CIO Development

Article Viewing change as a leadership opportunity

Original article by Brinley Platts for Computer Yearbook 2003

We are not yet three years into the 21st Century and the world is looking more uncertain, more hostile and more complex than anyone could have predicted. Organisations across the globe are reeling from stock price falls, shareholders are having to cope with a whole new order of risk and uncertainty, entire industries have been rendered impotent by mood changes that seem to have happened overnight.

It is over a decade since Charles Handy and others declared change to be the new constant. Even during the American long boom, which heralded the ‘New Economy,’ business across the globe was confronting more turbulent markets, more demanding shareholders and more discerning customers. It was these pressures that forced so much of the restructuring we saw in the 1990s. And it was the need to handle organizational change on such a large scale that exposed the leadership inadequacies of many large organisations.

We know now that ‘Change Management’ of itself is not enough. Making change happen is the fundamental leadership issue and leadership is not simply better management. ‘What it takes to be a leader,’ according to Roberto Gorzueta, the late Chairman and CEO of Coca Cola, ‘is being able to handle change.’ If he were alive today he would see that simple truth everywhere.

Change is nothing new to leaders or their constituents. We have come a long way from the ‘scientific management’ theorists who thought that organisations could be endlessly managed, replicating proven practices to achieve success. Today, business conditions change too quickly and I product and service breakthroughs become too quickly copied and commoditised. There must be constant innovation and this means constant change. Change isn’t optional, it is essential, and the commitment to change must be wholehearted.

This works best where it is fully institutionalised s in the case of the FTSE 100 company that has a board level Director of Change Management. This organisation has a monthly executive board meeting doing what boards meet to do and the same executives meet together again every two weeks for a change board meeting at which the progress of major change projects and programmes is constantly monitored and judged. People don’t miss this meeting; it is where the future of the company, its various functions and staff is constantly adjusted to accommodate rapidly changing business priorities.

How does all this impact the humble IT executive? We find we have a paradox. Because IT has been at the heart of organisational change throughout our careers, and because we have seen technology innovation drive fundamental organisational transformation relentlessly over 20 years, we can too easily assume that ‘change’ is our forte. When Michael Earl described the attributes of the ‘New CIO’ he had ‘Change Manager’ as one of them. But what evidence do we have that IT executives are any more comfortable with change, and any more skilled at change leadership than anyone else? Such evidence as we have points the other way. IT executives are functional leaders too and they suffer from the same human frailties as other business executives. They can become great change leaders, but few are born that way.

The transition process
So what is the problem? Why are organisations so difficult to alter? Why don’t people ‘just do it,’ to echo the Nike ad? The problem is not actually the change itself. Redesigning or modifying business process can be an interesting and intellectually satisfying occupation. The problem is what this does to people who have to deal with change in process. The change itself is external (the different policy, practice or structure) the effect of that change is internal. It demands a psychological adjustment to be accomplished before the change can be accommodated. Change theorists refer to this phase as ‘transition’; it is a three-step process and getting people through it takes time.

Transition has its own timeframe. It can be optimised like any other process but it cannot be hurried because people are not machines. Each of its three steps is upsetting which is why people can become so emotional about change. Here are its three steps:

Step 1: Saying goodbye
Giving up something that has worked for you, perhaps something that has served you very well, is always difficult. Add to this the uncertainty that you will ever again find something that you can become so good at and it is clear why people can be reluctant even to give the new ways a trial. They may fee! that this simple process of change threatens their whole value add, even their rote and mission, to all intents their personal identity at work. For some this is simply too great a risk or too high a price. They refuse to let go emotionally of the old way and choose instead to join the ranks of the hidden resistors.

Step 2: Shifting into neutral
Supposing your people ‘buy’ the need for change and have enough confidence in you as leader to get off first base. They now enter a second difficult phase of the transition – the neutral zone. This is an in-between state full of uncertainty and confusion. This becomes very wearing as it soaks up most of people’s available energy. It can be particularly difficult during mergers or acquisitions when the shape and structure of a new business, its policies, roles and career opportunities, are all in suspense pending the outcome of occasionally protracted negotiations.

The neutral zone is an uncomfortable state so there is a natural tendency to try to rush through it. Some people will ‘rebound’ into any new situation, however unsuitable, just to escape from uncertainty; others will attempt a retreat into the old ways. Successful transition demands that people spend some time in the neutral zone; this is where the creativity and energy of transition are found and where the real transformation takes place. It takes time; the shift to self-managed teams can mean six months in the neutral zone, a major merger can mean two years. The change schedule itself need not be held up while the transition is being attended to, but if the transition is not dealt with, the change may collapse.

