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Change needs understanding first

At work, we are going through a change. A big change in the way we will operate, that will lead the way to how we will be doing business in the coming years. Operational efficiency is the goal.

As I experience this “change” from my vantage point, I realize that it lacks widespread commitment and sense of urgency. The folks up in the organizational chain are likely doing the right things in many ways, but their own perceptions of what is happening is not the same as that of an associate’s (in the trenches) perception of what is actually happening. That is a fundamental issue in change management and it leads to stagnation sooner or later.

While some elements of the change has been communicated, it is unclear if its well understood and “seen” by all. Two critical aspects of change management in large organizations is commitment and belief from everyone (ok, mostly everyone). Commitment and belief in the change itself, happens only if everyone understands what they are committing to. Understanding is not the same as communicating!!! Understanding happens in multiple dimensions and scales. Reading a memo or listening to a CFO speak are just two, necessary but not sufficient, aspects! Some elements (consistent with memo and speeches) of the change must be “felt” in an associates’ day to day work in order to reinforce what they read and hear. This has to be a visible/sensible change in their local team and/or operating environment. If a big enterprise-level change doesn’t impact (even small impact helps!) an assocaite’s daily activity, its hard to get that person’s commitment, to begin with. An uncommitted associate usually infests the folks around him, so there is peripheral damage as well.

A sense of urgency is a broad term but, in my mind, speaks to three critical questions fundamentally. Why should we change now, instead of say next year or 5 years from now? This reminds me of Matsushita story. When Matsushita started his visionary institute for government and management, he explained his vision was to help Japanese politics become less corrupt and more visionary. When a skeptical reporter asked how long that would take, he said, “about four hundred years…which is why it is so important we start today!”. So, any operational change, especially in a fortune 50, is a slow and painful process. But we better start now so we make progress right away.

The second question around sense of urgency would be “Alrite, I am starting now, whats next?”. This leads to short-term wins. While change is a long-term process (at least few years), short-term milestones, directly tied to long-term vision is key to keep the masses running. Nobody wants to keep cutting the trees for years without frequent assurance that they are in the right forest! So, tell them we are moving towards the final goal, one step at a time. A short-term visible and tangible win, every 6 months, seen and acknowledged by everyone, is a key.

The last question is “Alrite, I know we had this short-term goal, but I feel I am out of touch, when are we meeting again to talk about all of this?”. This leads to “frequency” of all forms of communications around change. Usually, the sense of urgency wades off in a few months. This happens due to the illusion at the senior leadership level that everyone is on board and so things are moving as they should. While in reality, lower level people’s commitment is lost over time. So a constant reminder, every other week, if not, every week, about the change, why the change and how we are changing and how fast and stable the “train” is moving, will keep the sense of urgency strong and sustainable!

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