What Are You Trying to Change?

By Michael Fillios  |  Posted 2008-07-07

You know your company has to change, and you’ve put together the requisite task force. It has finished its work, and now you’re standing before your chief lieutenants or in a town hall meeting of all employees.

You wonder about some key questions. Is this the latest effort to join all the others on the trash heap of misbegotten change initiatives? Will this only tilt the statistics on failed change programs in all organizations even further into the negative column?

Perhaps you should look not at your notes or slides but into the faces of those before you. In the end, it’s not the brilliance of your ideas that matters; it’s what those people do with them. And you’ve got some mighty big anti-change agents sitting out there.

You see them as executives and managers, but they’re just people. They’re people who have emotions, and in the end, they’re going to act like people. Change initiatives fail for a lot of reasons, but the human factor must be the biggest.

Effective change management will not succeed if you don’t take into account the people factor. What is going through the minds of the members of your audience?

• Fear that they will lose power or compensation or even their jobs?

• Cynicism over what they hear as another shuffling of the chairs on the deck?

• Anxiety over the always-discomforting nature of change?

While there is plenty of debate over the propriety of emotion in the workplace─and it is generally true that it should be kept out─there is also a need to address it when it’s there. Gerard H. Seijts and Grace O'Farrell of the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario, examined emotions in the workplace and wrote :

One of the more important reasons that change efforts fail is that the idea of organizational change” is an illusion. Organizations do not change. It is the individuals in organizations that change their behaviors. Unless the need to change is perceived as an effort to create positive outcomes including … the expansion of personal power and a more interesting job, individuals can be expected to resist the initiatives that are part of the overall change effort.

What are we to do with this? Here are a few perhaps counterintuitive suggestions.

Fix what’s broken. Your employees know, often better than you, what isn’t working. Chief among the maladies in organizations today is the disconnect between business and technology. Technology has assumed a strategic role: It is the key to agility, the tool for operating an extended enterprise and the means to surviving uncertainty. Yet it is still treated in many organizations as a silo. To address this, the management of business and technology must be converged. Let your people see that the change you propose will eliminate this headache, thereby making their jobs more sane and the organization more effective, and you’ll go a long way toward winning their acceptance.

Tap their brainpower. Companies are scouring the world for good ideas today, but are they looking past the thinking in their own halls? Does the political culture in your organization discourage the contributions of your own people? Don’t you think the people on the edges of your organization─those closest to suppliers, customers and partners─know what’s really happening there? Are your call center operators so busy cross-selling things people don’t really need that they don’t have time to hear what paying customers are actually saying? How can we be so cavalier with readily available information right under our noses?

Accept that change is the new status quo. Successful companies today are transformed, i.e., they are continuously lopping off activities that no longer work, improving those that do and investing the savings in new activities. What sort of person can handle this? Do your hiring procedures factor this in? Do you seek graduates with training in both business and technology? Do your incentives, training and promotion policies prepare the people in your organization for constant change? Do you compensate for the insecurity inherent in such never-completed change?

Seijts and O'Farrell conclude that:

Engaging both the head and the heart helps transform individuals and organizations. For too long, leaders of change have focused on logical, rational arguments to change individual behavior. What has often been ignored … is that helping people to see or feel problems, solutions or progress will influence the emotions of the individual, which in turn facilitates commitment to behavioral change … If leaders are to facilitate organizational change, they must use reason and appeal to the emotions.

Could the key to successful change be this simple?

Michael Fillios has been at the intersection of business and technology for 20 years. He has led executives around the world in advancing their maturity in managing business and technology together. He is the chief solutions officer of BTM Corporation, a provider of solutions that help organizations improve the business value of technology. © BTMCorporation