Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Process of Managing Change

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Change is hard. I've had the opportunity to lead several programs that brought significant change into an organization, and these efforts have taught me a healthy respect for the challenges (and blessings) associated with organizational change. I've also learned from these experiences that there are some basic truths that should be remembered (I highlighted a collection of these principles in 10 Principles of Change Management) to set our change programs on solid footing. Building on that solid foundation, we can significantly improve our performance in establishing and sustaining meaningful organizational change by leveraging a structured methodology such as the work put forth by John Kotter in 1996 in Leading Change. He followed up this work with The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations which brilliantly emphasizes the human/emotional aspect of the methodology. This book has become the corner stone of many successful change practices.

I find the topic of Change Management more relevant than ever in today's corporate climate. It's been my recent experience that bigger leaps - bigger strategic bets - are required in organizational performance. Gradual and organic improvement is frequently not sufficient if we're to remain competitive. Indeed, a company's survival can depend on an ability to take big leaps in organizational capabilities or in bringing significant new products to market. This reminds me of the following quote shared recently by a very dear friend:

"King Saul thought Goliath was too big to fight, David thought he was too big to miss."
We need more Davids.

The change management discipline doesn't apply only to large-scale organizational change. Even on average software development projects where one of the roles of the Architect (see What is A Software Architect? and Most Important Competencies of the Software Architect) is to lead the creation of an architecture and then champion that solution among the stakeholders, we're well served by taking these important concepts into account.

The following offers a high-level overview of Kotter's change methodology. Experience suggests that trying to save time and effort by bypassing any of these eight steps will inevitably lead to even greater effort and frustration as change stalls and results become elusive. I highly recommend you master this material.

The Eight Stages of Successful Change
  1. Increase urgency - People start telling each other, “let’s go, we need to change things!”
  2. Build the guiding team - A group powerful enough to guide a big change is formed and they start to work together well.
  3. Get the vision right - The guiding team develops the right vision and strategy for the change effort.
  4. Communicate for buy-in - People begin to buy into the change, and this shows in their behavior
  5. Empower action - More people feel able to act, and do act, on the vision
  6. Create short-term wins - Momentum builds as people try to fulfill the vision, while fewer and fewer resist change.
  7. Don’t let up - People make wave after wave of changes until the vision is fulfilled.
  8. Make change stick - New and winning behavior continues despite the pull of tradition, turnover of change leaders, etc.
Step 1 – Increase Urgency
Raise a feeling of urgency so that people say “let’s go,” making a change effort well positioned for launch. Go after the emotions with concrete and almost smell-able evidence, not just the abstractions so favored by the rational mind.

What Works
  • Showing others the need for change with an object that they can actually see, touch and feel.
  • Showing people valid and dramatic evidence from outside the organization that demonstrates that change is required.
  • Looking constantly for cheap and easy ways to reduce complacency.
  • Never underestimating how much complacency, fear and anger exists, even in good organizations.
What Does Not Work
  • Focusing exclusively on building a “rational” business case, getting top management approval, and racing ahead while mostly ignoring all the feelings that are blocking change.
  • Ignoring a lack of urgency and jumping immediately to creating a vision and strategy.
  • Believing that without a crisis or burning platform you can go nowhere.
  • Thinking that you can do little if you’re not the head person.
Step 2 – Building the Guiding Team
Help form a group that has the capability – in membership and method of operating – to guide a very difficult change process.

What Works
  • Showing enthusiasm and commitment (or helping someone do so) to help draw the right people into the group.
  • Modeling the trust and teamwork needed in the group (or helping someone to do that).
  • Structuring meeting formats for the guiding team so as to minimize frustration and increase trust.
  • Putting your energy into step 1 (raising urgency) if you cannot take on the step 2 challenge and if the right people will not.
What Does Not Work
  • Guiding change with weak task forces, single individuals, complex governance structures, or fragmented top teams.
  • Not confronting the situation when momentum and entrenched power centers undermine the creation of the right group.
  • Trying to leave out or work around the head of the unit to be changed because he or she is “hopeless”.

Step 3 – Get the Vision Right
Create the right vision and strategies to guide action in all of the remaining stages of change.

What Works
  • Trying to see – literally – possible futures.
  • Visions that are so clear that they can be articulated in one minute or written up on one page.
  • Visions that are moving – such as a commitment to serving people.
  • Strategies that are bold enough to make bold visions a reality.
  • Paying careful attention to the strategic question of how quickly to introduce change.

