Advice and Insights From A Practitioner

A Prescription for Change

You Can Keep the Change…Say What?

One of the tough things to swallow in business is the lip service paid by some executives towards change initiatives. It goes something like this:

“Yeah, we know have to change but, we are too busy struggling to keep our clients happy while at the same time trying to meet our numbers”.

This is the common “deer-looking-into-the-headlights” response when change initiatives are stalled or shelved due to the increased level of risk and complexity nearly everyone in business feels in this newly connected global marketplace.  Take complexity and combine it with the daily pressures of meeting “the numbers” and sometimes you get paralysis.

As we all know, postponing change indefinitely can be a fatal position for a successful business.  Just take a ride around a city like Detroit or other cities in the “rust belt” if you need a reminder about how critical it is to continuously change. In the never ending quest to meet the numbers though, the unspoken feeling among those executives who seemingly have no time for change – is that fatalist view that “change won’t help me if I fail to meet my numbers”.  That level of complacency won’t work. I think every executive needs to spend at least 10% of their time on change initiatives – no matter what.

Here is what Dwight D. Eisenhower so poignantly said about the subject of change:

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

For a moment, just think about the painful change that has been occurring at most businesses who have been forced to embrace social media…and how during its infancy the whole social media opportunity was dismissed by many CEOs as a “passing fad for kids”. A perfect example comes from Google Inc.’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt who said one of his biggest failures as chief executive of the search giant over the last decade was grappling with the rise of social identity services such as Facebook Inc. (Source: Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2011, the article entitled: Google Missed the Friend Thing).

Here is another one of my favorite quotes on change:

“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that changes like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.”[2]

Peter Drucker

Transformational Change

To me, one of the most exciting and riveting challenges a leader faces is developing and implementing a change initiative. Call me crazy but I think that is especially true now – during this age of economic turbulence, political instability, industry consolidations and market upheaval. A large-scale change initiative (called “transformation”) certainly gets the juices flowing – both good and bad.  And it’s the bad that you have to plan for, guard and defend against. The inherent nature of a transformation initiative is that it typically involves BIG changes – a change in business model and/or business model re-design that fundamentally alters the business.  Examples of business transformation are the adoption of new technologies, major strategic shifts (entering new markets, launching completely new products), full scale process re-engineering, mergers, acquisitions, integration, restructuring, innovation initiatives and dramatic cultural changes.

If you ever find yourself knee deep in the midst of the implementation of a full scale transformation initiative, I think you will agree with me that it requires a complete set of leadership skills, a strong constitution, resilience and an appreciation for risk management.

“A willingness to change is a strength, even if it means plunging
part of the company into total confusion for a while.”
Jack Welch

And this one, again from Peter Drucker:

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

—Peter Drucker

People and Change

As we all know, change comes at an organization in a variety of different ways.  When thrust upon us during or following a crisis (the worst kind) it can hit so hard and fast it takes your breath away. Other times change is incremental, planned and emerges following an event like a business performance review process or through an organized strategic planning process (a.k.a. the easy way towards change).  In a few cases, it comes packaged with clever slogans (remember “Change We Can Believe In”[3]?).

One thing is for certain: change is really tough to accomplish because it involves changing people’s behavior.  With few exceptions, in most organizations people already have full time jobs …so to “pile on” a large-scale change initiative or a few consecutive change initiatives can be viewed as overwhelming or just another “flavor-of-the-month”[4] effort by senior management.  If not carefully planned, the people within the organization can view your change initiative(s) as unrealistic or “doomed from the start” which can obviously create a big morale problem that impacts the existing business (and eventually results) and in extreme cases, threatens the long term viability of the business.  Change can be an uphill climb, just like most rewarding things in life. However, it can be made a little bit easier if you, as the leader, sets the right tone and follows a proven process or what I like to call a “prescription for change”.

 “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!”

Peter Senge

My “prescription for change” is modeled after two very cogent approaches called the Fifth Discipline and Dr. Kotter’s the 8 step process for leading change, as described below.

The Organizational Entity as an Organism

Some organizations make change look easy because they have developed and truly shaped change over time.  In this way, the organization is similar to a living entity or organism, morphing into adaptive, learning organizations[5] from the very top to the very bottom.  In his seminal 1990 best seller of a book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge developed the concept of the “learning organization” which consists of five key ingredients to operate and adapt in an increasingly complex and changing global marketplace:

  1. Systems Thinking
    – viewing the organization as a system of interdependent and connected parts that operate like an organism, ever changing and learning.
  2. Personal Mastery
    – encouraging skills development and spiritual growth of the employees by the “learning organization”.  Being able to see and deal with the current reality of the business.
  3. Mental models
    – a discipline that requires managers to construct mental models for the driving force behind the organizations’ values and principles.
  4. Shared Vision
    – creativity and innovation are based upon group creativity which is contingent upon having a shared vision.
  5. Team Learning
    – instilling candor, shared dialogue, team work and open communications is necessary for achieving the vision.[6]

I really recommend this book if you have not already read it.

