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THE SIX CONDITIONS OF CHANGE

THE SIX CONDITIONS OF CHANGE

In my previous articles I have mentioned several times that the task of change leadership is to “create the right conditions for change” without specifying what exactly I mean by this. It is time now to define what are these conditions and how we can create them.

I love working with boards and management teams on change programs. There is one thing that I enjoy even more: talking to people in the organizations who are undergoing these change processes. That is where reality is, not in board rooms. In the past years I have talked to almost 800 people in focus groups and workshops within companies of different sizes, industries and countries. In focus groups I talk to 10 -12 people a time for 1-1,5 hours in a confidential, “anonymous” way about how they feel, what they think about the particular change process that is going on in their organization. Workshops go further than that, we also work on solutions for moving the change process forward. Having analyzed the notes and outcomes from these many interactions, it has become clear that people express their feelings and thoughts (either positive or negative) about change programs in six main areas:

  1. MOTIVATED: The first dimension people talk about is whether they are emotionally engaged with the change or not. There are some key questions that people always address: “Do we see the purpose of the change at all? If yes, is it a purpose that is attractive for us? Do we see why it is urgent to implement it now? Why can it not wait? And what’s in it for us? People will not explicitly formulate it this way, but essentially what happens is that people want to be clear about the purpose (the “why?”) of the change and then they subconsciously engage with it if the values represented by the purpose are in line with their personal values. I have seen many leaders announcing “visions” like “we will increase our profit by 15%” or “reduce our costs by 20%“. Although motivating for shareholders and top managers of the company, people will not get excited by such goals. “Let’s reinvent how our industry works and offer new solutions to our clients!”,”Let’s make this company a better place for all of us to work in!” are examples of much more engaging purposes.
  2. UNDERSTAND: People want to understand what is going on. Very often they are treated by senior managers as children who “don’t need to know everything, and will not understand it anyway..“. People will be distanced from a change initiative if they are not clear about what is it that the bosses want to achieve, how it affects their life and what is expected of them. “What is it exactly that we want achieve? How exactly it affects me? What is exactly expected of me?” are typical questions here and if the answers are not clear, people will be much more resistant to play along.
  3. SEE: People have a deep rooted desire to see and experience whether what leaders are talking about is real. In today’s corporate world there is much more nice talking than what is actually turned to reality, so people are understandably skeptical. “They just want to brain-wash us again! This is the fourth vision we have listened to in three years, and nothing has really changed so far! Let’s just wait and see if they are serious about it this time..!” are comments that I hear so often. To test for reality, people first automatically observe their managers if they start to change their behaviors in line with the announced change. It is just the good old “preaching water – drinking wine” test, and if leaders fail to pass, people refuse to engage. Once I worked for a big corporation where the CEO announced that tough times are coming, so costs need to be looked more carefully and asked for more cost consciousness. Some weeks later the management team decided that they need a team-building event, and of the various options suggested to them they choose a luxury adventure trip abroad with private jets taking them to the venue. They were hoping that people will not find it out, but of course, soon everybody in the company new about it, and people’s engagement with the cost reduction changes was gone. And so was the credibility of management. But people are not looking only at leaders for reality checks. Their peers (especially the informal opinion leaders) are additional important reference points and they will also be eager to see if the change actually starts to yield positive results.
  4. INVOLVED: People feel very differently about a change if they are somehow involved in creating it vs if they are just passive “victims” of it. The most basic level of involvement is to feel that “they considered me/us when they made the decision about this change“. The next level is that “they asked for and considered my/our opinion, ideas, suggestions about this change“, while the highest level is that “I /we actually participated in planning it and making it happen“. If people feel none of these, they will come from a huge distance and examine the change very cautiously. “They have no idea how things are actually happening in the company. So, how could they know what should be done to improve things? Nobody ever considers the interests of the ordinary workers…!” are frequent comments in workshops or interviews. People will rarely express explicitly that they miss being involved, but their arguments about the change will clearly indicate that this is an important root cause of their resistance.
  5. CAPABLE: Most changes require new behaviors and new skills from people. Especially in today’s times of digital transformation it is always a question if people have the competence and attitude that is required by the new ways of working. People will need to feel that they were prepared for what is expected of them. “Have we received the necessary trainings? Is everybody in our team fit for the new expectations? Are the needed information and resources available?”, and very importantly: “Have we been empowered to really do things in the new way?” are the key questions of people here. Empowerment is critical: to start and explore new ways, people need to feel that it is OK to make mistakes the first times.
  6. ALIGNED: People like and need consistency and order, and they need to see that the company’s processes, organization, systems and infrastructure is prepared for and steer them towards the expected change. At one of my clients, management decided that they will start to sell a new type of service which required a different type of invoicing to clients. But their ERP system could not handle this type of invoicing, and since the system could only be modified by headquarters, it was clear that it would take a while to have it fixed. Of course, people immediately pointed out the inconsistency and used it as a main reason for their resistance. “How should we do it, if we are not able to record it in our systems? Our processes should be changed and rationalized. We work in silos by organizational units and that makes it very hard to move towards the expected new way of working.” are the comments we hear so often. Compensation system is a sensitive topic here. Once I worked for a company that started a transformation program to become the best customer service company in their industry. But people had the perception that they happen to be the lowest paying company in the industry. “How do they want to be the best in the industry if they pay so low? People are leaving and nobody wants to come to us for such low salaries!” When I fed these comments back to management, they said that this is not true, and showed me industry surveys on compensation levels. It is very important to understand that in all of these topics “perception is reality”, which means that it is people’s perceptions of these questions that will drive their attitudes towards a change and not the “facts” (as understood by management).

These are the six topics people talk about when we ask them about a change process. Very clearly these are the SIX CONDITIONS in their minds and heart that determine whether they will go along with a change or not. In the MUSICA model I summarized and formulated the six conditions from the stand-point of the individual who is expected to change her/his behavior. (‘MUSICA’ is the acronym of the names of the conditions):