What IS Change Management?

Weiss Advice Issue: 155, September, 2016

We all talk about “leadership” and “change,” but we seldom know what we mean since we don’t specify a process. That’s like driving without understanding the rules of the road. Before long, you’ll hit something and may well hurt yourself and others.

Here’s what I think the process looks like:

Focus on “need” and not “want”

Every single client or prospect I’ve ever encountered knows exactly what he or she wants: a training program, employee survey, improved communication, better teamwork, etc. Unfortunately, they are invariably wrong for two reasons:

  1. They are usually focused on an alternative (sales training) instead of an objective (increased sales).
  2. The seldom understand that the want (better telephone techniques) really reflects a deeper need (solve the customer’s problem on the first call).

When I was first asked to work with Mercedes-Benz North America, I was confronted with very strong and intimidating senior executives who promptly informed me exactly what my consulting intervention should look like. (The internal staff at the time was frightened into passivity.) After some rather assertive language on both our parts, I finally offered this compromise: “Look, I won’t tell you how to design your braking systems, and you won’t tell me how to sample customer reactions in your dealerships.” After that, we got along just great.

We are the change agents and, presumably, know something about that discipline. Consequently, we need to focus our clients on the “why” of the initiative, which will get us to actual need. When a consumer products company asked me to help them improve new business acquisition—which was already at an enviable 25% annually—I asked why this was so urgent. They told me that most of the new business was currently merely replacing their “uncontrolled attrition” rate of over 20%. I convinced them that the attrition rate was the real need, and soon found that lousy customer service—much easier to fix than increasing new business acquisition beyond 25%—was actually the cause.

After that, I was a hero, and could do no wrong during a five year relationship on a variety of projects.

Eschew the fads and the magic potions

I have never seen as much sloppy thinking, patent oil sales pitches, and “one trick ponies” as I’ve seen in training, organizational development, and management development. There are two major problems.

First, even the legitimate approaches can’t effect change in and of themselves. Coaching key executives is a fine and time-tested idea, but if you also don’t work on the culture, subordinates, feedback systems, and so on, you’ve trained someone to speak Latin in a Greek-speaking world. I’ve always had to laugh at narrow attempts to teach improved delegation skills, for example. Unless the people being delegated to are willing to accept accountability, and unless the culture supports a “freedom to fail (more than once)” philosophy, providing one person with better ways to delegate is folly.

Take your pick: balanced scorecard, 360° assessments, strategy facilitation (with the ubiquitous and simplistic “SWOT” analysis), diversity training—the list goes on and on, and there are vendors eager to sell each magic pill separately. I can make a strong case that almost any 360° intervention that is “off the shelf” and not created expressly for a given culture is shallow and ineffective.

Worst of all is the “touchie-feelie” brigade, who will tell you that rearranging the tables in a room will redistribute power, or that mirroring a manager’s speech patterns and body language will help you relate better. This is pure stuff and nonsense, never ever proved in any research at all. (In my book, Life Balance: How to turn professional success into personal happiness [Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer: 2003], I make the case that even Abraham Maslow’s cherished hierarchy of needs has never been validated in the workplace and, indeed, no longer applies to modern organizational culture.)

It wasn’t all that long ago when I observed a Myers-Briggs analyst in a large bank asking questions on the instrument to an executive vice president who was attempting to respond in his deceased mother’s words, so that the analyst could eventually tell him why he had such a poor relationship with his mother! I managed to get the guy fired eventually, and never had any regrets.

Walk, talk, and think like you’re the leader

If you can’t read a balance sheet, don’t know the organization’s abilities to commercialize R&D, and don’t read The Wall Street Journal every single day, then you don’t belong in the big leagues. None of these things requires advanced degrees, silly certifications, or huge investments of time.

I’ve sat at conference tables with a better understanding of my client’s business than the internal HR people in the room.

The sequence for strategic organizational change is simple, is descending order from the top priority:

  1. Desired strategic results (e.g., ROE, contribution to the environment, acquisition of synergistic businesses, etc.)
  2. Performance required to achieve those strategic results (e.g., higher sales margins, manifestations of corporate citizenship, analysis of competitors, etc.)
  3. Competencies needed to achieve that level of performance (e.g., better proposal writing, improved financial analysis, presentation skills, etc.)
  4. Developmental activities to achieve the competencies (e.g., training in presentation skills, consulting to assess acquisition targets’ viability, coaching to improve media use, etc.)

The lesson here is simple: Focus on the strategic results and work down the line to your level of contribution. Think in terms of strategic outcomes, and not training programs, coaching assignments, or customer surveys. At minimum, your line clients are evaluated on their performance goals, and often on achievement of strategic goals. If you can convince them of your direct help and support in those accomplishments, you’ll do a lot better than trying to lure them to attend an arbitrary development program.

Raise the bar, don’t just “fix” things

You can’t afford to get better and better at what was needed yesterday. You have to become at least proficient at what is needed tomorrow.

Your client organization is no different.

Seek to raise the bar. Help to create new standards. Don’t agree to any course of action merely because “it’s always been done this way.” People who are on the front line, under pressure, will seek to fix things quickly in order to maintain momentum. They rarely have the time to think beyond the fix, and to examine new and better ways to achieve results.

One of the greatest assets of the internal change agent is the position and perspective to be able to calmly and creatively think outside of the box, Instead of more sales training, perhaps contract sales through alliance partners makes more sense. Rather than adding people to the field repair staff, maybe “expert” advice available online or through the call center would help customers solve their own difficulties faster (for them) and far less expensively (for you).

The key here is to focus on output and not input. What is it you want to achieve (e.g., faster but less costly resolution of customer complaints) as opposed to what’s wrong with the current system that appears to need “fixing” (e.g., not enough staffers to handle current call volumes). You are in a unique position to take that larger view (even if you have to help with the temporary fix first).

Every time you are moved to action—either proactively or as the result of a call for help—make sure that you also examine how to radically and dramatically improve the current outcomes. If you’re not doing this, the probability is that no one is.