Like a good chess player, successful businesses are always thinking a few steps ahead of their current situation. Never content with the status quo, the firms that win more games than they lose are accustomed to embracing the notion of change, and incorporating it into the philosophy and ongoing operation of the organization.
Yet implementing the mechanisms that eventually foster a culture that welcomes change throughout the organization is no easy task. With countless departments often working in their own spheres and with their own approaches to change management, getting an organization of hundreds or thousands of individual employees on the same course is the monumental challenge that faces the modern enterprise. As University of Waterloo professor Teresa Rose simply puts it, “It’s just complex. Trying to manage organizations and lead organizations is hugely complex. So don’t try to come up with a single answer by jumping on a bandwagon and saying, ‘We’ll change it and we’ll win.’”
As a professor in the Master of Management Science Program in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., Rose researches change within organizations — how it’s carried out, what factors determine successful change, and what dangers exist for any company wishing to more fully embrace the concept.
Rose observes that a danger exists in adopting a method of change that might be popular at a certain time but which might not be an appropriate vehicle for a particular company. One current example of this is the rush to increase the amount of collaboration between groups and departments to more effectively bring about change. “I think we need to collaborate a lot, but I think there is a bandwagon effect (that says) ‘OK, we’ve got to get together’ rather than having some thought process about what we want to achieve, who needs to be there, what are the costs of collaboration, what are the costs of not collaborating, what is the time frame, etc.” If a firm attempts to institute more collaboration but does not give it the time or resources required to make it fly, the effort is destined to fail, Rose says.
“What I see a lot is the desire and the intent for collaboration, and it’s all good, but it’s being attempted without the supportive structure to make the outcome good.” One trend Rose sees happening is the idea that collaboration is becoming so prevalent that some workers are becoming “collaborationed out.”
She uses an example of a health care initiative that spans across multiple disciplines and hospitals, involving many different practitioners. Often, one or two such participants’ expertise will become so crucial to the project’s success that they are called upon to do more and more around it.
“What they see is that their expertise is valued and (the effort) will probably not work without it, but they begin to get pulled outside their role of medical technician, of serving the patient, and pulled into administrative issues,” Rose says. “They’re pulled away from what they want to do, which is maintaining their patient base. What you see is they say, ‘I can’t do this for very long.’”
Being prepared Rose says that effective change management comes about when those driving and directing the change have done their homework and decided that the methods to be used will indeed result in a more efficient organization. Often, this guidance originates at the executive level and spreads to other arms of the firm.
“It has to be something that the top is aware of and something that filters down, so that when departments throughout the organization set out to do a collaboration project, they set out with this awareness that, yes, collaboration is a good thing,” Rose says.
Involved parties, she adds, “need to be on board together at the start about the objective, about how it is going to take place, and to know what it means for me personally and for my organization.”
Rose asserts that the IT department’s role in the implementation of change management practices within a company can be a large one, and can occur in two different streams.
“IT has so many potential roles that they can play in the organization, whether it’s devising or supporting a communication strategy that‘s happening at the top to supporting it at a very technical level across every department,” she says.
She acknowledges that the idea of IT getting more involved in the strategic end of change management is a good thing, yet warns that, if the technical responsibilities are still very much a part of the department’s core activities, its people can get pulled in numerous directions and suffer as a result.
“It seems so often that IT is really in the moment-to-moment aspects of keeping the business running. The idea of working at both the technical and the strategic level is good, but the potential for burnout is high.”
For effective change to take place, all stakeholders must be on the same page, says Rose. Within large corporations, it’s easy for miscommunication to occur. “There are different things going on in different parts of the organization. What happens is there are multiple changes going on at any one time,” she says. “Sometimes the changes that are going on work in contradiction to another change because one change hasn’t caught up with another, or one department didn’t know that the other one took that direction and there was a negative implication coming out of that.”
Another factor that can play a role in how effectively a corporation manages change is one related to the age gap within those companies. For generations, younger workers joining an outfit largely kept their heads down and did what was asked of them. If it was done effectively, promotions and raises would come, but only after their dues had been paid. Today, with many young workers having been immersed in computers and technology from when they were toddlers, ideas around contributing to the greater good of the company have changed. This, says Rose, has profound implications for the management of change.
This so-called “Generation Y” — those workers born between 1978 and 1985 — “doesn’t particularly like to be dictated to, especially if that dictation doesn’t make sense for them,” says Rose. “The whole idea of doing something just for the benefit of the entire group is sometimes problematic. They tend not to have the same sense that they will work their way methodically through an organization.” Rose adds that this new reality is not a bad thing, merely “different.”
he shadow of the past
A company’s history can also play a large role in how it handles change, says Rose. When a firm is founded, an ownership structure is established — certain kinds of people are hired and there is a particular way in which the work gets done. These originating factors have implications for what kinds of changes may come down the line.
“They may not prevent an organization from going in a certain direction, but there is going to have to be a real focus on managing around those early characteristics,” she says. To illustrate her point, Rose cites the example of a firm that has been public for its entire history and which then goes private.
“The implications are huge because people have got very used to one way of thinking and a certain kind of reward structure. When you privatize that, a lot of that changes.”
Rose’s best advice to organizational leaders looking to implement a set of change management parameters is to evaluate what problems they are attempting to solve and, once a solution is identified, ask themselves one key question: “’What makes me, as a leader, believe that this is the one I should be doing?’”
“Executives or decision makers have to ask, ‘What are the implications of driving this (change) through our organization? What is it about our structure, our culture, and how fast can we do this? Does it make sense to do this or is there some way of thinking that can support us better right now?’”
Also, it’s a good idea to have a contingency plan in place should things not go according to plan, Rose asserts. “Leaders have to ask themselves what they have in place for flexibility if [the plan for change] isn’t working. Organizations can launch into something, the utilization of some sort of strategy, and not really track if it’s working and know when to get off.”