Jack Be Nimble

Learning organizations create the environment necessary for constant change. One of the best examples of a learning organization is General Electric where, in the 1990s, Jack Welch is famous for saying: “You’ve got to talk about change every second of the day.” While this declaration is a bit overboard, as his record demonstrates, he truly practiced what he preached. In the final analysis, Jack was a nimble leader, incredible trainer and evangelist for change who really understood that real change is harder and takes a lot longer than most people think.  Change became part of the fabric of this massive company because of his undaunted leadership skills.

Oh, and Machiavelli thought change was pretty tough too:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1532)

And, consider this gem on change:

“Keep in mind that you cannot control your own future. Your destiny is not in your hands; it is in the hands of the irrational consumer and society. The changes in their needs, desires, and demands will tell you where you must go. This means that managers must themselves feel the pulse of change on a daily, continuous basis…. They should have intense curiosity, observe events, analyze trends, seek the clues of change, and translate those clues into opportunities.”

— Michael J. Kami

Thank You, Dr. Kotter

Dr. John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and preeminent author of the best selling book, “Leading Change” has studied dozens of organizations in the midst of tremendous change and upheaval put it this way:

“The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.”[7]

Again, people determine the success or failure of change so there is a need to continuously motivate, train and promote new behaviors that support change.  Several of the best books on change have been written by Dr. Kotter (Leading Change, The Heart of Change and one of his more recent books Our Iceberg is Melting).  He advocates a very sensible and straight forward 8 step process toward effective, lasting change, which I will summarize here:

1.     Establish a Sense of Urgency:

  • Examine internal and external realities (via SWOT analysis).
  • Identify and deal with any crisis, potential crisis and key transformational issues and opportunities.
  • Reinforce the idea that change is about creating a brighter, better, more sustainable future.

2.     Build the Guiding Team:

  • Pick a champion known for change leadership.
  • Assemble a team that is powerful enough to lead the initiative, made up of key influencers.
  • Ignore the usual organizational hierarchies and encourage the group to work as a team.
  • Establishing a dialogue of trust, candor and truth throughout the organization is absolutely critical.

3.     Get the Vision Right:

  • Create the vision for the change initiative.
  • Use the military approach of Commander’s Intent (CI).
  • Develop strategies for change.
  • If you cannot explain the vision in 5 minutes or less then you are NOT finished with this important step.

4.     Communicate for Buy-in:

  • You must use the art of persuasion and strike an “emotional cord”.  Follow Dan and Chip Heath’s advice on communicating ideas that stick: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional and Stories.[8]
  • Use every vehicle to communicate the new vision.
  • Teaching/training new behaviors.
  • Show how this change initiative or turnaround plan is different from past plans.
  • Develop and nurture a positive culture around change.

5.     Empower Action/Remove Obstacles:

  • Identify and remove obstacles to change, including people who haven’t bought into and support the change program.
  • Changing and/or eliminating systems/procedures that undermine change.
  • Encourage risk-taking, the exchange of non-traditional ideas, activities and actions (proof positive change is underway).
  • Fight momentum killers – complacency, resistance, defiance, skepticism, cynicism and pessimism whenever it surfaces.

6.     Create Short-term Wins:

  • Plan for visible performance improvements – engineer short term wins.
  • Creating, implementing and rewarding employees involved in the improvements.

7.     Don’t let-up – Produce More Change – build on Your Quick Wins

  • Using increased credibility to change systems and policies further.
  • Hiring, promoting and developing employees who can implement the vision.
  • Recognize that setbacks are inevitable.
  • Reinvigorate the process with new projects, changes and themes.

8.     Institutionalize Change – Make Change Stick

  • Articulating the connections between the new behaviors and corporate success.
  • Developing the means to ensure leadership development and succession.
  • Follow this mantra: “We see, we feel, we change”[9]

Again, another great quote from Peter Drucker:

 “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got. “

—Peter Drucker

Communication – Leveraging the “Bees Knees”

Successful change requires a carefully crafted and orchestrated communication plan that supports all 8 steps of the process. Again, I marvel at Jack Welch’s ability to continuously drive change throughout his long, successful tenure as CEO and Chairman of GE.  He was also a proponent of teamwork and pushing change down to the lowest levels of the company until the positive view of change permeated the entire organization.

