If you monitored the United States’ presidential election process or the corporate woes of Nokia and Research in Motion as they try to recover what were formerly massive stakes in the cellular phone market, then you realize that worthwhile change, even when planned, is neither simple nor easy; it is complex and difficult. Organizations struggling most with change, therefore, seem to be the ones that also struggle most with innovative thinking.
Successful organizational changes are possible – just not as clear-cut and idealistic as some management books and journal articles would lead you to believe. Many readers can likely recall an encounter with an Organizational Development (OD) consultant ending with a forgotten, polished report. Separated by time and distance from the change implementation process, the projects appeared clean and clear recipes for new life. But, just as recipes are ineffective if the proper ingredients are not gathered in the correct measurements, at the right time, and combined by the proper tools, so change-management plans are also ineffective if misdirected and misapplied.
Organizational leaders, with or without the aid of consultants, are responsible for these spectacular changes or disasters. C-suite leaders are routinely hired and fired with the understanding that they will bring the “magic” that makes change work, resulting in innovation, efficiency, increased brand value and earnings, reduced turnover, and improved talent acquisition. Surely, useful methods for successful change exist and are routinely highlighted by change-management experts. Still, there are also obstacles that hinder change management – some errors of commission, others of omission, and they primarily affect individuals on the receiving end of leaders’ visions for change. Among these obstacles, any which makes or breaks follower buy-in is nonnegotiable. It must be addressed well. When unaccounted for, these organizational booby-traps trip up unaware interventionists and halt progress – to the often repeated rate of 70% failure.
Two coalescing perspectives of the change process have dominated OD: Kurt Lewin’s (1890-1947) three-step approach and, more recently, Chris Argyris’ (1923-) theory of intervention and double-loop learning. For Lewin, change processes consisted of:
1) unfreezing the present condition,
2) changing to a new condition as favorable affections replace affections for the old condition, and
3) refreezing the process by which the new condition becomes established.
Essentially, the need for change is realized, desired, and then consistently pursued after a semblance of acceptance for the change is obtained. Argyris’ theory built upon Lewin’s model by introducing discussion about persistent evaluation. In short, he promoted what is called systems thinking, which examines the foundational issues for why problems arise, promoting change at that level. For instance, in collecting performance data, this would mean not only examining the collected data, but it would also entail critiquing the data collection process i.e. Were the correct data collected and the means of collection proper? The point is that alleviating symptoms is not a long-term strategy for successful OD. Leaders need to address root causes – the metaphorical infection causing the sore throat. Effective leaders manage these change efforts like skirmishes comprising a war campaign. For each, they rally their troops’ morale, negotiate resources and leverage competencies, study the benefits and drawbacks of the environment, and assess costs. Such accounting is needed every step of the way because, if not recognized as an opportunity to be well-prepared, each aspect may become a potential obstacle for followers’ change readiness.
The approach most leaders take, resulting in that dismal 30% success rate, is one of firefighting. They see change as inviting resistance, and so they prepare for resistance and learn to “put out fires” along the way. Their fact-pattern is:
Followers naturally react to change, or the idea of change. It is often a matter of perceived control. Some feel they lose while others feel they can only benefit from the change. Successfully timing change events, therefore, requires leaders to monitor followers’ motivations and evidence of growing dissatisfaction with the present situation and greater affinity for the proposed change (willingness to complete additional work, spend extra time onsite, work jointly in cross-functional teams, etc.). These signs indicate readiness for change. Unilateral action should replace politicking when the coalition in favor of change is strong and vocal.
Leaders do not have to settle for such adversarial change-management scenarios. Those projects will exhaust all factions and exacerbate organizational tensions. Instead, leaders ought to seek improvement in organizational relationships throughout the change-management process. These events bring leader-follower tensions and underlying assumptions to the surface, and so they are prime opportunities to address misalignments and strengthen understanding of the organization’s unifying mission while improving operations. The following list of ingredients for effective change management will increase the likelihood of change “sticking” and the organization improving.
1. Organization assessment
Even novice organizations have endured change efforts, and so leaders can look to history for the strengths and weaknesses evidenced in past events, considering: Are the parties to change the same? What cultural barriers remain or have arisen since? Is this change bigger or smaller in scope than past changes? Is this change necessary? How likely will we survive this change? Are there alternatives?
2. Developed vision
Without guidance, change efforts fail. Leaders are responsible for developing the vision for what change will bring – incorporating the needs and expectations of followers and answering and overcoming their concerns. Visions need to clearly describe the organization’s problem as well as inspire followers in counting the cost of change, concluding what is to come is better and more desirable that what is at hand. Fear is another strong motivator; and, when used honorably, powerful visions of negative consequences for failing to change provide additional motivation.
