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Archive for November, 2011

The end of the world as we know it?

I”ve been watching the recent fallout between NZ Softball and a few of its players with interest. It”s had remarkable coverage for a small sport in a country dominated by Rugby and Cricket. Thats probably because Softball is something that Nz can compete on the world stage (however small that stage may be). The problem is that some of the players are that good at swinging a bat or throwing a ball that a very similar sport, Baseball, is starting to look at a few of the NZ Players and say “want to play our game?”.

You can see the attraction for the players: Baseball in the USA has money and that means a chance for some of these young guys to make a living in a way they never could at softball. So they want to play baseball as well as softball.

Where”s the problem in that? You may say. Well, Nz Softball doesn”t like this and is saying “you can”t play with us if you play with them”

So what has this to do with change? (knowing I need to get to the point soon or you will switch off). The tendency to protect the established order is something that you see time and again in the history of business. This starts simply as “The way we do things is fine, so we don”t need to change”. This scenario has been repeated so often that you can almost plot a “rise and fall”  of great names as a result of it. Norton motorcycles died because they resisted the advent of simple things such as the push button start. Borders barely survived their belief that “we don”t need computers in a bookshop”. Many of the established names in the stock exchange of 100 years ago no longer exist. But with some its starts with that belief and then moves to a push to make sure that everyone else agrees or ensure that change doesn’t happen.

What we are seeing with NZ Softball is that interesting ‘protectionist’ thinking. When the established order not only rejects change, but tries to force their view of the world on the world by justifying their actions. We saw this a few years ago with Finance companies who  said “you cannot afford to let us fail” and instead of suffering the evolutionary penalty of their actions, forced the world to change instead of them changing. Look beyond the world of business and in our lives and times Libya tried it, Syria is trying is and Egypt is struggling against the ‘we like

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the world the way it is because it suits me’ mindset.

NZ Softball certainly isn”t in the same basket as all those American finance companies, or those countries, but the thinking is the same. The kind of thinking that shows they can see change coming and don”t like the look of it. Thinking that leads to actions to hold back the change, prevent it from happening. Whether they are people in government, in businesses, established institutions, managers of companies you will see people using their position and their authority to try to hold back change. Its a human tendency.

Yes, I said ‘Managers of companies’. Day in and day out managers can, and do, make decisions to protect themselves from changes that they don’t like, that threaten their knowledge or their position or their power. Projects gently scuppered, proposals rejected, promotions prevented, decisions made and people put back in their place. Its a human tendency.

History shows that you can only hold change back for so long if you have the power, but if change has momentum you can”t hold it back forever.  Indeed much of change seems part of the natural timeline of history. Wheels led to carts, carts led to carriages, carriages led to cars, cars to planes, planes to space travel (Please forgive the generalisation of Human history, but you know what I mean) and that”s why much of change is really just evolutionary.

What history shows is that if you don’t make the change, someone else will and before you know it you are the dinosaur that is dying out and the thing you were trying to prevent happens anyway. Evolution doesn’t give you many chances (so watch out Softball).

The Pace of Change

How quickly should you implement a change programme? Is there a benefit in quick or slow and is there a risk in either?

Some changes would appear to have a long timeline as a function of the time it takes to put in the hardware or software. But generally speaking the timeline where you have your staff involved and affected by the change is much shorter than the time it takes for your experts to install the equipment/system etc.

Its that time that has the biggest impact on the success of change; the time where your people have to engage in the new system or the structure or the changes to their job (as a result of the system or the structure) that you need to think about how quickly or slowly you take it.

Lets look at a few examples to see what they tell us about the risks and benefits in the choice of pace.

  • Its here!

When it comes to restructuring I have seen examples of change that involved a group of senior people being locked away in meetings over a couple of weeks or months. They make the decisions on structure and who is going to fit in that structure then go through the prep process (letters/payments etc) until they are ready to launch the change. If they manage to keep it quiet (a big if, discussed in this previous blog) they come out and tell everyone the structure, who has a job and its all over and done with in a day or two.

Clean, tidy and efficient?

Well, yes, on the face of it, but the residual after-effects say otherwise. Lack of trust in your leaders, communication channels failing and future change wariness all follow on from change that is implemented in this fashion. People are thinking ‘you knew but you didn’t tell us’ so they soon move to a place where they don’t trust you or believe what you do say. So going too quickly risks the trust that needs to exist in any successful organisation.

  • Heres another one!

What about situations where a few jobs are cut one week, then some more a few weeks later followed by a bit of a reshuffle here and there, then another announcement that we need to trim around the edges? The situations where change is one thing after another?

Now some organisations find themselves in situations where over the course of two or three years they need to make changes because the environment changes and they need to adapt. I am not talking about one change a year, I am talking about multiple changes within a year and multiple changes within months.

A policy of dragging your changes out over a few months so that each one is quite small can seem like a good way of reducing the pain tat a big announcement has. But it begins to feel like ‘death by a thousand cuts’. A thousand cuts that you don’t know when and where the next one is coming.

This approach tends to dampen motivation almost permanently. People live in ‘fear’ of what could be coming next. Their focus is therefore permanently aware of the ‘unknown threat’ (see my recent blog on the right time to prepare) and not on the job you really want them to do. Motivation down, focus down and of course your leaders gaining the reputation that they don’t know what they are doing. If every year you need to change, that can be communicated as a function of context, but every month?

So dragging the change out risks the motivation of the workforce.

 

  • Conclusions?

Too fast and too slow. Neither really work, so what does? Lets only look at what these examples tell us about pace (and not the trust and belief that is also inherent in the examples).

The key is in engagement in the change. The time that it takes for people to understand the change and believe it. If there is no time to ask questions, to have them answered, to discuss with colleagues and come round to the understanding that the change is necessary, whether they like it or not, then people will be mistrusting of the change.

Similarly with changes in software or hardware, people need time to engage in the ‘ why’ then the knowledge required before the change arrives, then they need time to practice the use of the tool before it matters too much and then they need time and support with the real live issues that come up when the system goes live.

 

Whatever your change there is an engagement phase and that involves time, before the change itself as well as during the change. Go too quickly and people don’t have time to get on the bus, go too slowly and people don’t know there is a bus to get on or whether they trust the bus you are driving!