Ten Axioms of Change Management

In my work, it seems that organizations are encountering major change issues more and more frequently. In my work with organizations facing change issues, it seems that I am asked to work with change situations in two very different circumstances. Some organizations that are planning change such as those that are required by external drivers to rethink their operations, ask me to help them avoid change-related issues as a part of the planning process. In other situations, I am only asked to work with the organization once change-related conflict or lost productivity has occurred.  Sometimes the change implementation process has happened with minimal disruption and conflict. Other times, the change management process was so disruptive and challenging that it ultimately failed.  And finally, sometimes attempts to effect change ultimately led to catastrophic consequences, like the downfall and removal of the executive manager linked to the change initiative, law suits, and horrible publicity. I have seen change related conflict have serious impacts on the careers of even the most brilliant leaders. Recently, I have seen just this sort of “catastrophic outcome” where well-meaning change efforts backfired with all the dire results.

changeIn this post I share some lessons learned from my experiences working in and with a wide range of organizations – internally, and as a consultant – that sought to implement significant change initiatives.  Some of these initiatives failed miserably and others were highly successful. While working with these organizations during their change initiatives, I had the opportunity to observe the leaders involved, and to identify some of the factors that had a direct affect on the change implementation process.

Based on these lessons here are some axioms for leaders and groups contemplating or in the middle of change situations:

1.    Learn your new organization. As a new leader, before launching major change initiatives establish your own credibility and gain trust and acceptance with your management team and with the workforce at large. Smart change requires deep knowledge of the reasons why things are the way they currently are, and the ability to share reasoned arguments for the changes you desire. If you are unaware of complications or of unintended consequences that your team or your workers spot because their deep knowledge of the environment, your rationale for change will lose credibility and you risk building skepticism.

2.    Understand that there is a tribal psychology at play in every organization.  As a person who is new to the “tribe” you must give yourself time to settle in and to become a known rather than a threatening unknown. Unless there is some overwhelming directive or mandate for immediate change, allow yourself the opportunity to get to know the key individuals and to understand the current systems and why they exist as they do. Just because things are not done the way you have seen them done before does not necessarily guarantee that another way is better. Take the time necessary to understand the rationale for the current system.

3.    Guard against your OWN change resistance. As a leader who is new to the organization, remember that one size does not fit all. Just because something worked in the context of your former organization does not mean it is right for the current setting.  In fact, implementing processes familiar to you because you as a manager are comfortable with them may be an indication of your own change resistance. Taking the time to settle in allows you to gain familiarity and knowledge of the current systems while testing that you are not simply succumbing to your own form of change resistance.

4.    Understand that change resistance is actually natural and a healthy check to flippant changes. There are many legitimate drivers at play that can tend to appear to push back on change. Middle managers and non-management workers can change 4legitimately fear that changes will negatively affect performance, as workers have to learn new approaches and systems. They can, quite understandably, question whether the lost productivity will, in fact, only be short term.  In the near term, changing processes and systems invariably involves lost productivity.  This is often used as a justification to stay with the familiar and to ostensibly demonstrate that the “new” is actually less efficient.  It is typically easier to continue using even more complex systems and processes that are familiar, than it is to learn the new systems, and time is, indeed, lost in the transition.  One must be prepared to look at the larger return on investment, rather than near term metrics, but also to recognize that worker’s will fear that this lost productivity will be viewed as their deficiency, rather than a natural change-related workplace phenomenon. One must take steps to address those fears.

5.    Middle management can fear change for its own reasons. As a leader, you must be prepared to recognize that change is a great organizational equalizer in that, at its outset, it places middle managers and their subordinates on a more equal footing because neither is more familiar with the new processes. The managers involved, can find this threatening to their positional authority, and the workers they supervise can find it confusing because the normal knowledge flow of their leadership structure is temporarily disrupted.

6.    If not carefully communicated, change implementation can come across as blame. The current incumbents may easily “hear” the message in the change process as a reflection on their skills and abilities. If the processes that they have willingly and cheerfully engaged in for some time, are now subject changes because they are viewed as “deficient,” the existing workforce may, understandably, view the arguments for change as a direct reflection on their abilities and job acumen.  Asking the workforce to embrace change without sensitive communication can be viewed as asking them to acknowledge that the current systems are actually a reflection of the workforce’s own failure. Most dedicated workers do not want to be painted into that sort of corner and honestly want the organization to succeed.

