Much has been written and spoken about change management. Some consulting firms generate substantial revenues and profits selling change management systems that invariably involve heavy front-end analysis, but usually not a great deal of follow-through on implementation. This is not to disparage consulting firms. Their credentials, systems, processes and approach might be well-suited to certain organizations, especially larger corporations.
With or without external help from a consultant, the conventional model for change management begins with the top leaders having a planning retreat to determine the company’s direction, goals and strategy. They feel it is their right, and duty, to arrive at such decisions. Once direction is established at the top, the leaders communicate their decisions to the rest of the company, perhaps leaving room for questions and answers. Unfortunately, such presentations seldom yield anything more than head-nodding. The employees are smart enough to realize that expressing opposition to, or serious questions about, the mandated change will reflect badly on them. So they appear to embrace the change processes, systems and practices, but covertly, many will act in ways that undermine those changes, creating break-downs, false starts, blame-games and disharmony.
A “Democratic” Approach
My own approach to change management is, for lack of a better term, democratic. At the heart of my approach is Enrollment, that is, getting participation, contributions and buy-in from employees BEFORE the proposed change is enacted. The first step to gaining buy-in from employees is making a case for change. By this I do not mean a recommendation for specific kinds of change, but rather, a high-level assessment of economic, technological and competitive factors that create a threat, opportunity or both. A good case will make it clear that status quo complacency is NOT an option, and that significant action is needed. Alternatively, my change initiatives sometimes center around a BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal. One of my favorites is doubling revenue.
The second step is to bring this case to all employees (for a small organization) or to a group representing all departments and job levels. In one or more sessions, participants are encouraged to ask questions and even challenge the case for change. They are invited to contemplate the implications of the change or changes – what it means to them individually, and what it means to the company from their point of view.
Next the participants are asked to declare whether they are in favor of the change. This is a powerful moment of truth. Of course, there is a theoretical risk that a majority of participants will NOT support change. But if that’s the case, isn’t it better for the organization’s leadership to be aware of such resistance? In any case, in seven years of leading change management initiatives, no group has ever opposed change once a strong case is made. In fact, every time I have asked participants to declare their up-or-down vote, the attention and energy of the group is riveting.
Next, armed with a unanimous or strong consensus to pursue change, we brainstorm ways to mitigate the looming threat or capitalize on the opportunity. Out of the multitude of ideas generated we ultimately whittle the list down to 3-5 key initiatives which, if successfully and energetically pursued, are most likely to help the company achieve the goal and lead to success.
The final step is to initiate and pursue each of these initiatives. It is crucial to convert the energy unleashed by employee enrollment into task force teams that are responsible for initiating and implementing the changes. Best of all, changes initiated and supported at the grass roots level will be supported with far more passion and enthusiasm than ideas that are “inflicted” or mandated by upper management. These change initiatives belong to everyone, so there is no reason to resist them.
In some cases I play a role in keeping task force teams on track to flesh out their charters, set milestones, communicate and deliver recommendations. In other cases, these teams are self-directed and self-motivated.
Caution: It is unwise for an organization to pursue this approach to change if the leaders do not trust the collective experience and passion of its employees…