Five myths of change management that impede business improvement

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Linda Harrison, Manufacturing Growth Lead for EEF, examines the process of successful change management and challenges some of the major myths that impede business improvement.

Myth 1: Change is easier when you are in a crisis

It is true that a crisis can galvanise people into dramatic action, but does it bring out the best in the greatest number of people? Does it increase flexibility?

As businesses turn a corner and rebuild after the recession, there’s a commonly held view that greater stability and prosperity makes business renewal difficult because staff tend to become complacent and lose focus. But if managers handle change properly, greater prosperity allows them the time to bring people along with them. This is the key to sustainable change.

The challenge is to create a sense of urgency for change during times of success. This will push people out of their comfort zone into the so-called innovation zone. Here, they will be more willing to move into something new and try new behaviours, while leaving behind the comfort and security of their former situation. By contrast, in a crisis people are always in danger of falling out of their innovation zone directly into the panic zone, where fear either paralyses them or drives them away. Under stress, most people revert to type, become more entrenched and inflexible and are actually less open to learning.

One of the best ways to build a positive need for change is via a company’s customers. The more real a manager can make the customer and their changing needs, the easier it will be to change while the business is still successful. Another method is to revise organisational procedures or structures as an initial step towards wider change. Once a manager alters the environment in which people are used to working, e.g. by introducing different reporting lines, their behaviour has to change accordingly. Above all, always create an environment in which people feel they can comfortably experiment and take risks. That is the engine for innovation and continued prosperity.

Myth 2: Fundamental change has to be revolutionary change

Individuals and organisations have a certain elasticity or capability to adapt. But unless there is a conscious effort to work at it, most people stiffen over time. To increase flexibility and fitness for change, it is necessary to start with smaller, incremental changes. For example, a company could improve a local claims handling process before implementing an entirely new nationwide automated system.

Revolutionists argue that local, incremental change produce much smaller results, so why not go straight for glory. The answer is that many small steps are far more likely to lead to success and then, in turn, deliver the desired revolutionary change. This more measured approach also builds confidence, therefore helping to convert and recruit committed and enthusiastic agents of change who will get on-side and drive transformation from within.

The point is illustrated by an example from American agriculture. Experts were baffled when Indian subsistence farmers stuck with traditional farming methods that had minimal yields, when the experts offered a ‘green revolution’, using fertilizers that would improve returns tenfold. The explanation is that if the outcome is uncertain – a bumper crop or no crop – reliable subsistence is the logical choice.

It’s important to start immediately with incremental changes to build confidence, then address fundamental issues such as organisation structure and compensation programmes. It is surprising what the cumulative impact of a ten per cent annual improvement in process efficiency has on fitness for change.

Myth 3: Before we change, we have to be clear about our destination.

If a person waits to be absolutely clear about their destination before starting the journey, they will never start. They can fall victim to paralysis by analysis. More important than the destination, is painting a compelling picture of the future and inviting others to help create it.

An aspirational vision of the future can bring out the best in a great many people, as long as they have confidence and trust in their leaders to help create that future state. An aspirational vision is a dream, not a destination. However, the more vivid and realistic the dream, the more powerful it is. By backing words with actions, effective leaders can build confidence in others that the journey itself will be rewarding.

The point is illustrated by the story of a traveller walking down a country lane in France who meets a man sitting on a pile of stones in a field, leaning on his sledge hammer. “What are you doing?” the traveller asks. “I am supposed to be breaking stones”, the man replies. Further down the road the traveller meets a second man, who is working away at a steady pace. “What are you doing”? the traveller asks. “Making bricks”, the second man replies.” Further down the road the traveller meets a third man, who is working with tremendous energy. “What are you doing”? the traveller asks. “Building a cathedral”! the third man shouts without stopping.

Myth 4: Change management is a small part of a manager’s day job

In dynamic businesses managing change is integral to a manager’s role. Today, people in leadership roles are faced with simultaneously managing several business models while encouraging change, and by definition, uncertainty. They often face conflicting goals and tension between their different responsibilities.

Previously, managers concentrated on keeping the business under control. They were paid to be sure there were no surprises. Today, the task of managing change can often add up to 50 per cent of the ‘day’ job. This calls for the skills of a ‘paradoxical manager’, who has an unusually high tolerance for ambiguity and can operate in two modes.

This person must be able to improve existing ways of doing business while building entirely new ways of working. Blending these often conflicting skills can be challenging, but the right training and support can build the right skills and techniques to help manage and lead change effectively through your everyday tasks.

Myth 5: Most people resist change because they are afraid

The rate at which a person changes is a function of how dissatisfied they are with the current condition, how clear they are about the desired new condition, and whether they know how to get there. People’s readiness for change will also be influenced by its perceived cost in terms of both money and psychological or social factors.

The choice of whether to change or not is made on a personal level. As the saying goes, ‘change is a door that can only be opened from the inside’. As such, those driving business transformation should work on a personal level to build a coalition of those ready to implement change.

This can be achieved by creating an appropriate level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, communicating a compelling picture of the future by showing how the change will improve the current situation, and being as clear as possible about how to get there and the benefits of making the journey.

Is your business ready for change?

Making any business change isn’t easy. EEF understands manufacturing workplace dynamics and offers a winning combination of HR and employment advice, Lean and Sigma consultancy and training to enable you to lead, implement and sustain change.

For more information about how we can tailor a continuous improvement approach that will win over the hearts and minds of your employees, and your trade unions if you have them, or for more details on our range of training programmes contact 0808 168 5874, enquiries@eef.org.uk

Author

This person has now left EEF. Please contact us on 0808 168 1874 or email us at enquiries@eef.org.uk if you have any questions.

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