One of the only constants for organisations is change. From the development of new products or services, to the overhaul of an organisation’s structure, change has become the new norm.
The intensity with which organisations face change has heightened over the past decade, with savvy organisations realising the need to extend beyond ‘traditional’ change management strategies to incorporate continual improvement throughout the organisation, as well as innovations in how to inspire, motivate, and engage employees. Yet, nearly 70% of change initiatives fail over time.
ORGANISATIONS ARE WILLING TO TACKLE CHANGE FROM 360 DEGREES, AND THEY’RE OPEN TO INNOVATION, SO WHY DOESN’T THIS REGULARLY TRANSLATE INTO SUCCESS?
Change requires far more than a simple blueprint. Effective change requires that organisational leaders develop a clear vision for their organisational culture and climate, a coherent set of human resource management practices that encourages and merits the best contributions that employees can give on an everyday basis, and continually adapting plans based on resistance and feedback— a top to bottom and bottom to top approach.
Too often, top leaders assume that if they develop and communicate a new set of core values—for example, teamwork, continual improvement, or respect for others—then those values automatically translate into the ‘right’ behaviours and actions by employees.
That is not the case. What is typically neglected is the power of human resources (HR) practices, which should be the starting point for implementing the organisation’s vision for change.
How people are managed, rewarded and developed (HR practices) send signals to employees about the behaviours and responses that are expected and valued within an organisation.
Cultural change in organisations should be signalled by changes to HR practices which, in turn, trigger a redefinition of what the organisation is like. The new set of HR practices—such as performance management, rewards, participation, work design, selection, and employment development—need to be considered together as a coherent system that reflects the core values of the organisation. For example, if service is considered important, everything from selection standards to staff development and rewards should reflect service—clearly and for all to see.
MATCH HR PRACTICES WITH ORGANISATIONAL GOALS
Just as important, is the way that the new set of HR practices is delivered. This should occur in a way that is highly visible, salient, and understandable to everyone in the organisation.
Yet there are often large gaps between the messages communicated by organisational leaders (in speeches, emails and announcements) and the actions and behaviours that are experienced in the everyday work lives of employees. Statements about organisational values need to be translated into a coherent set of HR practices, with leaders at all levels ‘walking the talk’ in order to facilitate change and maximise effectiveness.
LEADERS LEAD CHANGE
One of the most consistently touted tactics for implementing change is finding a coalition of powerful change champions—a relatively small group of 5-10 people with high-level titles, expertise, and reputations that serve as a guiding light for the initiative. While this group may increase over time, successful change transformation requires a strong commitment from coalition members, a willingness to openly and honestly discuss and assess the organisation’s problems and opportunities, a high level of trust, and a mover-and-shaker attitude to promote change throughout the organisation.
That is all well and good. But it misses something critical: front-line managers and supervisors are the culture and climate engineers for their unit. They are the ones who act in ways that consistently signal the organisation’s values and expected employee behaviours. Yet, new research shows that CEOs, HR directors, senior managers, and front-line managers each have very different views of the operating HR practices within their organisations. Worse, front-line managers’ reports of the HR practices in place in their own units, differs from their subordinates’ reports of those same practices. This mismatch happens even in organisations that are not undergoing large change. No change effort, no matter how carefully designed, will be effective unless front-line managers have a clear understanding of the vision, new practices, and need for change. A strongly delivered HR process, coupled with support from a powerful coalition—as well as message repetition—are key tools to get people on the same page.
FRONT-LINE MANAGERS AND SUPERVISORS ARE THE CULTURE AND CLIMATE ENGINEERS FOR THEIR UNIT.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
Marketers have long known that message repetition and variation are key to embedding a brand in people’s memories. Yet, the power of sending the same message repeatedly through a variety of sources is often overlooked in change initiatives. A single announcement of a new practice, whether it be through leaders or company communication mechanisms, isn’t enough to break down old habits and ways of thinking. Capitalising on message repetition through the signals sent by the HR practices, the change coalition, and front-line managers, in conjunction with regular communications, will enable change to be remembered and become embedded in people’s minds more quickly. It’s as if you are composing a new tempo for the organisation; it takes time and consistent practise to create a new harmony.
MANAGERS OFTEN BLAME RESISTANCE FOR FAILED CHANGE INITIATIVES.
READY, SET, CHANGE
Talk to employees about a major organisational change and you’re likely to hear a loud groan. Employees’ readiness for change is recognised as one of the most important factors for successful change initiatives. Employees need to believe the change is needed, feasible, desirable, and will lead to positive outcomes for themselves and for the organisation—or they won’t engage.
Creating a sense of urgency is an important first step. Top leaders need to communicate the reasons for change— whether they be industrial or technological trends, market position, competition, financial performance, improved client service, or sustainability—and communicate these broadly and dramatically. Those leaders who downplay the message for fear of ‘looking bad’ will find employees are not sufficiently motivated to change.
Just as importantly, employees will feel more ready for change when leaders can convince them that the organisation has the resources and operational capacity to support the change efforts across the organisation and at the employee level. Likewise, keeping a finger on the pulse of change to determine when employees are experiencing change fatigue and need a break, helps employees stay motivated and ready for the next phases of change. Organisations who fail to assess and create readiness for change often find their change initiatives are met with strong resistance and typically fail.
DON'T BLAME RESISTANCE, USE IT.
While these tactics can help reduce resistance to change, they won’t eliminate it. Managers often blame resistance for failed change initiatives. Yet, rather than blame resistance, look at it from a different perspective: as an important feedback mechanism for making improvements in the design and implementation of change. Critical questions and complaints by employees need not be interpreted as resistance, but as an opportunity to continuously communicate the urgency for change, the purpose for change, details of the change process, and the long-term benefits of the change. And sometimes, it might be best to take a critique as an opportunity to improve the design or process of change management. It’s all in the way you handle it.