Leading Major Change


Context of Leading Change

All organisations are facing major change because of the globalisation of markets, impact of competition and the massive enabling power of the internet.

It is highly unlikely to ever change, so all enterprises will need to adapt and develop on a continuous basis if they are to remain competitive – they will need to reduce costs, improve quality and constantly innovate all of the time, without let-up.

 “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”

Wendell Phillips – January 28, 1852.

Although many organisations have driven effective change initiatives and have improved their competitive position or their response to market shifts as a result, the research shows overwhelmingly that successful change programmes are not the norm and many have led to catastrophic regression and disaster.

I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

Gaius Petronius AD 54; Charlton Ogburn 1957

According to the Harvard University academic Professor John Kotter the reason behind these regressions and disasters lies in a failure to recognize that all human beings associate change in some way with pain and that leads to resistance to change initiatives on such a scale that they inevitably fail – the answer for Kotter lies in the approach the leadership team takes to Leading Change in their organisations.

The fundamental key

If you want to ensure that your change initiative succeeds the key thing that you have to do is involve the people in your organisation in shaping the direction, method and outcomes of the process.

This does not mean to say that you take your hands ‘off the wheel’ and hope for the best, but you provide strong leadership – create a strong sense of direction and then empower everyone in the organisation to make it happen. That is best done by asking your team members to play an active role in deciding what to do and then actually doing it.

If they are going to do that well and with enthusiasm, you will need to train them, encourage them, support them, define boundaries, encourage risk taking and if you do, you will ‘awaken the sleeping giant’.

Once awoken, there is often no stopping the energy, power and creativity that flows and in no time at all your organisation will be feeling the massive benefits from your leadership.

 Step 1 – It starts with strong leadership

The starting point is usually someone in the organisation who identifies a problem or opportunity for change – this could be an inspirational moment or simply a recognition that the way something is currently happening could be improved.

Sometimes the ‘visionary’ may be part of the leadership team or maybe they work elsewhere in the organisation; they may well be highly experienced or just totally naive, but able to ask the question without fear of reprimand (culture).

A strong leadership team will create forums and channels for the airing of these ideas and treat them from the outset as potentially of immense value, even where they look a little ‘crazy’ to start with.

The job of the leadership team is then to evaluate the idea carefully and decide upon the ideas to carry forward. They must build a strong case for change at this point – the imperative for change fuels the programme and keeps it going when obstacles inevitably arise and the vision sets the target for everyone to aim at. And they must retain ownership for communicating that imperative on a regular basis – at least quarterly.

Step 2 – Programme Design

All programmes will be different in nature because the issues and challenges that all organisations face are unique.

Programme design is often the work of an internal or external specialist, who designs the project to achieve the improvements required in ways which are aligned to the organisation’s vision, mission and values. Sometimes the design may also fit comfortably with the organisation’s strategy and structure, but sometimes not – a bigger challenge!

What follows are the common features of all successful change initiatives….

1. They have clear Change Owners

Usually the Change Owner is the head of the organisation or one of their senior direct reports with the power and influence to make things happen if they need to.

The Change Owner is responsible for seeing that the overall project maintains momentum, delivers on deadlines, receives the necessary support and resources it needs and becoming the enthusiastic cheerleader for the project, whilst staying out of the day-to-day working of the project.

Leaders who delegate this critical role to specialists or managers are asking for trouble.

2. They set up Multi-Disciplinary Project Teams to enable participation and secure commitment

These teams are recruited from within the organisation (usually as volunteers) to drive the change programme through to the implementation of actions. They normally appoint a Project Leader and work on project tasks (in addition to their day jobs) on a self-managed basis over a number of weeks to bring proposals to the board for approval and implementation. And over time, this method of working becomes part of the organisation’s culture.

For example, a recent client designed their programme with the clear goal to create a stronger customer focus within their organisation – changing it from being engineering dominated to being serviced oriented.

Their leadership team identified that there were initially four components to the task and set up four project teams to work on them. Progressively those four teams brought proposals to the board for change, two of them were so strong that the board asked them to implement the change and the other two were asked to continue their work in other areas.

The word got around – people in the organisation started to see that the leadership team were serious about change, that they wanted staff to contribute and that even the most junior of staff could have a major impact. After two years the organisation had 17 project teams working on change initiatives, a waiting list of new volunteers and with no adverse impact on productivity, but with massive improvements to customer satisfaction and employee motivation and engagement. The sleeping giant had been awakened and project teams had become part of the organisation’s DNA!

3. They set up Steering Committees

This isn’t about bureaucracy – this is about guiding the project teams through the organisational challenges that it will run into and usually comprises a small group of contributors (6-10 typically) drawn from different levels, functions and disciplines within the organisation.

They offer practical help and coaching to project teams – they mentor; they network and affect introductions; they support and encourage; they remove obstacles to progress. And sometimes they appoint project team facilitators who can be internal or external to the organisation to help if project teams get stuck.

4. They appoint a Communication Tsar

Overwhelmingly the research shows that the impact of change programmes is massive when the organisation promotes what it is doing to all of its employees.

All employees need to hear that the vision and change imperative are still relevant, that project teams are at work on moving things forward, that success is being made in several areas, that results prove it and that wins are celebrated, that new teams are being formed all of the time, that people are having fun and enjoying the experience and above all that the leadership team remains totally behind the programme.

The Communication Tsar keeps these messages in view all of the time, works with the Change Owners to ensure that there is no early celebration of success and deploys a range of communication tools and channels to loudly ‘blow the trumpet’.

Copyright: © Clive Weston, The Hartwell Consultancy, 2020

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