3. Severed ties
In his seminal work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, British statesman Edmund Burke (1791) wrote, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” His point was that the reform process recognizes institutions’ need for innovation, but such innovations improve institutions only if they uphold the institutions’ purposes. Strong ties to the past are good when anchoring policy decisions, but they must serve the organizational mission. When they do not do that, leaders must help followers disconnect from former ways of operating. As confusion can overtake and divide followers who may wonder whether leaders are hijacking the organization, leaders must be careful. Consider the strife caused by differences in American churches undergoing changes in worship styles. Research shows that shared resolve to change across diverse groups is yoked to successful change implementation. Thus, the more readily the status quo can be questioned by followers, the sooner the organization can adapt to present circumstances.
In 1949, the infamous Mann Gulch fire took the lives of thirteen smokejumpers. The wildfire was unassuming, until drastic changes in the environment caused it to erupt into an inferno of death. Because of their quick-thinking, three men survived. Organizational leaders must recognize the level of immediacy required not only to motivate change, but also understand and effectively communicate the threshold after which change will no longer be possible without grave consequences (cost-prohibitive, lost market share, lost talent, agreement deadlines, etc.)
5. Strong leadership
Strong leaders effectively motivate followers to change given the particulars of a situation. Such leaders often have know-how related to the change event and are respected by the followers involved in it. They are crucial for gaining followers’ support and preference, meaning that followers give such leaders the benefit of the doubt when judging whether the leaders actually considered followers’ good before recommending and guiding change.
6. Key follower sponsorship
Depending on the size of your organization, the primary leader may need to secure the support of and then charge certain followers to become secondary leaders. The further removed the primary leader is from those immediately involved in the required changes, the more important it becomes to have leaders in closer proximity also actively supporting change. Distance creates uncertainty, which dissolves trust – a key resource leveraged by successful leaders. Leaders closer to the action should be better equipped to secure the necessary commitment. But, such leaders must have strong rapport with their followers, or their involvement will be counterproductive.
7. Clear implementation plan
If followers are persuaded but provided with no details of who is responsible for what tasks and outcomes, when such will take place, and how the effort should proceed, along with clearly defined lines of communication for decision-making and mechanisms for follower-feedback and readjustments midcourse, then they will likely become anxious, disengaged, and frustrated. The best plans generate follower ownership and elicit immediate action, having been co-developed with followers’ input from the beginning.
8. Enabled followers
Smooth change occurs when followers have power commensurate with their responsibility. Have you ever been tasked with a responsibility for which you were not equipped? Such inadequate empowerment results in follower stress. In the United States, stress leads to losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Leaders, therefore, need to support and champion their followers, providing them with the resources and organizational support to achieve reasonable outcomes. It is an unfair – and likely to be opposed – change effort which expects from followers what they are incapable of providing (not having access to reasonable resources, required authorizations, vital information, key contacts, etc.). Early adopters, properly empowered, can prove decisive as to whether change sticks or slips.
9. Communication, collaboration, and credibility
Socrates’ statement, “Speak, that I may know thee,” illustrates the important role of communication in manifesting intent. Followers look to leaders for direction and encouragement. Leaders must honor this relationship where they are yielded influence by providing reliability and demonstrating integrity in how they manage the change process – telling the truth even when it means conveying uncertainty as well as less-than-flattering news about the change process proceedings. Collaborating with key followers in communication efforts will help the truth permeate follower constituencies so that rumors are ineffective. Additionally, it will improve trust between followers and top leaders, as followers will hear confirming information from the secondary leaders. Leaders should embrace dialogue, especially when it permits them the opportunity to strengthen followers’ clarity about the organization’s mission.
By highlighting successes along the way in the change process, leaders can help cement positive attitudes about the change in followers’ minds. Some followers may be skeptical, but they will eventually support the change if they continually see their peers and leaders rewarded (financially, socially, emotionally, etc.) for positive engagement. Since development entails the idea of continuousness, reinforcement should not focus on the change specifics; rather, it should promote the culture recognizing the need for change and proactively engaging to strengthen the organization given environmental particulars.
Ultimately, leaders must think through their organization’s situation with humility, being open to correction and advice. In doing so, they will earn their followers’ trust and mitigate many concerns about what change means for their futures.
The change-management approach described above is akin to culture-management. The ability to successfully change an organization for greater effectiveness depends on the organization’s ethos – the thinking patterns of its people. Consider this: research shows the failure of change leaders to address this critical concern is listed as a major reason why 80% of corporate mergers and acquisitions fail. The unasked questions driving success or failure in change efforts are: Can we adapt, improve, innovate, and lead? If not, can we become an organization that does? The ten ingredients provided acknowledge this organizational need for leaders and followers who yoke themselves to the future, understanding the times and honoring the past by properly addressing present and future circumstances. In so doing, they create more collaborative environments where change processes produce fruit rather than thorns.
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About the author:
David Stehlik is an independent strategy consultant and in Regent University’s doctoral program in strategic leadership. He received his B.A. from Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, MI and MBA from the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, IN.
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 Aiken & Keller, 2008, p. 1
 Adapted from Jick & Peiperl, 2003, pp. 177-183
 Burke, 1990, par. 2.1.35
 Leibner, Mader, & Weiss, 2009, p. xv