I have a genuine treat for everyone this week in my fifth of the series of “Conversations With A Change Management Executive” in that I got to spend some time on a recent road trip to Montreal, with Andy Prince, President of Watershed CI, who is also a very accomplished Change Management leader. Now that isn’t to suggest that Andy’s far too busy to speak with anyone; on the contrary, you’ll find him extremely approachable, and he loves spending time with customers. So when I invited him to accompany me on my meeting with the executive of a very large enterprise client in Montreal, he jumped at the chance.
When I flew in that morning, Andy picked me up at the airport, having driven up from Pennsylvania the night before. The plan was to spend the day together meeting clients and partners, and then drive back to Toronto late that same afternoon.
Of course, this was a perfect opportunity to ask Andy some of the questions I’d previously put to some of our other key people, and I think that if you’ve been following this series of conversations, you’ll see, as I did, that we have a very well-aligned team of Change Executives onboard, up to and including our executive leadership.
PGG: So Andy, I hope you don’t mind but I want to compare notes with some of the others in our company and I’d really like to know from your perspective: why do organizations tend to resist change?
AP: I’m not sure that they do, at least organizations themselves don’t resist change. I also have to say that the number of times in my career where I’ve been involved with employees who actively resist change, are pretty limited too. The term ‘resist’ has this subversive activist connotation to it that is generally not associated with the challenges people have with change at work. You may find some of your employees are out there marching, protesting and resisting some political change on a weekend, but I’ve yet to see that when a company implements a new ERP, relocates an office or changes some policies. The kind of work-related change where serious resistance occurs is typically catastrophic change, which results in a mass loss of employment and you see a reaction from trade unions. That kind of change is thankfully not typical.
It is, however, a fact that individuals will have a hard time with some change at work, and that can have a negative impact on their performance. We should change the language on this issue and instead of ‘resist’ change, we should just tell it like it is, individuals can find it difficult to adapt to change. I find that what gets perceived as ‘organizational resistance’ to change is usually a leadership issue and is the manifestation of one or more influential leaders having their own challenges adapting to the change. If the movers-and-shakers in an organization can’t accept that a change is necessary, or feel really uncomfortable with it, then you can absolutely guarantee that will permeate through all levels of the organization – then it sure as heck looks like the organization is resisting change.
This is why, when looking at change from an organizational perspective, there has to be a lot of focus on leadership alignment; in fact, for me, it’s the single most important aspect. There’s nothing too complicated about the approach to addressing needs in this area either; start at the top of the pyramid – do as John Kotter suggests and build your coalition for change – and then work your way down the hierarchy. We have ‘trickle down economics’; well think of ‘trickle down change-a-nomics’, get the people at the top comfortable first, then they’ll be more willing and better able to share their comfort and acceptance of the change with their direct reports and so on. Some organizational change management approaches have over focused, in my opinion, on frontline employees and addressing their needs during large-scale change. Whilst that audience is super important, they shouldn’t always be the immediate or main focus – start at the top and then work your way down.
PGG: I guess the fact that we’re in the car for four hours, I should expect that your answers are all going to be as thorough as that. But all kidding aside, I do like how you covered that off, and I already see some similarities in thinking among the team on this point. Just recently I’ve witnessed some trepidation among a group of executive that has been charged with managing the change initiative for their organization, and a burning questions that comes up is: how do you sell change to an organization? Can you offer me your take on that question?
AP: You don’t. If you’re selling change management to an organization’s decision makers then, nine times out of ten, you have probably already lost the battle. People either get it and want it, or they don’t. If they don’t get it then no amount of selling is going to make the difference, they need to experience it and learn.
