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Leading Change

Whether you lead from the top, lead from the middle or are a follower: change is inevitable and likely, due to the current economic climate, you will be already part of an organizational change or will be part of it in the next couple of months. Independent of your rank or function, here are some pointers.

In a recent discussion with one of our clients, a senior executive in the semiconductor industry regarding EnFeat’s engagement in a frontline reorganization, we talked about organizational changes both of us were involved in over the years. We counted and together we had been in over 27 organizational changes of which the majority happened in the last five to ten years, clearly suggesting that the pace of change is increasing. In this article, I like to share some of what we discussed.

The pressure of time

Centralize, decentralize, outsource, insource, unite, divide, acquire, sell off, adding people and removing layers. Like chess, the number of moves is limited but over time, combinations of moves create new and better positions. A discussion I often had with skeptical employees, who said they had seen it before. Time and timing plays a crucial role in organizational change and its success.

The trigger for change could be an external event, like an unexpected move of a competitor, general market conditions or a loss of market share. It could also be the failure to meet certain business targets or the realization – often by a fresh view of a newly joined manager or executive – that ‘things’ could be done better. The fact is that organizational change is in many cases a reaction; a ‘last minute’ move attempting to correct something under the pressure of time.

Organizational changes that were not successful

We easily agreed that this reactive behaviour combined with time pressure was a major cause of some of the mistakes made in unsuccessful change projects:
  • They failed to sufficiently communicate and involve: whether it was communication before, during or after, resistance to change was predictably down to employees not knowing why the change was needed, how it would affect them, what needed to be done and what was to be (further) expected, undermining the trust in, and support for the change.
  • There was a lack of sufficient coordination: time pressure also created unrealistic expectations and because of this, coordination with others suffered. Especially with those not directly related to the job or department resulting in consequential errors. This forced employees to fall back on what worked.
  • Improper delegation: frequently and under time pressure, the ones that initiated the change process decided to delegate it to others. Not only were they not on top of the change process, they also made mistakes with the choice of delegates.
  • Incentives were not in line with the change: because setting the incentive schemes was lengthy and complex process and affected everyone, the incentive scheme remained unchanged. This misalignment between incentive scheme and the intended organizational chance slowed down an effective implementation. 

And those who were

When we considered the organizational changes that were successful, we found that they had the following in common:
  • There was a conviction that the change was for the better: people in the successful projects believed that the change was an improvement, even if their leaders or managers failed to convince them. This belief helped them with their jobs and made it easier for them to mobilize other people.
  • There was little passive resistance: the natural reaction of most employees and leaders, when something outside their line of responsibilities or job scope triggers the change, is to stand by. A bystander, by not working on the change, is in fact resisting. In the successful change processes, people got pro-actively involved. Resulting in a faster execution and not only was this better for their company and their team; it also helped them with their career.
  • There was pro-active positive communication: independent of whether the involved people lead, executed or followed the change, there was a lot of communication, initiated by all involved. Not the negative gossip or rumors, but real constructive communication: persons in almost every position were doing effort in getting sufficient information that helped him to implement the change.
  • There was a strong follow up and through: the successful organizational changes did not end up in an undefined state or ended up back where they started. They all had a strong follow up and follow through, bringing for example key performance indicators, company values in line with the change, monitoring them for many months after the change. Both leaders and employees did effort to provide or get regular status updates.
  • There was a low fear factor: although in several of the organizational changes people lost their jobs, there was a sincere willingness to work on the change without the use of (counterproductive) sticks. Employees that actively and positively worked on the change were also much easier found jobs in the time leading to their leaving as they left a much more positive image of themselves with their current and their new company. 
At the end of the discussion, we reasoned that while leaders and the process play very important roles in organizational changes, mobilizing people to take personal responsibility determines the real long-term success rate. Besides that, we reckoned that the ability to lead change in oneself should be an attribute to look out for when selecting someone for a job, any job.

Final words: leading change

The pace of change is increasing and slowly becoming, and some will argue is, the norm. Organizational change processes affect many people and require good coordinated, communicated and planned effort to be truly successful. Everyone can contribute and how well you can lead change from the top, middle or for yourself is increasingly a must-have trait. A believe that change is good, a positive pro-active attitude and not being afraid for change, helps your business, team and career.
Take charge!

Jack van Mook
Managing Director, Principal Consultant
© 2011 EnFeat