Organizational Change Management Strategies
For some organizations, technology, society, economics and politics have changed their operating environment at a pace that has been difficult to keep up with. The world is changing the face of markets and financial conventions, with major implications for political and economic systems. The worldwide web, integrated computer systems and robotics are just a few of the innovations that have made enormous differences to the way in which businesses and services can and do operate. In addition, we have seen a significant shift in the way that we work (and even where we work), the way we are educated and even the way that we often now progress our careers (which may now involve several very different job roles and in many different organizations).
For many, all of this change is very threatening because people and the organizations of which they are a part have to be fit to deal with change on an on-going basis as never before.
So what is organizational change?
At its most fundamental level, organizational change is any substantial shift in the way in which a given organization operates or functions. Of course change can be relatively small in scale (such as a straight-forward computerization of a previously manual process) or it can be large in scale (such as the merger of two sets of people and/or systems following a major merger or acquisition). In both small and large scale change however, often the best way to manage the transition or to have a deliberate “change management” approach.
What is change management?
As regulatory pressures, increasing customer demands and competitive forces impact organizations on a worldwide basis, change is becoming the norm rather than the exception. It is therefore becoming increasingly important for leaders at all levels to act not only in their traditional roles as supervisors and managers, but also as transitional leaders or leaders who deploy a specific change management strategy whenever necessary. This is a role that focuses on guiding people through the changes inherent in all kinds of teams, departments and whole organizations today. We therefore need to spend a little time in both defining the term “managing change” talking about the overall tasks that are involved in managing organizational change.
The task of managing change
Managing change is itself a term that has at least two meanings. One meaning of managing change refers to the making of changes in a planned and managed or systematic fashion. The aim is to more effectively implement new methods and systems in an ongoing organization. The changes to be managed lie within and are controlled by the organization. Perhaps the most familiar instance of this kind of change is the change or “version control” aspect of information system development projects. However, these internal changes might have been triggered by events originating outside the organization, in what is usually termed “the external environment.” Hence, the second meaning of managing change, which is the response to changes over which the organization exercises little or no control (e.g., legislation, social and political upheaval, the actions of competitors, shifting economic tides and currents, and so on). Change management researchers and practitioners alike typically distinguish between a “knee-jerk” or reactive response and an anticipative or proactive response.
So, what is the organizational change process?
There is a simple cycle that will help you identify where organizational change seems to be needed and plan its introduction (establish where we are now), set a vision for the future and implement (establish where we are going and how we get there) and just to make sure that we have learned from our experience, review the success of our efforts. Being a natural cycle the process typically goes around again and again, continuously of course. Let’s look at these steps in the cycle in a little more detail.
1. Establish: Where are we now?
The first stage in the cycle is to identify “where you are now”. You may feel that this is pretty simple: just list what we do, how we do it and where it fits in and that part of the process is done. However, this is not the end of the story. If think about the analogy of a tree, what you see at first glance are the leaves, branches and at appropriate times, flowers and berries. However, below the surface is another set of structures that holds the visible parts down and gives them their foundation. There is a deep-rooted, hidden side of the tree and this applies just as much when thinking about organizational change too.
What you will see in a team or a department or even a whole organization is the outward and obvious part of the reality. Tasks, equipment, work flow and procedures are clearly visible, as are the structures between jobs, the connecting “lines” between inputs and outputs. These things are typically managed in a very active way and are discussed regularly by managers. What you will not see are the values, the culture and the operating norms of individual work groups. You will also not see the informal relationships or the loyalties that may exist between people and unless you take a “sideways” look, you may well miss the real motivating factors that affect performance and thereby potentially inhibit or accelerate a future change or transition.
2. Establish: Where are we going?
How would you start to identify where you should be and where you are going to better cope in the future (again as an individual, a team or a whole organization) and criteria would you possible use to measure how big the gap is likely to be? Whatever you decide, your change management strategies have to be achievable, measurable and specific. In other words, you need to set very clear objectives. A simple and practical way of setting objectives about where you are going is to use the following:
- What, specifically, is the outcome we want?
- By when?
- How will we know when we have got there?
3. Establish: How do we get there?
Your overall plan in the previous step is an overall organizational change strategy or describes the broad intentions for getting to where in the future you may want to be. However, “what” needs to change is only one part of the equation and you now need to add “how” the change is to be carried out. How we get to the future is the “means” of getting you there or the tactics that underpin the overall change strategy. The simple task here therefore is to put the “flesh on the bones” of you overall change plan and describe each step and milestone along the way very carefully.
