The Delicate Nature of Change – Part I

I have been involved in a fair share of change initiatives Stop Doing What Doesn't Workthroughout my career: mergers, target acquisitions, restructurings, global culture programs, employee benefit harmonization. That’s a lot of change. You start to notice certain fundamental truths about people and change over time. Not the truths that are catalogued up front when your transition plans are shiny and new, and you gamely think that following a few prescribed steps can uncover the universal experiences people go through when their world is under siege. No, what I am talking about are those sticky truths that rest under the surface. The ones that can upend the best laid plans. The ones that are uncomfortable to admit. The ones that reveal whether or not the organization is ready to accept what is really happening.

In recent years, the focus in the consulting world has been on the softer aspects of change: factors like culture, engagement and transformational leadership. The idea is that if you focus on these in the right way, you create the best conditions for an organization to embrace change. But let’s not overlook the hard aspects. Boston Consulting Group, in the October 2005 edition of Harvard Business Review, outlined what they felt are the critical “hard measures” that create success or failure for change efforts: duration, commitment, integrity and effort.

Ultimately, whether or not the change will create the outcome you want – which is, in all honesty, the reason why you are making the change to begin with – has little to do with structure and measurement and effort, and everything to do with what’s under the surface. In other words, how much is the company willing to admit the uncomfortable truths about where it is right now?  The answer to this question is the key to determining if the change being proposed is the right one, and if the people who need to make it happen will believe in it.

I know this sounds ridiculously amorphous and touchy-feely. Guess what? Humans are not routinely reasonable creatures. Get a large enough group of them together and they can act with great force, which means that if you do not understand their underlying sentiments and environment, you will likely come up short.

This is what is meant by the delicate nature of change; the non-formulaic, subtle and overlooked aspects of a situation. Reminds me of the fable of an injured lion and the slave Androcles who removed the thorn in the beast’s paw. No one would get near enough to the lion to see what was wrong, yet this brave slave found the small, delicate and nagging source of the lion’s inability to function.

So, how can you spot the clues that could uncover these seemingly small, delicate and nagging truths that lie at the heart of an organization’s ability to fully accept change? Based on my experience, here are a few to look for:

  • The More Fist Banging, The Less Control: Be aware of multiple prior attempts to change and its current manifestation of “We’ve Got to Do It This Time or Else…” syndrome. I’ve seen this typically accompanied by a figurative fist-banging approach to change, which often means there is not much organizational will to do something different this time. There is often a story behind why the will is not there, a story that is important to understand.
  • The More Complexity, The Less Certainty: Simple is good. The more complex and intricate the structure or process you are trying to change, the greater the likelihood that no one has a clear handle on what they are changing. If you don’t really understand what you are changing, it’s nearly impossible to know if you’ve changed it properly.
  • The More Distance to the Future, The Less Knowledge of Today: Similar to the point above about complexity, look out for talk of a “golden future” that feels very far off. Often this is a sign that the organization is giving itself an extended timeline to figure itself out.

Look for these clues, either through observation or through smart questioning. They can tell you a great deal about an organization’s attitude to the change at hand. What to do with this knowledge? I’ll delve into that in my next post, “The Delicate Nature of Change – Part II.”

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