7.    Even when adroitly administered, major change involves emotional processes for your workforce. Many change experts point to the similarities in the psychology of change (losing deeply familiar relationships and work culture) and the psychology of grief (losing an intimate relationship and a comfortable way of interacting). In a recent discussion of change on one of the professional websites, John Schultz, Program Director (retired) for the Madison Area Technical College, puts it this way:

“People confronted by altered circumstances frequently experience grief and will go through a distinct conversion process before taking on their new roles. The length of time at each stage varies depending on the situation, the type of support, and individual flexibility. Each segment has its own set of recognizable characteristics. Accepting and understanding these stages will provide an opportunity for the project team—as agents of improvement—to reduce resistance and move system improvements forward.”

Steps to change acceptance.

Steps to change acceptance. The step from blaming others to assuming responsibility can be a big step.

The graphic, right, shows my own model for change acceptance. There are very discernable phases to change acceptance. Even when individuals within an organization may have some vague awareness that change could help, there is a natural tendency to ignore the situation and to carry on, because that is was appears to be currently endorsed.  When confronted with the need for change, often people go in to a denial stage, which is frequently driven by the factors that I discussed above. If pressed to explain the reasons for the current approaches, people will often shrug and explain that the processes are simply the way it has always been – essentially blaming others for the status quo. It is only when an effective leader can engage the workforce and lead them to accept shared responsibility for the future directions, that everyone’s energies can be directed to active improvements and problem solving.

So, we have talked now at length about all the scary reasons to avoid change implementation.  Should we simply accept things the way they are?  Of course not!  Here are some axioms for leaders contemplating change initiatives.

1.    Take the time to build a change-accepting environment.  As a leader, it is important to acknowledge that the processes and approaches that are currently in place were, in fact, put in to place for rational reasons at the time.  Start first by inculcating a spirit of openness and an environment that fosters a spirit of continuous improvement that is driven from the desktop or technical bench up, rather than from the top down. Take the time to dialogue with the workforce. Discuss the current environment and seek deep understanding of the fears and concerns of the workforce and acknowledge those fears.

2.    Be clear on your vision for change and share it conceptually with your executive leadership and with workforce before seeking to implement specific measures. This allows your workforce to gain ownership of the approach and to align behind the conceptual course of change and you may find that individuals actually have better ideas for implementing specific change measures. Before implementing any change, the management leadership team needs to be fully aligned and understand the premises and overarching goals.  They must be prepared to communicate the vision to their middle managers and ensure that the first line worker understands the larger vision and goals, while not co-opting those workers’ abilities to develop custom solutions that meet the goals but are also based on deeply rooted experience in the specific workplace and may be a better match for its culture.

3.    At all costs, avoid the inference of blame, when communicating the need for change and be humble in your approach to articulating your vision.  People want to believe in the way they work and do not want to be “blamed for the way things are.” Change should be kept results- and systems-oriented and not directed at specific individuals, who may, understandably become defensive and resist the change measures. As a leader implementing change, you must be prepared to embrace the concept of being an empowering, servant-leader that provides the vision, basis, and support for your workforce to implement change. As a leader, you must be comfortable with letting go of “heroic” leadership attitudes and let the whole process and all its participants take its course while, at the same time, carefully shepherding the process to keep it on course.

4.    Identify your key stakeholders and those that can, if not on board, sabotage the process.  Be sure to take the time necessary to integrate the individual members of your governing board (if it exists), HR, legal, your organizational staff, and other top key staff and management functions into the vision and empower them with the responsibility to help the whole organization gain understanding.  Your board, key members of the community, HR, legal and others should be an allies and not impediments. As necessary, be sure to take the time to integrate their suggestions into the process.  Build ownership and momentum with people’s input and support.

