Change Is a Hard Row to Sow

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2003-05-01 Print this article Print

In rolling out new projects, managing the disruptions of change can be a project in itself. Begin thinking about the hurdles now.

You're the lead manager on a new enterprise software rollout. The technology won't be hard to implement, but something still worries you. Perhaps it's that the project seems so ... covert. Or that three of the business sponsors have already asked for private meetings.

It's probably time to stop and survey the corporate culture. Assessing organizational attitudes before starting a project is critical to success, says Warner Burke, a professor of psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College, especially if the project will require significant changes to the way people work. "You have to understand the nature of the beast you're going to be working with."

Actually seeing how people respond to change is the best way to learn about the way a company works, says Burke, who provides organizational consulting services to SmithKline Beecham and NASA. If you are new to the environment, ask about changes that have already occurred.

Also consider other initiatives that may compete for resources, and what the recent experiences of the project team's members have been. "Maybe they simply have initiative fatigue," he says. "Maybe they just finished a training program that seemed irrelevant."

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Don't forget your company's values and its relationship to customers and employees. That alone will reveal a lot, says Rich Hagberg, founder of the Hagberg Consulting Group, a Foster City, Calif., organizational-strategy consulting firm. "Hewlett-Packard's values are very clear, for example," he says. "Enron's are clear too, but the ethical boundaries are fuzzy."

In order to get positive results, Hagberg says, "You need to be as aware of the unstated norms and expectations as the stated ones. If not, the organizational antibodies will eat you."

Project managers should be able to intuit some critical cultural factors, such as how well people work together.

"Do employees look for ways to support each other or are they on guard?" Hagberg asks, giving an example of something for which a project manager should be aware.

So what should you do if you find you are walking into a high-risk environment where change may not be welcomed? Determine whether a case has been made for the change that top executives want, Burke advises.

"Do people understand the reasons behind the proposed change?" Burke asks. If not, you'll be like a runner tripping over hurdles the whole way.

Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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