What they don’t teach you in “change management” courses

There is much of value being taught in courses, written in books and advised by consultants regarding the best ways to effect organizational changes.  There’s the reminder that people personalize any anticipated change, whether it affects them or not.  We need to address the human need for knowing the facts of what’s going on, and what it may or may not mean to us personally.  Any change that could affect one’s livelihood raises the threat-awareness and response systems in the human animal.  Some more than others, of course.

So it’s good to involve people in the planning and the decisions, insofar as that is possible.  It’s good to find a vehicle for them to express their emotions.  It’s good to keep them informed.  It’s great if everyone feels heard, because then they will more likely accept the necessary changes that they don’t like.  (Barring a layoff decision for them, of course.  Not many folks hold the objectivity and devotion to the team to accept being fired, for the good of the whole.)

All of these principles are fine and good, as far as they go.

I was talking with Geoffrey, a member of our Tribe who came to us after retiring from the military.  We were discussing the changes going on in the company and the processes being followed, along the lines of what I described above.

Geoffrey said, “It’s really, really different in private companies!  In the military no one asks your opinion about a command before it’s given!  The soldier’s job is to move in the direction being pointed to, as quickly as humanly possible.  If we don’t, people die.”

“Right” I replied.  “That level of criticality doesn’t often exist in a business, although sometimes we act as if it does.  But the long-term viability of this ever-growing Tribe, its collective livelihood, the livelihoods of people who bet their retirement funds on our stock through 401K and pension plans, and the incomes of the many people who work for our suppliers and service providers are indeed at risk.  So the ‘mortality’ in question is economic and long-term, but it’s not actually life and death.  It’s perceived by people as being on the way towards that.”

And because the decisions being made can and do affect all those individual futures, they deserve to made well, in a time frame that has a chance to succeed.  If you wait too long to get something done, the value of the decision erodes to zero.

The leader’s role, then, is to follow the principles of leading through change, while concurrently making decisions at a pace that will ensure the success of the decisions within the necessary time frame.  That means the leader’s job is to teach people how to make changes ever more efficiently and to adapt to the changes quicker.

In doing so, the leader will be served well who realizes that people get better and better at making changes if they have more and more opportunities to go through them.  There is no other path towards becoming adaptable than to be required to adapt.  A fad term in the organizational consulting world these last several years is “agility”, and a popular competence identified as being important to good leadership is “tolerance for ambiguity”, which essentially means the ability to adapt quickly and confidently.  Both of these behavioral qualities can only be acquired through multiple experiences of living through change, and adapting successfully.

An analogy is international travel.  If you’re not used to flying across ten or more time zones, the first few times you do it, your body clock is whacked and you are dysfunctional for a few days on either end of the journey.  After several years of multiple international trips annually, your body just knows how to adapt and the impact is pretty minimal.

You can read a book on how to adapt to international travel.  You can go to courses on it.  You can talk to people who have done it successfully.  But ultimately, you just have to do it yourself enough times that you learn how to handle the time differences, the unpredictability of flight schedules and airplane malfunctions, the ambiguity of going to a new country and not knowing the language or how to get a taxi, learning where to buy clothes for the meeting in the morning when the airline lost your bags, etc.

In addition to multiple experiences, people need to trust their leaders who are asking them to get on Change Airlines and go somewhere new.  If they don’t, then the issue is not about their ability to change or their tolerance of ambiguity.  They might say it is, but it’s really that they don’t believe their leader knows the right direction to go.  That’s why the time to gain the trust of a group of people is not at the moment the changes are required.

You have to gain that trust well in advance of the need for change.  Going through the motions of a change management process without trust already established will be perceived as a veneer covering ulterior motives.  A change process followed in such cases actually further erodes trust.

Successful organizational change starts and ends with trust between the leader and the organization, established far sooner than the need for change, includes involvement and education of the organization along the way, understanding that the only way people get better at change is to go through it a few times.

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