At a client meeting once I heard words that I think I’ve heard a thousand times over the last decade. “They need to change” said the GM, who then went on to dissect the performance of his workforce who were “stuck in the past”, “resistant to new ideas”, and “unwilling to go that extra mile”. He then outlined for me the change programme that had been put in place over the last year, which was inevitably failing due their “intransigence”.
Very few changes start at the bottom of the tree. The Russian revolution aside, history shows that changes are made by people in a position to make them. The top of the tree. The ideas for change come from the top and so they should. That’s what the organisation’s leadership is for; to provide direction and business clarity, to analyse the trends and meet them with innovation.
So it is only natural to look down from the top of the organisation and conceive of the new ideas that those at the bottom should be implementing. By and large leadership is what workforces expect of leaders, and while many people are initially resistant of the idea of change, most workforces I have met understand that the company has to make changes to keep ahead of, or in touch with, the competition.
The trouble with looking down from the top to the bottom is the bottom is looking up at you. “We need to change” is your rallying cry. But the “we” often falls short when it comes to “I” And the bottom notices this and knows you don’t mean “we” at all.
With this thought in mind I asked the GM what the change programme had incorporated for the leadership of the organisation. Aside from a few shuffles of position under the banner of restructuring, the same leaders were in the top positions doing roughly the same things. Yet the workforce had to change its behaviours and its attitudes and align to a new set of values.
It brought to mind a quote that we use on our business cards. Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”, which I think is great guidance for CEO’s and GM’s leading change in their organisation. “What am I doing now that is not in support of the changes I need? “What behaviour do we need to adopt at the top to engender the change throughout the organisation?” and “What demands am I making that are counter-cultural or change destructive”
Change starts at the top, not just with an idea but with demonstration.
Many years ago I worked in a business that was implementing a spending freeze in line with its bottom line focus. To make a major statement it was announced that all business travel was to be stopped completely. The immediate impact was great. Throughout the organisation people got the message, and started to consider little ways that they could tighten the belts in their area. A week later a small announcement followed to say that the travel ban had been modified and that people of a certain grade and above would be continuing to travel first class. The message was immediately lost. The belief in the business took a step back. People gave lip service to the profit drive. Why? Everyone knew that a total travel ban would not work. Some people had to travel as part of their job. Destination dependent would have been acceptable. Role dependent and business class for long distant would have made sense. But grade dependent? And still first class?
The message was “the change is not about us, it’s about you”. That one message destroyed all the good intent of the profit drive and impacted on change programmes for years to come, as it installed suspicion and cynicism of the leadership group.
Many years ago I read a book by Chris Argyris, called “Overcoming organisational defences”. It was in my early years as a change agent and trouble-shooter of change failures. It made me really aware of the unwritten rules that propagate the business and run counter to the change you are trying to make. A favourite of mine, came when I was working with a business that was streamlining its management information systems and as a result reducing the number of people in its accounts department. The initiative was founded on good I.T and should have worked but it didn’t.
I follow my nose in these things and asked the people on the ground what they were doing and where their time was going. In the course of one discussion I noticed some piles of papers on one employee’s desk. They didn’t look like the standardised, cost effective reports I had been shown by the head of IT. I asked about them. “Oh, they are for the CEO and the Chairman”, I was told. These “special” reports were being hand created to mach a report that he CEO had used in the past. It turned out that a number of senior people also had their own “special reports”
The change was not about these senior people, in their minds so in a few simple requests they were wasting the vast spend of the I.T project and ensured that the head of accounts could not cut to the numbers that had been part of the project justification.
And of course the workforce saw and the workforce lost belief.
My advice? Remember Ghandi, and before you say that your workforce is resistant to change, ask yourself “What do I need to do differently? “What behaviour do I need to have” and “What counter-cultural demands do I make?” and be the “change you want to see in your world”