Organizational change as struggle
The blog laptop burns had a great post last week “Development as struggle” which talked about how the biggest force for development and for societal change is people and people’s organizations, as opposed to development aid and state institutions which are the more frequent focus of development discourse.
I’m stretching a metaphor a little here, but I’d argue that people and their networks are also the biggest force for successful change within organizations, yet many change management exercises focus on changes to formal reporting lines and structures and business process reengineering rather than in mobilizing people and informal networks within the organization.
I’ve experienced a wide range of change management exercises in my working life and observed or heard about many others. One things I’ve noticed is that organizations, and the people within them can be not only resistant to change, but are adept at seeming to go along with change, and talking the talk but over time undermining the change or getting around them and reverting to the status quo – or at best dressing up their existing projects and behaviours in the language of change while in reality changing little in what they do and why they do it. I believe a major reason for this resistance is that the people side of change is not adequately addressed.
Don’t get me wrong, having a good supporting organizational structure in place is important, as is redefining current business processes to institutionalize and operationalize the changes you want to make. BUT the change can easily become about going through the motions if your employees don’t understand the change and why its needed, don’t believe in it, don’t see what’s in it for them, and think that if they wait long enough it will go away.
Trying to engineer change by restructuring alone is often disruptive and leads to staff insecurity about their work and their positions, even fear – the last thing you need when you want them to buy into and focus on doing something new since it leaves them feeling disempowered rather than motivated. Instead if you want to get real change you need :
- Inspiring leaders who are responsible for providing vision and direction for the change.
- Champions for the change across the organization, especially outside those parts of the organization which are formally identified as leading the change. Real champions can be much more convincing and credible than those who are managing the initiative itself.
- Conversation and feedback across the organization to help spread the work and explain the change.
- Inclusivity – give people the opportunity to feel part of the change and to contribute towards it whatever their formal roles – giving their own ideas about how it should be rolled out, and let them be recognized for it. This also requires giving up absolute control of how the change will turn out.
- Use of existing networks of people to spread the word and get them on board – including co-opting of the skeptical as your spokespersons by reaching out to them, and explaining why the change will help them and responding to their questions and concerns. It also means acknowledging and including those who have already been working for the change you are trying to promote and recognizing and capitalizing on their pas contributions -even if you want to take your future vision in a slightly different direction.
- Being clear and honest in explaining why the change is needed, the opportunities, but also the risks, and what impact it will have on people’s current jobs.
People are your key asset as well as your key challenge in trying to get change adopted in an organization – so you need to factor this into your plans for change.