Simply put, the purpose of change is to achieve a result that is currently not being achieved. You are not going to change your eating habits unless you expect to lose weight, or reduce a health issue, or achieve some other result. This is as true for organizational change as it is for personal change. Organizations commit to the cost and effort of change because they expect to achieve a new or improved result that is beneficial. However, there are two powerful hindrances to achieving the results of any change initiative that are often glossed over.
Dr. Louise Harris, CEO SToS Inc and Founder of the ChangeDesign.Institute
Louise will be speaking at the Virtual Business Change & Transformation Conference Europe 17-19 May 2021 on the subject How to Increase Stakeholder Buy-in with Less Effort
Expending effort empowering change leaders and change agents, implementing amazing change processes and removing implementation hindrances, will be ineffective if these two major hindrances are not removed first.
- The expected results are not clear to everyone involved in executing the change
- The expected results are not meaningful to those most impacted by the change
Why are these two hindrances so powerful?
Clarity of purpose is critical to keep everyone moving in the same direction together. If the expected results are not clear, then people will either be unsure of what direction to move in or they will move in the direction that suits them best. Motivated people who are unsure of the expected results will feel stressed. They will not be able to provide relevant input to figuring out the details. They will be hesitant to make decisions or agree to solution designs. If they are vague about the results expected it is impossible for them to be confident in any path to achieve those results. They will avoid participating in the change process because it causes them stress and they have little hope of being successful.
People who construct their own version of expected results that suit them best will be aiming in their own direction. This direction may be irrelevant to or in conflict with the results envisioned by the leadership. Their input will create confusion and potentially conflict with others who have different expectations. Many will just give up and avoid participating as much as possible. Others will fight for their own vision. The change may be stalled, diluted, or head in the wrong direction or end up in escalating conflict. In any case people’s time and effort is wasted.
Meaningful purpose is critical to inspire and motivate people to make the effort to engage and change. Executing any change takes effort over and above daily responsibilities. At a minimum people must exert cognitive effort to learn new habits of working. That effort becomes even more costly when people have cognitively demanding jobs. If the expected results are not meaningful to people, then any cost to execute the change outweighs the value of the change. In most cases they will be disinterested in the change process and at the extreme may actively resist. When there is lack of positive motivation then fear of losing out or punishment becomes the only available influencing factor. Negative motivation results in people doing the minimum possible to avoid punishment. Without a meaningful purpose, people will not contribute creative ideas. They will not put effort into overcoming any challenges that arise during the change process.
When the expected results of the change are not clear and meaningful to everyone involved in executing the change, much effort will be wasted in managing supposed resistance and apathy. Useful input will not be fully contributed no matter what methods and tools are used. There will be gaps and issues in the change execution no matter how rigorous or agile the process.
What makes a change result clear and meaningful?
Research on how people make sense of change in an organization or group shows there are two aspects that help people create meaning. The first is personal value. Basically, this is the answer to the question “How will my life be better because of the change?” When the personal value is clear, it will be easily understood by everyone. People will feel assured they can consistently determine if or how much of the personal value is achieved as the change is executed.
For example, an organization stated that the purpose of implementing a fully digital invoicing system was to “modernize their systems and improve productivity”. However, this result is not clear to anyone. “Modernize the systems” is the completion of an activity with no inherent value. A new system could easily make everyone’s job more difficult. “Improve productivity” is vague and the value of this could be interpreted in various ways. Does it mean process more invoices in a day? How many more invoices? Does it mean spend less of my day processing invoices? Does it mean spend less time interacting with small regular suppliers? Does it mean less effort to generate and assess financial reports? Does it mean less variation in my job? How much less? Should I be worried or excited? There is no indication in “improve productivity” that explains how an impacted individual’s daily work life will be better. When people encounter gaps in purpose, they will most often fill the gap first with negative assumptions. Left unchecked these negative assumptions will lead to resistance or apathy.
