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Written by: Dr. Kanwaljit K. Chaudhry, CPHR
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” - R. Buckminster Fuller
Organizations change mainly because of external factors rather than internal desire. Among the major drivers for change are performance gaps, new market scenario, new technology, change in economic policies or at times purely, crisis. These changes may be large-scale changes or modest changes; radical or slow. Whatever be the reason, magnitude or pace of change, change is important for any organization. Without change, they would lose their competitive edge and become redundant. Able organizations are those that continue to change with the changing dynamics. Here I share with you some lessons that my experience has taught me and also what I learnt from others.
Few people remember the turnaround of British Airways from government ownership to private ownership. Unable to get continued government subsidies, the carrier had to look at ways to be profitable. Some of the steps they took included downsizing, redefining the business and change in top management. CEO, Sir Colin Marshall’s vision and clear understanding of the organization’s culture need and steady handed leadership, turned around the airlines on road to profit (Goodstein, L.D., & Burke, W.W.). Focusing on specific change targets critical to success such as roles and responsibilities, and clarity of purpose, are essential for success of reengineering efforts.
Brining everyone on the same platform
Sometimes, especially in organizations where departments work as silos, change can be even harder. In such organizations it becomes imperative for everyone to arrive at a common picture, internal and external. This is where large group intervention processes may be a success. Getting everyone involved may take more time to plan and conduct the change, but once in place, the implementation happens much more effectively.
Get the right people
In early 1980s International Harvester nearly went bankrupt, requiring immediate actions. It negotiated restructuring of its debt and focused on reducing operating costs. However, Archie McCardell’s sole focus on cost cutting isolated the employees which led to a six-month strike. The company brought in Don Lennox, a leader with global perspective on the company’s situation. Lennox commissioned a study of the company’s policies, practices and culture to determine to what extent these factors would be a hindrance to turnaround efforts. The study revealed the hierarchical style and bureaucratic management would stifle the turnaround efforts unless dealt with. (Pacton, G. W.). The firm undertook the much-needed short-term and long-term organizational development measures to steer it on the profitable path.
Believe in employees’ goodwill
One of the measures International Harvester took was downsizing, with employee strength coming down from 95,000 to 13,000. The company provided help to every displaced worker. This help came in many ways ranging from severance packages to job search assistance, relocation financial assistance to retraining services. The company spent a total of $5.2 million to aid displaced workers. The employees want to be successful; they want the company to be successful. Helping displaced workers ensures not only less complaints and problems for the company; it also helps create the much-needed goodwill.
Participation in a change initiative improves the success factor. It is an effective motivation tool. When employees become a part of decision making process, the decisions become their own. When they have ownership over what they help create, there are less conflicts and stress. It is not necessary that you formalize or institutionalize employee participation. Even informal participation goes a long way in generating great results. As long as employees have more responsibility in decision making and more autonomy in work, it helps produce positive results. This is not to say that the management does not need to play their part in making comprehensive and effective decisions. Participation gives employees the legitimacy to discuss organizational issues and problems and provides a setting for decision making (Tjosvold, D.).
Empowering teams is much more than giving them the tools they need and getting out of their way. The team leader needs to bring up the team to the level where their skills can work cohesively and give them freedom and discretion. He needs to highlight their success as well as help learn from their mistakes. As a team leader you will need to coach and counsel your team. While you yell at your team, hugging your team is also needed at times. It is both on the leader to have courage on the teams’ skills and let them go; and the team to embrace the freedom and live up to the accountability.
Don’t overlook training
I once happened to witness an organization’s transformation project. The external forces necessitated changing the institutions’ work structure from somewhat bureaucratic to more participative. Some major changes were brought in their structure which helped bring in credibility and inspired some innovation. But they soon realized the managers were finding it difficult to adapt to the new system and live up to the expectations of making innovative and strategic decisions. The institution realized they needed to give the managers the skills to do what was needed to make the transformation a success. The lesson here – don’t assume they have what it takes. Make training and education a part of your transformation process at all levels.
Even when imperfect, persevere
No change will be perfect. There will always be people who would be willing to derail the whole initiative. It is human nature to resist change. But as change agents, leaders need to be able to distinguish between legitimate and false criticism. Keep your sight fixed on the transformation goals and “build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”.
- Goodstein, L.D., & Burke, W.W. (2006). Creating Successful Organization Change
- Pacton, G. W., (2006), Are organizational development interventions appropriate in turnaround situations
- Tjosvold, D. (1987), Participation - A Close Look at its Dynamics; Journal of Management
Dr. Kanwaljit Kaur is a CPHR and a Certified Environmental Professional (EP) specializing in training and development. She works as Director, Capacity Building Programs with Ketek Group Inc., and serves as a member of the Environmental Advisory Committee, City of Edmonton. Connect with her on LinkedIn (http://ca.linkedin.com/in/drkanwaljit).