I’ve never had a conversation with a senior executive where I’ve asked the question ‘do you care about bringing your employees along for the ride on this change’ and they’ve answered ‘no’. Everyone always says that they care. The challenge is whether they really understand the likely behaviours people will exhibit, what the impacts of those behaviours will be, and will then accept it’s worth investing time, effort and money into addressing those behaviours so that they lead to the best possible business outcome. I can’t sell you into believing that this is something you can and should influence for the better; most likely you need to experience it going wrong and come to the realization that it could have been handled more effectively – at that point you’re ready for help and we can provide it.
I mean, sure we can sell change management on the benefits and point to evidence where it’s made a difference but really, if the client leadership is just going to pay it lip service, we aren’t going to be successful and we’re just taking your money for the sake of ticking a box on a program plan at that point. Frankly, I want to work with organizations whose leaders get it because with that starting point my team has a chance of making a real difference to the employees in that company. Organizations whose leaders don’t get it are likely going to spend a lot of money, see sub-par results and have their negative beliefs about change management reinforced.
Successfully influencing people’s behaviours when faced with big change in the workplace requires serious leadership commitment. It’s totally understandable if leaders don’t know ‘what’ to do with respect to supporting their employees through change. It’s an exercise in frustration and wastefulness working with people who don’t really ‘want’ to give it their time and commitment. Leaders must walk-the-walk on change for it to be truly effective. Every successful change initiative I have ever worked on has been carried by engaged leaders. There might be a few consultants or experts in the background helping with process, tips and tactics, but successful change always comes back to leaders in the company walking-the-walk and you just can’t sell that to people; they must want to do it and then we can show them how.
PGG: I like that answer Andy, as it aligns comfortably with one of our primary tag lines here at Watershed CI, Change isn’t managed; it’s inspired. I agree, it’s an experiential event that needs to take place and, above all else, senior executives need to have bought in and represent the correct example to follow. Now I know this is an equally loaded question but: how do you ensure that all stakeholders are informed at each step of the change management process?
AP: My brother and I have always been close; we’re a couple of years apart in age but we’ve always been best friends and our careers have developed down different but often parallel tracks. So, throughout life we’ve always turned to each other to discuss how to handle difficult or contentious situations such as:
How are we going to corral our crazy and dysfunctional family?
How do we run a business together?
Hey, I’m moving to Canada, how do I tell mum?!
As we’ve grown in our careers, increasingly we’ve discussed questions like ‘How do you handle changing things at work and still bring your team along with you?’.
We’d probably discussed questions such as these a thousand times before I’d ever heard of the term ‘change management’ and we always came back to one simple answer “communicate, communicate, communicate”. If your aim is to make sure everyone is on the same page with respect to a significant change then the chances of you ever over communicating are vanishingly small in my experience. Also, in my experience the old adage about telling someone a fact seven times before it sticks, is true often enough to not just be a myth (look up effective frequency, it’s definitely not a myth!).
So, what all this means in practical terms is that to effectively ‘communicate, communicate, communicate’ to your stakeholders, a couple of tools need to be pulled out of the practitioner’s toolbox. Namely, stakeholder analysis and communications planning. I have to stress at this point that every hour spent up front understanding your stakeholders is going to save you eight hours of heartache, corrective action or managing challenges later. You simply cannot underestimate the importance of proper stakeholder analysis because it will feed your approach on lots of your change effort and particularly communications planning. Once you understand your stakeholders it’s about selecting the right balance of communications channels, push versus pull, lean versus rich and different media.
I really find that the use of diverse media helps enormously to get messages across; we’re well past the days where we had to rely on word of mouth or the written word. I’d always advise people to be creative – make videos, do podcasts, interview key influencers and publish the interview etc. Use all the technology and channels available to you, appropriately aligned with your stakeholder group’s needs. Once you’ve got a good plan based on solid analysis and some creative flair then you can manage its delivery rigorously – with one final caveat, your stakeholder’s views and concerns will change throughout the project. You can’t do a stakeholder analysis once and then think the effort is done, you need to reassess on a regular basis and be flexible enough to incorporate new findings into your plans. That means your communications plan will also be a living document, which will change before you’re done. There’s a real trap to be avoided in thinking that you can put together a communications plan at the start of a project and just blindly execute it, some informed flexibility is needed.