Step 3: Moving forward
Even when people let go of the old ways and have accepted an ending; even after they have faced the uncertainties of the neutral zone and stayed with it long enough to make the adjustments: they can still freeze and fail when they face the new beginning, This third phase demands that people begin to behave in a new way and this can put them at risk. People will often hang back at this final phase of transition waiting to see how others handle the new beginning.

Only when they have made the jump and experienced the new way of being, have people made a successful transition. The job of the leader of the transition is to ensure that people have the understanding, and the space to manage their personal resources through alt of this and to ensure the organisation does not create demands that will become quickly self- defeating. This is as true for the IT executive as functional leader as it is for any other business leader, and may be a useful coaching input to executive peers who may not have the necessary insight.

Why does change go wrong?
Given that the process side of change can be very straightforward and the people side, though lengthy, can be equally well understood, why do so many organisations get it so wrong so frequently? In an IMPACT study conducted by Cranfield University and sponsored by EDS (with a strong vested interest themselves in getting people through transition) we identified from a sample of over 100 major change initiatives the factors that adversely affect an organisation’s ability to manage change. They are in the main, simple and damning:

1) There is a lack of clear direction at the beginning and diminishing commitment and involvement from senior staff during implementation. This is a straightforward failure of leadership. The vanishing commitment makes the pain of transition seem pointless, causing resentment and resistance.

2) The strategic reasons for the changes are not shared with those affected. This means those involved are not always ‘sold’ on the need for the change, introducing unnecessary doubt and mistrust and greatly extending the first stage of transition.

3) Understanding of the risks involved and the expectations of key stakeholders is rushed, leading to change without full analysis of the consequences. The result of this is to rush those affected through the neutral stage too quickly without the time to let go of the old ways before insistence on the new,

4) Knowing that people are at the heart of change problems, organisations commonly address the needs of those who are expected to show resistance to the change but do not give enough attention to the needs of the silent majority.

5) Organisations think very hard about the content of the change and then fail to allow for the unexpected. They act as though problems can be ‘planned out’ and do not allow enough space during implementation to deal with undefined problems that will always occur,

6) The balance of sustaining business as usual and implementing a change initiative can frequently be skewed toward keeping the business running. Staff will usually have to continue to meet their old operational requirements whilst transitioning to new states.

7) There are often inconsistencies in the way people issues are managed. For example, open two-way communication is identified as critical, but in reality it remains top-down.

Viewing change as a challenge
If you are an IT executive facing change in your function, or change in your business that will affect your function significantly, you should keep in mind what prevents change from being an exciting challenge for your people and strive to make it so.

In the first place, change is a leadership opportunity not a management problem. Business process may change but don’t Set that confuse you. Leaders lead people and through their people they implement new process effectively – or they don’t. Leaders are most effective when they are emotionally connected to their people; when their people see them ‘walking the talk’ and being part of the ‘transition process’.

If your people are affected by change they will need to understand clearly what is expected of them and they may require learning time (remember the classic learning curve proceeds through a series of plateaux and these can become periods of frustration and despondency). This is the process side of change.

But the hidden, invidious side of change lurks beneath the surface, ready to wreck your change initiative if you are unaware of it, and you ignore it at your peril. Your people need to make a psychological transition to adjust to change and there can be no shortcuts. Your people have to be ready to say goodbye to the old ways – you can assist them in this by letting them know the thinking behind why they are being asked to change.

Next, your people have to get used to not having the old certainties, the old job habits that fitted them like an old pair of slippers. They still have to work and achieve a result but they need time and space to break the old psychological dependencies before you can expect them to develop new ones. They will just be going through the motions for a while, and that’s okay.

Finally, you need to ensure that your people do not get stuck in emotional neutral. They should eventually embrace the new ways as securely as they embraced the old. You know you have succeeded when they confirm that this is such a superior way of working compared with the old that they wish they had done it much earlier. When that happens you know that the change process has worked.

Change is never easy. Your staff will need to be supported and encouraged through it, not punished when they make a mistake. This requires vision, teamwork and leadership. Few of us get the opportunity to lead our departments through a major change programme. If it falls to you, seize it and use it to cement your reputation.

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