What Does Not Work
  • Assuming that linear or logical plans and budgets alone adequately guide behavior when you’re trying to leap into the future.
  • Overly analytic, financially based vision exercises.
  • Visions of slashing costs, which can be emotionally depressing and anxiety creating.
  • Giving people fifty-four logical reasons why they need to create strategies that are bolder than they have ever created before.

Step 4 – Communicate for Buy-In
Communicate change visions and strategies effectively so as to create both understanding and a gut-level buy-in.

What Works
  • Keeping communication simple and heartfelt, not complex and technocratic.
  • Doing your homework before communicating, especially to understand what people are feeling.
  • Speaking to anxieties, confusion, anger, and distrust.
  • Ridding communication channels of junk so that important messages can get through.
  • Using new technologies to help people see the vision (intranet, satellites, etc.).
What Does Not Work
  • Under communicating, which happens all the time.
  • Speaking as though you are only transferring information.
  • Accidentally fostering cynicism by not walking the talk.

Step 5 – Empower Action
Deal effectively with obstacles that block action, especially disempowering bosses, lack of information, the wrong performance measurement and reward systems, and lack of self-confidence.

What Works
  • Finding individuals with change experience who can bolster people’s self-confidence with we-won-you-can-too anecdotes.
  • Recognition and reward systems that inspire, promote optimism, and build self-confidence.
  • Feedback that can help people make better vision-related decisions.
  • “Retooling” disempowering managers by giving them new jobs that clearly show the need for change.

What Does Not Work
  • Ignoring bosses who seriously disempower their subordinates.
  • Solving the boss problem by taking away their power (making them mad and scared) and giving it to their subordinates.
  • Trying to remove all the barriers at once.
  • Giving in to your own pessimism and fears.

Step 6 – Create Short-Term Wins
Produce sufficient short-term wins, sufficiently fast, to energize the change helpers, enlighten the pessimists, defuse the cynics, and build momentum for the effort.

What Works
  • Early wins that come fast.
  • Wins that are as visible as possible to as many people as possible.
  • Wins that penetrate emotional defenses by being unambiguous.
  • Wins that are meaningful to others – the more deeply meaningful the better.
  • Early wins that speak to powerful players whose support you need and do not yet have.
  • Wins that can be achieved cheaply and easily, even if they seem small compared with the grand vision.

What Does Not Work
  • Launching fifty projects all at once.
  • Providing the first win too slowly.
  • Stretching the truth.

Step 7 – Don’t Let Up
Continue with wave after wave of change, not stopping until the vision is a reality, despite seemingly intractable problems.

What Works
  • Aggressively ridding yourself of work that wears you down – tasks that were relevant in the past but not now, tasks that can be delegated.
  • Looking constantly for ways to keep urgency up.
  • Using new situations opportunistically (as in “The Street”) to launch the next wave of change.
  • As always – show ‘em, show ‘em, show ‘em.
What Does Not Work
  • Developing a rigid four-year plan (be more opportunistic).
  • Convincing yourself that you’re done when you aren’t.
  • Convincing yourself that you can get the job done without confronting some of the more embedded bureaucratic and political behaviors.
  • Working so hard you physically and emotionally collapse (or sacrifice your off-the-job life).

Step 8 – Make Change Stick
Be sure the changes are embedded in the very culture of the enterprise so that the new way of operating will stick.

What Works
  • Not stopping at step 7 – it isn’t over until the changes have roots.
  • Using new employee orientation to compellingly show recruits what the organization really cares about.
  • Using the promotions process to place people who act according to the new norms into influential and visible positions.
  • Telling vivid stories over and over about the new organization, what it does, and why it succeeds.
  • Making absolutely sure you have the continuity of behavior and results that help a new culture grow.

What Does Not Work
  • Relying on a boss or a compensation scheme, or anything but culture, to hold a big change in place.
  • Trying to change culture as the first step in the transformation process.


Bill Little said...

I thought this was a terrific blog post. Too often we want change but don't focus on the implementation of the change. We are so enamored by the end that we forget the sausage in the middle.

Brian Sondergaard said...

Thanks, Bill. Glad you got something out of it. I've found these principles and tactics to be immensely valuable. Of course, it takes a ton of effort and time, so it's always tempting to try to cut corners. Experience suggests, however, that deliberate change management pays you back in reduced effort, shorter time to change, and more "stickiness" in the change. Maybe trying to bypass the effort of managing change is sort of like trying to avoid paying your taxes. You always pay in the end... plus interest and penalties.