Saturday, September 4, 2010

Corporate Change--Step 4

As a stone's ripple in a pond will eventually fade and dissipate (there's a better physics term for this but you understand), change will die out unless it's supported.

One person I know described the tension caused by change as like stretching a rubber band. If you let go, the rubber band snaps back to a relaxed state. Judith Bardwick's work Danger in the Comfort Zone also desribes this tension for productivity. Too little fear and there's a sense of entitlement. Too much and there's paralysis. For change, there needs to be the right level of anxiety and tension. Too little and there's no stretch (in performance). Too much and it breaks.

Earlier, I mentioned persistence. It's important to keep change going. This is one form of the support needed to accomplish corporate change. Keep the tension on the rubber band.

How do you do that?

Keep talking about the objective. Encourage those who are trying to support you. Support them. Recognize them. Reward them in whatever way is available to you including pats on the back. (Alfred Kohn in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes encourages use of changes in content, collaboration and content to motivate people, rather than any other reward or incentive.)

Communicate: educate, explain, encourage questions, describe the new behaviors that are desired, describe the benefits for the customers--internal and external--and the organization when the objective is achieved, dissuade people from giving up too early and going back to how you operated before. Recognize that people will be suspicious of any change.

I once had an employee accuse me of taking away a benefit because we eliminated a perfect attendance award in exchange for two paid personal time-off days. After I asked the person what they earned through the perfect attendance program, and what they had to do to earn those two days off, and asked them what they had to do to get the "new", paid days-off, they realized that they weren't being "screwed".

The company that achieved amazing results in two months, described in the previous step, had some practice runs for a daily meeting to help set the expectations of new behavior and let it become a habit before it was required. During the practice runs, the expectations were discussed and the benefits to them and each other. They also described how this was going to contribute to the "great" objective and transform their business. (In hindsight, they had expected to achieve less than the what they actually did. The real results exceeded their expectations!)

Does this kind of support require upper management? No. As shown in Step 2, corporate change can start anywhere. This support can happen anywhere.

But let's talk about management support. What does it look like? Some say management support occurs when their suggestions are approved; conversely, management support is nonexistent when approvals are not given. Is it? Perhaps the suggestions don't contribute to the corporate objectives. Perhaps their are greater priorities than whatever improvement is being proposed. Perhaps the suggestion leads to micro-optimization and disrupts the optimal performance of the whole organization. If these cases are true, then management is supportive of the overall effort, just not this particular suggestion. And maybe rightly so.

Some say management is supportive when they're directly involved in the change program. Certainly, management will be more visible. However, visibility is not always supportive. It could be distracting and disruptive, when a top manager's presence causes deference to his or her opinion or the group awaits their judgment rather than reaching group consensus. Management can sometimes better support change by being invisible. Management is supportive when their actions and behaviors encourage the change.

When the top boss talks about the change, he or she is supportive...maybe. Even on some small scales of change, I've heard that when the boss talked about the change, the rank-and-file reacted with skepticism and suspicion that only the boss was going to benefit. If management doesn't have a good reputation and high credibility in matching the values of the large part of the organization, you don't want their visible support through communication. You definitely want to have guerrilla change occurring from the inside of the organization at the lowest levels of the hierarchy as possible. No one will ever suspect that the custodian is going to get a multi-million dollar bonus just for supporting a Lean or Six Sigma program. (See previous steps about guerrilla change and not having a program.)

In fact, the less visible management is, yet supportive through grass-roots communication (education, explanation, response to questions, and so on), the more likely corporate change will occur. More likely the right amount of anxiety will exist, the levers of motivation (choice, content and collaboration) will be exercised and...the world will be a better place.

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