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Navigating Organizational Change
By Anna Garleff - Founder of Garleff Coaching and Consulting Group (GCCG) | The Seeking Veritas Business and Leadership Column is an ongoing collaborative project between SG Productions & GCCG
Navigating any type of organizational change isn’t about moving from point A to point B. It’s a process rather than a destination, and it’s about knowing what a whole bunch of different people need in order to do that successfully. Probably there are several people in your organization who are temperamentally well-suited to large-scale organizational transformation.
Equally, there are a whole lot who aren’t. But they could be, given the right kind of support at the right time. And this is where both leadership and management need to work hand-in-hand. Personally, I’ve rarely seen this happen in real life, but there’s always hope.
Assuming that you’ve got a strong rationale for change, and know what you’re changing and why (and this isn’t always the case), you’re going to have to convince everybody else. That’s much easier to do when you have buy-in. The feeling that you’re “... an important part of making an improvement around here” is much different than “Here’s what’s gonna happen, and you’re gonna like it.”
Few organizations consider this basic psychology before they start “rolling it out”.
So let’s say you’ve got a good reason for your change; now you’ve got quite a way to go to create the perception that a change is actually needed, because automatically, not everyone will agree with you. In other words, deal with the old before you deal with the new. And document everything really well, in a transparent way, so that people can see what’s going on when they need to / want to; and have some kind of feedback mechanism for people to let you know how it’s going for them. Because let’s face it: you can’t know everything.
But if your workforce is engaged and excited about the improvements, they’ll tell you when things are going south - and quite often, they’ll tell you before it even happens. So if someone says: “That’ll never work because …” - Listen! Know-it-alls quite often do know it all. And sure, they might attribute the wrong causality to something, but they are your first line of defence against mishaps that could end up costing you money and people. Enough of this talk about “Debbie Downers” and “Negative Nellies”! Everyone has got their strengths, and some people are excellent at pattern detection. Let them be who they are. And I’m not even going to touch the fact that I have yet to hear a similar label for a man doing the same.
Specifically, there’s one thing that’s going to make or break your change efforts more than anything else. It’s not the technology you’re trying to implement (for example); or the leadership you’re trying to demonstrate. Ironically, it’s probably also the one thing that people will claim they’re already doing - which they are, to a certain extent - but they’re darn sure not doing it right. Most places are so abysmal in their efforts to accomplish even a basic level of proficiency in this, that entire series of satire have been written about it.
In terms of navigating change, most people tend to take a top-down approach, where the recipe for what’s going to happen is “hashed out” amongst the executive; management is left to go and forage for available ingredients; and then you’ve got chaos in the kitchen as a bunch of short-order cooks try and make beef stroganoff with the ingredients for egg foo yung in pots and pans that needed replacing a decade ago - with no sauciere in sight.
Or let’s say the change initiative is replacing the pots and pans. Executive thinks up a do-it-all mixmaster; management gets in a blender; and all the staff really wanted was a martini shaker (Don’t we all).
So what’s the missing magic ingredient? The one everyone claims they’re already using?
Communication. It’s still considered a one-way transaction and I’ve talked elsewhere about the inadequacies of both the “telegraph” and the “information processing paradigm” as models for how communication actually works.
The fact is, you’re not going to please everybody. You won’t even please yourself all of the time while you’re trying to stop doing some things - even ones that have been working for you so far - in order to do new, untried things that may well cause disorder, confusion, be difficult to learn, and create other problems you haven’t even considered yet.
Which is why you need those lines of communication open 24/7 (yes, we respect work/life balance - stay with me here). If you’re working in a strictly hierarchical space (let’s just take the army for laughs), then you’re going to want to do some field exercises a few times before actual combat begins. Or pick a different metaphor. But you’ll need to rehearse, take on feedback (including the kind you don’t want to hear - especially the kind you don’t want to hear), consider perspectives from the differently abled, accommodate, deal with the feedback, agree on some “Definition of Done”, and not lose yourself in the tactics such that you forget strategy completely - and why you’re doing this in the first place.
Think back on your own career and you can likely come up with myriad examples as to why change efforts failed - whether they were enterprise-wide or simple personnel changes. So what, exactly, are you communicating? It’s about far more than just the new technology you’re bringing in. Fundamentally, it’s about people: how they use that technology, how comfortable they are with the new iteration, how entrenched they are in the old. Some people will be impacted more profoundly due to the nature of their role, position in the workflow, and how many similar change initiatives they’ve participated in over the years. Just as examples.
Some folks, by nature, are time-bound and will get frustrated by delays. You need to be very transparent about any ambiguities, contingencies, and dependencies in order for them not to charge ahead like a bull in a china shop and wreck things before they’re even ready to implement or use.
Others will be digging in their heels and refusing to cooperate if standards aren’t met, or if concerns (theirs) are not addressed to the extent that they can give their approval and are sure things will go off without a hitch.
And you know the “yes person” who just keeps accepting more and more tasks - foreseen and unforeseen - until they’re overwhelmed, suffering burn out, or stalling the whole process because their desk has become one giant bottleneck.
Sometimes humour is a fabulous way of diffusing a hot situation and taking the stress down a couple of notches. Sometimes, though, it’s just straight up annoying. Those people who become exasperatingly annoying are also just trying to solve a problem.
So whether people are “acting up by bullying, nit-picking, martyrdom, or jokestering”, please remember that they’re all people who are trying to solve a problem. Let me repeat that, because it’s worth reading again: Don’t look at people as problems, look at them as people who are trying to solve problems.
Navigating the ship of organizational change is a completely different job from the top of the crowsnest, down in the bilges, swaying from the masts, swabbing the decks, or walking the plank (yes, it’s happening to somebody on virtually every ship … er … organization). Power and position will affect your ability to function, exercise agency, and quite frankly - stomach all the commotion.
And maybe you’ve earned your referent power and inofficial position as a leader - your elevated status - the hard way. Maybe you were very, very good at using that old technology and finding work-arounds that helped everybody. So now it’s not just learning a new set of skills and procedures that’s causing you a problem - your entire identity is at stake!
People are complex, no doubt about it. Luckily, there are people who study people, and know what makes them tick. Or tock. I’m an organizational psychologist, and I help people become stronger leaders, create better workplaces - and navigate organizational change.
About the Author: Anna Garleff is an Organizational Psychologist; she provides C-Suite Executive Coaching around the world focusing on scaling up and leading diverse teams through Garleff Coaching & Consulting Group. She has been a ghostwriter for KPMG, Deloitte and PwC; and a former Director of the Open University (UK) operations in Germany.
You can contact Anna at: https://www.linkedin.com/company/garleff-coaching-consulting-group/