4. Review success
In this final step in the cycle, we look back at the plan we originally established and its actual implementation and determine where better strategies could have been employed, so that this can be taken into account next time a major change comes along.
There are many change management tools and change planning techniques available to managers, including sophisticated processes such as Critical Path Analysis, using Gantt or PERT charts or networks. However, there are some common factors that apply whichever techniques you use. The most important and most difficult factor relates to the impact of change on individuals and on the emotional well-being of the people. It is fundamental to effective organizational change management that people experience the absolute minimum trauma and distress. This is not just so that you seem to be a caring boss or executive team; it is effective management that works towards change with minimal disruption to systems and output. Two other key points to consider are:
- Involve other people so they can help plan the journey, see what the issues are and share ownership of the process
- If you can’t involve them all, communicate as you have never done before, to avoid speculation and rumor, and to raise overall levels of cooperation and commitment.
If people are with you in the planning, they are more likely to support you in the implementation and monitoring.
Determining the right organizational change strategy
Once we are clear about the nature of the change that we are about to face, it is always tempting to rush out and take action, just to get things moving. Whilst we shouldn’t stifle our enthusiasm to deal with it, it is also critical to ensure that our efforts are as focused as possible.
In order to choose the most appropriate change strategy you need to consider where you are starting out from in terms of a range of factors including:
- Your present position: What is the current state or situation as we understand it?
- Available resources: Have we got enough resources to cope for as long as necessary?
- Time available: Some organizations fail to factor in the degree of change already under way when planning the timing of another significant change.
- Personal preference: Some changes may not fit the expectations, abilities needs, wants and desires of existing employees, suppliers or customers.
Of course, it is of no surprise that the above headings are exactly the same in both very basic and highly complex change situations. By considering these issues carefully, we can quite accurately assess the need for change and the relative effort that it is likely to entail. Those people involving in change management consulting suggest that to adequately assess the current situation (across all of the above headings), the very first step should be to focus on two key actions:
A) Specifically and accurately describe the situation to be changed
B) Look for possible personal, team and organizational “blind spots”
A) Accurately describing the situation to be changed
This typically involves the development of a comprehensive description of the organization, systems or processes and individuals involved in the change. It should address such questions as:
- What is our organization all about now and in the foreseeable future (despite the change)?
- What are our markets, products and services and how might they be affected by the change?
- How will we deliver our outputs in terms of structure, operations, infrastructure, people etc?
- What type of culture do we have now and what might it become after the change?
- What style of management, supervision and leadership should we adopt?
- What skills and competencies do we have now and what might we need?
In all aspects of our description, we need to identify “deficiencies” as well as “opportunities” that are likely to arise as a result of the change:
- Deficiencies are those issues that prevent us from adapting as well as we might.
- Opportunities are the things which have the potential to help us to handle the change well – e.g. unused strengths, under-utilized potential, under-capitalized resources (human or otherwise).
B) Look for possible blind spots
Looking for potential “blind spots” involves challenging existing assumptions about the way things currently operate or exist today in order to uncover blind spots and develop new perspectives. Questions which help in this regard are:
- What’s really going on here (at a factual level)?
- What are our existing organizational paradigms or sacred cows that we should challenge?
- What might we be overlooking or paying too little attention to?
- Are we being dishonest with ourselves in any way?
- What might we be avoiding or not talking about enough?
- What are we not facing up to in terms of possible obstacles, challenges or issues?
Often the people that we perceive to be resistors to change (or even our own personal resistance) can help us to identify these things. Our challenge is to be prepared to listen to people and pay attention to any other things may not be quite as we would prefer to see them.
Both of these actions will help to give individuals and the organization a better capacity to handle the organizational change that we face. It does this by helping us to think about the responses and inputs to our most challenging questions. These often give us a new “context” for why the change might be happening, how it might be better managed and why it is important for us to deal with specific change related issues as willingly and positively as we can.
We should remember, of course, that not everything that affects the way individuals and groups operate is expressed openly. To truly understand the context of change, we also need to explore the things which lurk in the shadows of organizations. Typically there is a fundamental level of “messiness” associated with life in complex organizations. This condition is exacerbated during processes of change. While some things are clear, obvious and easy to manage, there are others which are more elusive, and even contradictory. These are the things that have a tendency to push and pull us in different directions.
To some extent, looking at change in organizations is a little bit like looking at the moon. In each case there is an overt or light side which is known and clearly visible to us. Then there is a covert or shadow side that we know exists even though we cannot see it from where we are standing. In the context of change, we have simply suggested that coherent change management strategies can and should be developed which take the whole picture into account as much as possible. And, this investment in change planning will make the change easier to handle for all concerned.