Rivers of Change
Heraclitus of Ephesus is credited with the saying: “You cannot step into the same river twice.”
Similarly, the concept of change is an ever prevailing constant that we as human beings contend with in our conscious and fragile self constructed realities.
Why is it then that we shy away from change? Why do we attempt to avoid the unknown or new, seemingly at all cost when this is principle in the fabric of being human?
As Managers of Projects and Programs we are in the business of change. We sell it, plan it, execute it and live it. We deliver the future for our employers and clients through the processes we implement and the people we organize.
In this Blog entry I will briefly contemplate some key considerations on the topic of “change”. How to do it, and how not to do it.
Change Fallacies - Godzone Style
One hard reality that stared me in the face when arriving as immigrant in New Zealand is the country’s informal contradictory position on the topic of introducing, or rather avoiding change at all cost.
This is one place called God’s own (Godzone), where everyone is fixated on keeping it that way. The inadvertent result is a pathological aversion to change (or progress as some wants to call it).
In the event that change is inevitable, a few unwritten rules have to be entertained when working in this market.
Incidentally these are the very rules that are held out as fallacies for change - things that should be avoided:
- Fallacy 1: Resistance to Change is Avoidable: In this context one is allowed to introduce change, as long as everyone is supporting the change, and their resistance is avoided. No one is to be inconvenienced, threatened or upset through the actions taken to change the prevailing circumstance. If resistance cannot be avoided, chances are that an attempt will be launched to introduce the change by stealth. When this happens, no one is supposed to know that things are changing. Needless to say, this is not acceptable. All resistance cannot be avoided during the introduction of changes in organizations and society. If there is no resistance, then chances are that the chance holds little value. Resistance should not be avoided, but rather embraced and treated as opportunity to temper the motivations for the change in the first instance.
- Fallacy 2: Good Leaders Prevent or Avoid Resistance: Given that some resistance is a de facto attribute of any change initiative, it becomes extremely difficult, and nearly impossible to be an accepted leader where avoiding or preventing resistance to change is cherished as a leadership quality. The resulting end game is a serious lack of acceptable leaders in such a society, and consequently a low rate of change or innovation. Good leaders do not prevent or avoid resistance, but address resistance to the benefit of the goal or change objective. Resistance is a key ingredient in managing change. Good leaders manage it well.
- Fallacy 3: Resistance is Bad: There is bound to be resistance to change for several simple and understandable reasons. Firstly, people’s comfort zones are challenged. Each affected person needs to decide what benefit or threat the change holds for their position, welfare or security. Unless they get the opportunity through some resistance to work this out, or to temper the motivations and logic for the change, there will be less benefit to change. Resistance is good, because it exposes important considerations for the introduction of changes. People need opportunity to work out their orientation to the changing circumstances.
- People Who Resist Change are Disloyal: There is a standard “change curve” or process which every individual or group cycle through when confronted with change. The curve starts with awareness that a change is imminent. It is followed by denial, fear and anger brought on by the potential threat the change holds for a person’s current circumstance. However, if the change is well communicated this fear and anger can be progressed towards an informed pessimism during which the change target (those affected by the change) have the opportunity to decide if they want to participate or not. If they choose not to participate one of three scenarios can play out. Either the change is totally aborted due to a lack of support, or the incumbent withdraws from the change process and the change is executed without them. The preferred outcome is for the incumbent to choose to engage, and the change curve to continue. If this is achieved the curve is followed by a cautious “try it out”, then making it work or learning how to deal with it, and lastly followed my the pride of ownership of the new circumstance. Therefore, people that resist change is not disloyal. They are rather being true to themselves and only need time and information to deal with the cycle or curve that they need to go through to embrace change.
Common Change Errors
There are a number of common mistakes that can be avoided when implementing change.
When acting as a change Agent - the person introducing the change, which is often required from Project and Program Managers, it is important to allow sufficient time for a change to be embraced.
People deal with change in their own time. Some are enthused by it, and others need time to digest and embrace it. If you as Project Manager is not aware and sensitive to this time requirement, then you risk forcing a change that has a high likelihood of being abandoned as a result, or just not ever really embraced. Give people time to make up their minds and to engage.
Some more errors include:
- Too Much Complacency: One cannot keep all affected parties happy all the time. When you try to do this, chances are that you will be so busy stroking egos that the real objective of implementing and facilitating the change will take second priority. As change agent know who needs to be accommodated and for what reasons. Your Stakeholder Analysis and Project Management Plan will play an important role in ensuring that you balance complacency with drive for successful change.