The second aspect of meaningful results is the value of these results to the organization and to related internal or external groups that are important to me. There are two dimensions to clear and meaningful organization or group value. The first dimension is understanding the impact of the change on the organization and related groups. This includes knowing the expected change results for each group and why each group perceives these results as valuable. The second dimension is understanding how myself and my team fit into the entire change picture; how our actions contribute to the achievement of value for others and for the organization.
In the above example, it is not clear why improved productivity is important to the organization. Does it mean costs will be saved because some jobs will become redundant? How many jobs? Or does it mean new opportunities for career growth or something else entirely? This uncertainty caused people in this organization to be reluctant to participate in initial change engagement activities. When they did participate, the question of job redundancy was the first and repeated question posed. Substantial communication effort was expended through out the project to manage this negative perception. However, the perception persisted because an alternative value was not made clear. Eventually, the purpose of the change was rearticulated to improving productivity and building capability (people and resources) for future digital services to customers.
There had also been no attempt to discover the results expected by the impacted groups. To fill this gap, the business solution team leader took the team through the process of identifying the impacted stakeholder groups and working with these groups to understand their desired results of improved productivity. The central invoice processing group determined that improved productivity would result in faster payments to suppliers. They set measurable targets for invoice payment turn around time and for reducing their backlog. They identified that faster payment would significantly reduce the phone calls from small suppliers inquiring and complaining about the payment status. Nobody liked handling those calls. They also identified that they expected to be able to easily look up the status of an invoice in the new system instead of phoning around in search of the physical invoice. These two expected results could substantially reduce the stress and the time spent on the phone with suppliers. With these expected results identified and the value articulated, the invoice processing group were now on board with the change. In addition, they led the effort to develop communication materials and activities to encourage the suppliers to switch to sending electronic invoices. They did this because they saw how their team fitted in the big picture. They knew that the greater the percentage of electronic invoices, the more productive they would be, the happier the suppliers would be and thus the fewer stressful phone calls they would need to take. Their effort with the suppliers filled a significant gap in the scope of the project that had been overlooked because the value to and impact on the suppliers had not initially been considered. To everyone’s surprise, their effort was so successful that within the first month they had to reorganize their responsibilities and processes because of the high volume of electronic invoices. Although it was difficult and a bit chaotic at first, everyone pitched in because the results were of their own making. They could see the results were a direct impact of their actions.
What can you do?
As a leader or member of a project team that is implementing any kind of change you can be instrumental in ensuring the change has a solid footing for achieving its purpose by making sure:
- The expected results are clear. Start by making sure the results are clear to you. If you do not clearly understand the expected results you will not be able to direct your own work or the work of others towards achieving those results.
- The expected results are meaningful to all impacted groups. Start with ensuring you understand why this change is perceived as valuable to the organization and to each impacted stakeholder group. Focus on learning about each group’s perspective not just the perspective that is published by the project.
As you go through this learning process take the time to discover gaps and conflicts in various perspectives and follow an established process to harmonize and improve the articulation of the change purpose.
It is important not to trivialize this learning process, and yet most change projects have tight time constraints. Once the business case is approved the push is to get on with the change. Join me at IRM UK’s Business Change and Transformation Conference this May to learn how a simple and powerful communication tool can enable you to laser focus this learning process and quickly develop everyone’s understanding of the expected change results. Find out how other organizations have used this scientifically designed tool to avert confusion, resistance and even disaster and get everyone on the same page moving forward together.
Exploring the question of how to design organizational change more effectively has motivated Louise Harris throughout her 25+ year career of advising and leading digital transformations. Louise has led and advised complex change in healthcare and social services, finance, insurance, and transportation. She has worked with large and small private sector companies and public sector organizations to increase their digital services and embark on cultural change journeys. Louise has experienced frustrating change failures and enjoyed rewarding change successes. Her search for more effective ways to prevent failure and enable success led her to embark on a PhD and found the Change Design Institute. Over the last four years she has incorporated her research findings into mentoring and training programs for organizations and individuals.. Participants in these programs have been able to redirect their own or their client organizations onto a path to successful change using the neurocognitive tools they have learned. Follow Louise: @Louise_A_Harris
Copyright Dr. Louise Harris, CEO SToS Inc and Founder of the ChangeDesign.Institute