Finally, despite my evangelizing about diverse media, there is one tactic which never fails from a communications perspective – authentic conversations. The more often you can get leaders, influencers and decision makers to have real down to earth conversations with your stakeholders, the more successful your change effort will be, period. I’m not talking town halls, roadshows, presentations and stuff here. I am talking about getting that project sponsor to spontaneously pop into team meetings, to walk the floor and perch on people’s desks, to turn up to social events – to invest time in the seemingly casual communications. Do this because it resonates, it connects people, it directly assuages fears and it personalizes the change impact. Seriously, if you’re an executive who’s organization is going through significant change, you and your immediate team need to carve out as much dedicated time as you can reasonably manage to have authentic conversations with impacted stakeholders – you’ll thank yourself for doing it afterwards.
In short, communicate, communicate, communicate!
PGG: Personally, I think that’s a great answer. Wasn’t quite sure we were headed in the right direction when you started, but definitely a very solid and well placed response that I’m positive many of our readers will appreciate you having gone to great lengths to make it clear. Okay, I know we still have some serious mileage to cover but I promise not to bore you to tears with anymore than this last question. Part of my daily conversations with clients is around us being transparent in our business relationship with each other. I’m of the mind, and I stand to be corrected, that nowhere does being transparent belong more seriously than in a change initiative: How do you ensure that a change is transparent across an organization?
AP: Transparency is a great term; we all love to use it these days and it’s garnered this meaning of a sort of positivity associated with collective knowledge sharing – it’s almost got this Brits in The Blitz, all rally around and support each other tone. I would challenge that transparency is not something to be universally desired on change initiatives. In fact, transparency is just another tool in the leadership toolbox, the use of which should be consciously assessed and a strategy deliberately selected.
There are occasions where the benefits of shared knowledge will be outweighed by the risks of the reaction to that knowledge. Suppose a leadership team is transparent about the likely impacts of a change which will cost jobs. If that information is shared before appropriate retention strategies are in place, it could have a disastrous effect on business operations if people’s reaction is to seek other work in large numbers. There is a time for transparency and there is a time for caution with sensitive information.
Information sharing and communications strategy must be deliberate and thought out; this is the importance of having a method and of developing a communications plan with thought and care. Of course, the trick from a timing perspective is to ensure that you are ahead of rumour and leaks – that’s an art form, so good luck!
I think the more important point for me about transparency and communications in general is related to honesty and authenticity – these two points of principle commonly get caught up in people’s thinking about transparency. Being selective about when to share information and how much to share is one thing, but not telling the truth about something or egregiously lying by omission is something else entirely. It is critical that a strategy for transparency is paired with honesty and authenticity. Leaders who have not told the truth to employees about known facts relating to a major change initiative always get found out; people are not stupid. It’s also way better to share that you genuinely don’t know than to make stuff up or try to cover a lack of knowledge with some misdirection.
It’s ok to stand in front of your employees and say “I don’t have all the answers about this change yet” and “I’m also worried about this change; it’s a big deal and we can’t predict all the things that might happen”. Of course, you can caveat that with “I think we’ve got the right plan, and I know we have some very smart people on the project, so we’ll get through this but sure, I would be lying if I said it didn’t worry me a bit too”. Just be straight with people; if you can’t look them in the eye and have an authentic conversation about the change then I think that’s a pretty good indicator that there might be a problem with the nature of the change you’re making – if you don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, then you’d be best advised to address that first before worrying about what to share with your team!
Also, see all my points about authentic conversations – if you do nothing else, do that!
PGG: Fantastic Andy, and I must say I have a new respect for the term transparency, especially when associated with a change initiative. Thanks for your time and great answers, Andy. We are just about at Gananoque, and I think it’s about time for a pit stop. My, how time flies.