- Underestimating the Power of Vision or Goals: A vision defines where the organization wants to be in the future. It reflects the optimistic view of the organization's future goal. It is a statement that acts as the guiding principle rallying all concerned parties towards a expected outcome. It not only defines the end game, but also directs activity towards this state. A clear and well communicated vision helps to overcome confusion, qualms concern and guides action. If one attempts to introduce change without this in place, then be prepared for a lot more resistance, confusion and ultimately disaster for the project or change program. If one does not know where one is going, it does not matter which road you take to get there. The vision sets the change objective and is critical to the success of any change initiative. Just having a vision is not enough. Ensure that the vision is clearly communicated and well understood.
- No Short Term Wins: Celebrate little successes and you build momentum for bigger things to come. There is a saying that says: “Success Bread Success”. It is also known as the Cumulative Advantage principle. It describes a state in which a current advantageous situation leads to even greater advantages. When introducing change, it is important to demonstrate benefits and small wins early to capitalize on this cumulative advantage. It serves as motivator, creates confidence, offers recognition, sets the foundation and builds momentum for achieving the ultimate change objectives. People like to be associated with successful people. It help to break down resistance to your project or program changes. Small and short term wins play a role in making success possible.
Winners and Losers
There are “glass half full” people and “glass half empty” people.
In executing and implementing changes in an organization a similar circumstance plays itself out. You get organizations or groups of people that embrace and welcome change as a manner associated with innovation and progress. Then there are organizations that avoid changing like the plague. These are teams or businesses that will fight it hand, tooth and nail.
As Change Agent be aware that a “glass half empty” culture can sink a successful change initiative no matter how hard you try to do it right.
I am of the personal opinion that before introducing change one has to ascertain the probable success of the current organizational configuration embracing the intended changing circumstance. If there is indication that no matter what is proposed, that it will be opposed and undermined, then the scope of the change will probably have to expand to the extend that the current organizational configuration may require something as drastic as replacement.
It may prove cheaper, easier and quicker to replace rather than change or evolve. History is full of examples where organizations were just not successful in executing changes, or change quick enough, only to be overtaken by newly formed teams, or business enterprises.
The signs that shows that you are destined for destruction starts where an initiated change is met with watchful cynicism. This escalates to reinforced pessimism and protective resistance. Once protective resistance escalates to active resistance one is only one steps away from abandonment and failure. All that remains is escalating disillusionment. The end result is failure. The change may have its sponsor, agent and its advocate, but ultimately the change target sinks the initiative.
This is contrasted by a culture that embraces change. The initiated change is met with attentive caution. This is followed by embraced resistance and inclusive planning. All that remains is the careful monitoring and celebration of incremental successes. The end result is successful accepted and embraced changes, which more often than not turn out to be better than initially envisioned.
Coupled with the above is the motivation for change in the first instance. Three motivations comes to mind: Crisis Change, Reactive Change, and Anticipatory or Pro-Active Change.
Changes introduced to address or avert a crisis is the easiest motivated changes - you usually don’t have a choice. However it usually turns out to be the most expensive and more risky changes because there is often not enough time to plan and execute it effectively.
Reactive Change is hard to motivate without an imminent disaster. Usually at this time the horse has bolted, and everybody knows it, that is why it requires reaction. To motivate this change takes more time and effort and it is also not a cheap change. It is a change that is done because it must be done. It doesn’t have the focus of a change due to crisis, and it doesn’t have the positive motivation of a pro-active change or innovation.
The Anticipatory or Pro-Active Change is the most difficult to initiate. In contrast it is much easier to motivate a change to avoid an imminent crisis, or a change in reaction to a problem. Anticipatory change requires vision, future perspective and strategy, which are all hard things to prioritize if an organization’s day is filled with disasters and responses to problems. Pro-Active Change is however the less costly option because it provides more time for effective planning, prioritization and ultimately adoption by the organization.
In summary, as Project Manager your ability to facilitate change for your customers and employers are dependent on four simple factors:
- Pick Your Battles Carefully: Know if you are setup for disaster or success through the culture of the organization involved in the engagement. Look for the “glass half full” organization or team that is willing to embrace anticipatory change. The team that realizes that change is for their benefit. Else, you may have to look for a new team or organization altogether.
- Clearly Agree and Communicate the End Game: Changing by stealth has never produced desired results. Be sure that the vision is formulated and that it is clearly communicated to all stakeholders. People gravitate towards that on which they focus. If you set their focus effectively, you have the best chance for success.
- Allow Enough Time for Change: People go through a change curve when confronted with changing circumstance. It is difficult to rush this curve, therefore make provision for enough time for a change to be understood, learned, assimilated and embraced. Celebrate quick and small wins frequently. This is how you win friends and influence people.
This is how you effectively introduce change into organization and teams.
Please feel free to comment and question. Your feedback is always welcome.
Hendrik van Wyk