To do so, I believe it is critical to have the management team establish a clear and open dialogue with the entire workforce by appointing supervisors and managers with the task of transmitting (and often times translating) the communications for an on behalf of senior management. The second, third and fourth levels down the organization, those closest to the frontline employees, represents what I call the “bees knees”.  They must be part and partial of such a critical communication effort.

“Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.”

—Frances Hesselbein[10]

Making Change Stick

In the final analysis, lasting change is not a ‘hit and run” exercise and rarely occurs through happenstance.  It is typically a long, hard slog of a process. “Making Change Stick”, my “prescription for change”, then is about:

  • making sure that you always have an eye on the future,
  • a thorough understanding of the environment your business is operating in,
  • a simple but effective vision,
  • the identification of the behaviors that need to change,
  • the willingness to change,
  • an evangelical leader that sets aside at least 10% of his or her time working on change,
  • additional resources and funding to support change,
  • adopting the Fifth Discipline, creating and nurturing a learning organization,
  • a persuasive (and pervasive) communication plan supported by the “bees knees”, involving the entire management team, filtering down through the supervisory ranks to the frontline employees.
  • a process for change – as I recommend – following Dr. Kotter’s 8 step process to guide change initiatives.
  • And last but not least, motivational rewards, incentives and recognition consistent with the vision and outcome(s) you want to achieve.

That is my “prescription for change”.  What are your thoughts on change? Do you agree or disagree? Do you have anything else to add or comment on related to change?

Bill Tyson, CEO of Strategic Marketing Plus, LLC

P.S. See Seth Godin’s Ted speech on change:

[1] Title is the same as Step Number 8 of Dr. Kotter’s process for change in The Heart of Change, John P. Kotter, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 2002.

[2] Peter Drucker’s quote appears in: Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999)

[3] “Change We Can Believe In” was President Obama’s Campaign slogan until it was changed to “Change We Need”.

[4] Flavor-of-the-month – Something that is prominent in the organization for a short time then fades out of interest and is replaced by the next temporary initiative.

[5] The phrase “learning organization” was first coined in The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge, Crown Business; Revised edition (March 21, 2006).

[6] The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge, Crown Business; Revised edition (March 21, 2006)

[7] Fast Company, Change or Die, BY: ALAN DEUTSCHMAN, May 1, 2005.

[8] Made to Stick: Why Some ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Random House, NY, 2007.

[9] The Heart of Change, Dr. John Kotter, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002.

[10] The Key to Cultural Transformation, Leader to Leader (Spring 1999).

See also, HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change by all of these great authors: John P. Kotter, David A. Garvin, Michael A. Roberto, Samuel J. Palmisano, Paul Hemp, Thomas A. Stewart, Debra Meyerson, W. Chan Kim, Renee A. Mauborgne, Dan S. Cohen, Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Michael Beer, Nitin Nohria, Harold L. Sirkin, Perry Keenan, Alan Jackson, Russell A. Eisenstat, Bert Spector

220 pages. Publication date: Jun 07, 2010. Prod. #: 12599-PDF-ENG.

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Categorised in: Accountability, Best Practices, Bill Tyson's Blog Strategy-In-Action, Business, Business Model, Business Strategy, Change, Change leadership, Customer Value Proposition, Distribution channels, Execution, Innovations, Insurance, Marketing, Mission Statements, multichannel marketing, Product Development, Research, Risk, Risk Management, Strategic Plan, Strategic Risks, Strategy, Trends, Value Creation

3 Responses »

  1. Bill, thanks for taking the time to write. Phenomenal thoughts – so much so, I need to give it some thought before I comment. But off the top, I’m working on a couple Social Media Marketing pilots where several of the points you make leap off the page.

    In my experience, and perhaps people will want to shoot me for saying this, your comment about “complacency” wrt to change initiatives strikes a chord with me, not only about my business, but also re our industry (and really our country as a whole, as well).

    Really like this: “Again, people determine the success or failure of change so there is a need to continuously motivate, train and promote new behaviors that support change.” Yup, it’s always about people.

    More later….

  2. Jim Peterman had this to say:

    Great stuff. Corporate change is good, I agree. It often requires elimination of certain positions and hiring of new talent to deal with new processes, or ways of doing business.

    Change also is the cause of a “perceived” lack of stability and security in the workforce of corporate organizations. This can cause dissatisfaction in the work force.

    Each person has a different tolerance to change. Some people can go through 10 corporate organizational changes before feeling the need to leave the organization for greener pastures at another company. Others feel the need to leave at the first or second organizational/process change. This tolerance seems to me to vary with the professional staff or management level of the staff effected.

    Just some old headhunter’s comments.

    All the best!

    Jim Peterman


  1. Your Role In Embracing Change

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