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Leading People Through Large Scale Change Published: Monday, October 5, 2009 6:00 am By: Ramon L. Rivera, President & CEO

An organizational transformation is characterized by scale-it affects all or most members of the organization; by magnitude-it involves significant alterations from the status quo; by duration-the change program lasts for months if not years; and by its strategic importance. Yet companies will reap the rewards only when change occurs at the level of the individual employee.

For twenty years QBS has partnered with hundreds of companies to plan and execute transformational change. We have developed a unique perspective on managing the human side of change. No single methodology fits every company, but a set of practices, tools, and techniques can be adapted to a variety of situations. With these as a systematic, holistic frame- work, we can help executives understand what to expect, how to manage their own personal change and how to engage the entire organization in the process. What follows is our Top Ten list of guiding principles for transformational change.

1) Address the human side of change systematically: Any transformation of significance is about changing the way people perceive, think and behave. New leaders will be asked to step up, jobs will be changed, new skills and capabilities must be developed, and people will be uncertain. Dealing with these issues on a reactive, case-by-case basis puts speed, morale, and results at risk. A disciplined approach to change management must be one of the main pillars of any transformation approach.

2) Change starts at the top and begins on day one: Change is inherently unsettling for people at all levels of an organization, and when it is on the horizon all eyes will turn to the leadership team for strength, support, and direction. The leadership must change first to challenge and motivate the rest of the institution, speaking with one voice and "walking the talk" to model desired behavior. At the same time, individual executive team members are going through their own personal changes and need to be supported so that they can be in agreement with their executive team members.

3) Real change happens at the bottom: As a transformation process progresses through strategy/target setting, design, and implementation, it affects different levels of the organization. Change efforts must include plans for identifying leaders and pushing responsibility for design and implementation down through the organization.

4) Confront reality, demonstrate faith, and craft a vision: Individuals are inherently rational and will question to what extent change is needed, whether the company is headed in the right direction, and whether they want to personally commit to making change happen. They will look to the leadership for answers. Articulating a formal case for change and creating a written vision statement are invaluable opportunities to create (or force) leadership team alignment. Leaders must then customize this message for various internal audiences, describing the pending change in terms that matter to the individual by mean of:

  • Confronting reality and articulating a compelling need for change
  • Demonstrating faith that the company has a viable future and the leadership to get there
  • Providing a roadmap to guide behavior and decision-making

5) Create ownership, not just buy-in: Large change requires a distributed leadership that has broad influence over decisions both visible and invisible to the senior team. Change leaders must over-perform during the transformation and be the zealots that create critical mass for change in the workforce. This requires more than mere buy-in or passive agreement that the direction of change is acceptable. It demands ownership by leaders willing to accept responsibility for making change happen in all of the areas they influence or control.

6) Practice targeted over-communication: The best- laid plans are only as good as the institution's ability to understand, adopt, and act on them. Too often, change leaders make the mistake of believing that others understand the issues, feel the need to change, and see the new direction as clearly as they do. The best change programs reinforce core messages through regular, timely advice that is both inspirational and actionable. Communication is both outbound and inbound.

7) Explicitly address culture and attack the cultural center: Company culture is an amalgam of shared history, explicit values and beliefs, and common attitudes and behaviors. Culture should be addressed as thoroughly as any other area. This requires developing a baseline through a cultural/organizational diagnostic, defining an explicit end-state or desired culture, and devising detailed plans to make the transition.

8) Assess the cultural landscape early: Successful change programs pick up speed and intensity as they cascade down, making it critically important to understand and account for culture and behaviors at each level of the organization. Thorough cultural diagnostics can assess organizational readiness to change, bring major issues to the surface, and identify cultural factors that will support or inhibit change, and target sources of leadership and resistance.

9) Prepare for the unexpected: No change program has gone completely according to script. People will react in unexpected ways, areas of anticipated resistance will fall away, and the external environment will shift. Effectively managing change requires constantly reassessing the impact of change efforts and the organization's willingness and ability to adopt the next wave of transformation.

10) Speak to the individual as well as to the institution: Change is a personal journey as well as an institutional one. It truly does happen one person and one team at a time. Individuals (or teams of individuals) need to know how their work will change, what is expected of them during and after the change program, how they will be measured, and what success or failure will mean for them. Be honest and as explicit as possible.

Most leaders contemplating change know that people matter. It is all too tempting, however, to dwell on the plans and processes, which don't talk back and don't respond emotionally, than to face up to the more difficult, and more critical, human issues. These guidelines should help dispel some of the mystery of successfully mastering the people side of change.

Copyright 2009 QBS, Inc.
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