5.    Make change and the temporary impacts of change “safe.”  In the near term, changing processes and systems takes time and can cause role and process cChange2onfusion. This is often used as a pushback justification to stay with the familiar and to ostensibly demonstrate that the “new” is actually less efficient.  It is typically easier to continue using even more complex systems and processes that are familiar, than it is to learn the new systems, and time is, indeed, lost in the transition.  As a leader, you must be prepared to look at the larger return on investment, rather than near term metrics and, most importantly, articulate, as a part of the change process, that short-term lost productivity and some role confusion is a natural phenomenon and no reflection the workers involved.

6.    Set attainable, reasonable milestones and celebrate them. At the outset, change is not liked by most.  However, “continuing process improvements” and “system simplifications” are generally readily accepted.  So much rests in the manner, scope and scale of the changes. As I discussed above, change can have unpredictable results. Therefore, absent other compelling drivers, it is safer to implement your change initiative in smaller increments. This enables easy mid-course corrections, and step-by-step validation (or calibration) of your vision and plan. It also allows your workforce to see the benefits of change and to feel a shared sense of accomplishment and progress. This builds ownership. Be sure to have metrics in place that focus the incremental improvements and highlight the successes of your workforce.

Aligning your workforce to prepare for change ownership.

Aligning your workforce to prepare for change ownership.

7.    An effectively implemented change process can be a unifying and empowering process for the workplace that builds team effectiveness and loyalty to its leadership. Change implementation is best from the ground up.  While leadership can instigate a change initiative through effective communication of vision and need, most successful change initiatives are ultimately driven from the worker up. Understand that it takes time to let others develop and own the new approaches.  The most important commodity for the leadership is vision around efficiency and the ability to convey it in a way that the workforce understands the vision, embraces it, and then works to realize it by implementing changes that the workers, themselves, develop. Give your employees the chance to get excited by the potential that they are lead to see.

change 38.    Be generous with sharing ownership of change. Whenever possible, let change be your workforce’s idea. Use your experience and expertise to ask the right questions of your key personnel, which will, in turn, lead these workers to their own ideas for change improvement. These ideas will very likely overlap with your own, provided you engage in the process of “guided enlightenment” of your key stakeholders regarding the reasons for change. And, if they don’t overlap, through the process of dialogue you may discover change approaches that are even better adapted to the particular setting. Always be open to your own learning and be open to influence throughout the process.

9.    Watch for risk-management land mines. While, for example, it might seem appealing to save cost through reducing the workforce, if, for example, the reduction inadvertently carries with it a disparate impact based on job titles, and type of work targeted for reduction, you may well spend as much time, resources, and energy defending your organization from a discrimination claim, as you may gain from the workforce reduction, not to mention the negative effects on your own professional reputation and that of the organization. Unless it is absolutely unavoidable, avoid linking change to downsizing! Change is about enhancing productivity.  If you press your workforce into the corner of feeling that its very survival is threatened (remember we all work to a hierarchy of needs), you risk encouraging sabotage of your change initiative. If downsizing is necessary, it can happen at a later point, when the efficiencies of change have already been gained.

10. Share the success of the changes implemented with your workforce.  After all, it is the workforce that has overcome its own resistance and suspicions and embraced the changes. By making your workforce the hero, you build loyalty and allegiance, and a zealous commitment to the new approaches and processes.

When thoughtfully implemented and carefully communicated, change initiatives need not pose a threat to any leader. Invariably, when I have witnessed failed change initiatives, it is because they were aggressively pushed off on the workers without consideration of the natural change-related phenomena. When these factors are appreciated and effectively approached and managed as a part of the change implementation plan, change can be a unifying process!


©Bruce J. MacAllister, December 2013, all rights reserved.

Comments (2)

  1. Jack


    Be aware of who wins and looses when change happens. Leaders are elected or hired because they promise change. Those doing the hiring and electing don’t like the way things are but often don’t know what they want in its place. They don’t think whose toes are to be stepped on and what kind of power these folks may have to push back. Think Obama or watch “House of Cards.”

  2. Jack


    Be aware of who wins and looses when change happens. Leaders are elected or hired because they promise change. Those doing the hiring and electing don’t like the way things are but often don’t know what they want in its place. They don’t think whose toes are to be stepped on and what kind of power these folks may have to push back. Think Obama or watch “House of Cards.”

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