilson

From American history we can learn about driving and managing change. Between the key milestones of the Civil War and the New Deal, Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Movement provides an interesting study. Wilson, President from ’13 to ’21, formed the Federal Reserve and FTC. He lead efforts to reform anti-trust, workers rights and women’s suffrage. And, he controlled America’s entry into World War I as well as leading the formation of the League of Nations that preceded the United Nations. All in all, it’s fair to say he dealt with change.

And when all was said and done, his lesson to us was “if you want to make enemies, try to change something”. At every level, from American society and global politics to our everyday lives, his warning should ring in our ears.

In business, the question becomes how then do you navigate change to minimize Wilson’s warning of creating enemies? One thing is for sure…currently, it isn’t done well. In 1995 popular change management author John Kotter released a study claiming only 30% of initiatives were successful. Over ten years later in 2008, McKinsey’s follow up study claimed the success rate hadn’t changed one bit. Change fails when you’ve created so many enemies that they kill the change. In other words, the responsibility for success and for failure is with those initiating the change. And it’s clear that while change is constant, we aren’t good at managing it.

What is sad is that we keep recognizing we need to be good at this, we keep recognizing we aren’t and we keep trying to solve it the same way. The “answers” to which we keep looking say we should (i) create a compelling story, (ii) establish role models for successful change, (iii) build systems to reinforce the change and, finally, (iv) establish the skills required for change. It all seems so rational. The only problem is that people aren’t very rational so when the effort meets employees and managers, their respective attitude and behavior don’t change.

These basic assumptions don’t work for a host of reasons. As an example, what seems compelling to managers isn’t always compelling to a workforce. And who we choose as role models isn’t as influential as broad peer to peer (i.e. social) networking. In addition, we to often rely on money as a motivator when it really isn’t that impactful. Finally, we can teach tools more effectively than attitudes toward change.

We’ve certainly had our experiences, both good and bad, with driving change both internally and with clients. From those experiences and our studies, we have adapted a change model we find effective for our area of expertise. Here are a few of its unique elements;

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  1. Give people time to digest the change. Often leadership has spent significant time discussing the desired change and its causes. Leadership is no longer wedded to the status quo and is committed to what is ahead. It is unreasonable to expect everyone else affected by the change to need any less. Pushing change just triggers the organization pushing back.
  2. Segment the audience when communicating. Treat the communication like a product or service launch where each segment has a tailored communiqué that addresses their unique position in the organization and how they are affected by the change.
  3. When developing role models, reverse engineer internal successes. What I mean by that is that any successful project has elements of whatever roadmap you’ve chosen. The fact the events took place through unconscious competence is meaningless. What is important is that they took place in your organization and can be used as examples you own.
  4. Treat crisis change different than steady state change. When making a steady state change, spend as much time on the process as the idea of the change. Develop separate roadmaps for crises and steady state. Don’t oversimplify the roadmaps. Ensure there is time for gradual understanding to minimize stress response and push back as well as to avoid lingering mistrust. Don’t try to create crisis where there isn’t.
  5. Provide coaching to key change spots. This may be one-on-one to executives or in mass to groups. It may use internal or external resources. You won’t correctly anticipate all the key spots but thinking about them will prepare you to respond quickly to the one’s you miss and the preparation acts as preventive maintenance. Coaching has a proven impact to help people focus. Add coaching to training and people learn more. Coaches accelerate the acceptance of change and help avoid potential long lasting problems.

Woodrow Wilson was right – if you want to make enemies, try to change something. But if you handle the change correctly, you can minimize the resistance and develop new allies along the way. And to do that, don’t repeat the same mistakes from failed changes. Look to the successful ones for elements that produced better results. Develop successful roadmaps for change based upon your

experiences. And we would be happy to share our successful roadmaps with you as well. If you’d like to discuss these ideas about change, feel free to contact me.

  1. June 30th, 2013 at 23:00 | #1

    Change happens anytime of the day. A positive change can turn things into better ones. Thanks for these ideas you have presented. Keep it up!

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