Perhaps no other topic is as relevant and popular today than the omnipresence of organizational change.
The frequency and magnitude of change at the macro, team, and individual level can be staggering. Leaders are constantly reevaluating and re-imaging strategies, processes and even entire business models to react and get ahead of market trends.
Much like the intersecting waves from a hundred pebbles landing in a pond, these change projects converge into a melee of activity and impact. Is there a way to manage this degree of change better? How can we more effectively identify and fix problematic change efforts?
Like a doctor with an ill patient, the change leader needs to accurately diagnose and solve issues associated with change to enable good organizational health. These symptoms can include very slow adoption, nervousness, confused decision making rights, and confusion. Knowing what change element causes what symptoms enables a more accurate diagnosis and prescription, leading to successful change.
Six Most Common Change Symptoms
From years of experience in leading small and large-scale change, here are the 6 most common change symptoms and their causes. The causes of these obstacles is usually an absence of one of 6 key change elements. Identifying the symptom will help identify the remedy to push sustainable change forward.
1. No Vision→ Confusion “Why”
The first step in any change effort is clearly stating why the change is important; how will the change solve a problem that will make the customers, stakeholders, and/or employees better off. Without a well articulated and compelling case for change, confusion will usually emerge. People won’t be sure what the point is and how the change will make life better. This confusion and frustration can be best addressed by spelling out the vision for the change, using words that best connect with the audience(s), and repeating it over and over again until confusion is gone.
2. No Skills & Resources→ Anxiety “Can’t Do It”
Imagine your dad or mom asked you to mow the lawn within the next hour, but you have never done it before. You might go outside, look at the lawn mower, try to do something to turn it on but have little success. As time goes by and the hour is almost up, you get increasingly nervous and anxious that you can’t do it! This happens all too often change efforts when others are asked to do something new. People can be told what to do, but if they don’t have the new skills (training) and necessary resources (equipment and support), then they start getting very anxious that they can’t perform the job. What is even more frustrating is that you may not learn about their anxiety until it is almost too late! Provide specific training and support ahead of time to prevent anxiety from sabotaging the effort!
3. No Engagement→ Slow Change “What’s In It For Me?”
Sometimes, after a lot of work, a change effort can start gaining some traction, but it moves so slowly! There might be 3 steps forward with 2 steps back over and over again. It can be maddening for a change leader. When change moves at a snail’s pace often with lots of obstacles, the cause is usually a lack of engagement from those implementing the change. To address this symptom of slowness, build engagement by demonstrating what is in it for those who are impacted the most. Show, not just describe, how people doing the change and those affected most by the change will be better off. Listen to their concerns and feedback and adjust approaches and techniques based on their feedback. Regard resistance as an opportunity to learn instead of a moment to lecture or disdain. Increase workforce engagement and you will increase the rate of change.
4. No Leadership→ False Starts “Who Decides?”
Have you ever led a change effort, wrote the business case for change, got all the right people involved on the team, and got the resources needed and yet it still stalled? It is like getting all ready for a party but nobody came. You mistakenly think the decision makers are aligned, but they aren’t and the final go ahead is murky, confusing, and non-existent. This is called a false start—all dressed up with nowhere to go. This is a symptom of unclear decision making rights. When no one is clear who can decide things, lots of people can feel they have a say, which results in endless spinning and possibly decision by committee. To prevent false starts, clarify up front who makes the call to approve, launch, veto, and alter the change effort.
5. No Planning & Action→ Roadblocks “More Rework”
In any change effort, there are bound to be surprises along the way. However, many of these surprises or roadblocks can be minimized or managed more easily with quality planning beforehand. It is remarkable how a simple plan with clear milestones, assigned actions, and even a few contingency plans can reduce rework and obstacles during the change effort. Moving a little slower on the front end in producing a plan, can save time later on when surprises and roadblocks emerge so desired change can keep moving forward.
6. No Measurement→ No Learning “What Progress?”
For change to succeed over time, there needs to be a willingness to learn and adjust based on the learning from past change efforts. Too often, change efforts can suffer from the same challenges over and over again. This is often an indication that people may not be learning from previous mistakes and altering how they lead change and manage processes. When this symptom occurs, it is hard to feel like progress is being made. What gets measured, gets attention. Creating clear metrics and having debriefs when these metrics are met or not, is incredibly important to learn and adapt during the project as well as improving the next change effort. Change needs to be measured in three ways: adoption of the change (is the change is happening), utilization of the change (how well the change is happening), and engagement of those implementing the change (how well they understand and support the change). Measuring during and after the change can foster learning and ultimately progress.
Awareness Solves Debilitating Change Symptoms
With any new idea, approach, or improvement there will always be some surprises and challenges along the way. However, being aware of what causes and how to solve debilitating change symptoms will help you, as a change agent, and your organization move farther.
Use these 6 key change elements to mitigate the 6 change symptoms that can stymy long-term organizational change efforts. Diagnose the symptom, match it to the corresponding solution, and see the likelihood of success for your change effort increase.