Self-reports from executives give the impression that transformation depends on the CEO being prescient, charismatic, and visionary. I find, however, that many conversations must occur among those members who do the heavy lifting when new capabilities are being planned, developed, and embedded in the operating routines in order to reach agreement on how to perform better and differently.
A pivotal variable in accelerating change is the dialogue among members that enables them to internalise the purposes of the changes, understand their role, and redesign how they work with one another and deliver value to the customer. Executives spend much time crafting their communication plan — how to get the information out consistently and compellingly. They need to focus equally on starting conversations that enable the development of new, shared meanings of the logic of the changes and new agreements about how people will work together to accomplish something new.
For example, if implementing a strategy entails addressing key customer accounts, or developing business in a new country, or partnering with another company, the people who are impacted must make sense of new tasks and altered responsibilities.
Organisations are loaded with the sense made by incumbents about why they’re there, what’s expected, and what outcomes are important — and with agreements, formal and informal, about who does what and how people work together. When undergoing change, you need to build in ways for members to make sense of it and develop new agreements.
For four years, my colleagues, Ram Tenkasi and Monty Mohrman, and I studied 10 companies going through change. We found wide variation in speed of implementation among similar units in the same company that were operating under the same leadership and within similar new strategies and architectures. However, the accelerated units demonstrated the following actions:
• Quickly developed a shared understanding of the changes that they were part of — the members described the change similarly and had achieved agreement about how to operate. They had talked together and made sense of what was happening.
• Understood the business logic of the change and of their roles, and thought not only of their own performance but of how they supported and worked with other units to achieve business success. They had worked out processes for meeting the needs of their colleagues and customers.
• Self-designed local ways of operating to make the changes a success — they didn’t wait for the company to remove all ambiguity. They did this themselves by talking to each other and figuring out what to do.
• Tried things out and learned from them — quickly addressing problems and tensions. They knew that in a shifting landscape they needed to keep learning and changing by sharing their experiences, feedback, and ideas.
• Learned from the experience of others. They didn’t wait for formal training programs — they shared and learned from their networks.
Change can be accelerated through rich dialogue and building and drawing on existing and new networks. Managers can catalyse these behaviours. They can model the learning behaviours, initiate discussions of the changes, and pull together the units and teams to define new ways to operate.
Change can be managed, but it must be led — a manager can’t change the way a unit behaves; only its members can do that. During times of change, managers feel at risk because of performance pressures and in conflict because they are also trying to manage change. The irony is that they can get through the change more quickly and perform better if they take time for sense-making and for building the new agreements and practices.
Change leadership is a team sport — it must emerge at all levels. In accelerated units, leaders focus on four tasks:
• Keep people focused on what the organisation is trying to accomplish and how it must change.
• Create opportunities for teams, units, and individuals to learn and develop. Our accelerated units took advantage of the change resources provided, held team development sessions, attended training sessions, visited other organisations, and shared examples and ideas.
• Make sense of the many initiatives that accompany most strategic change, and of how they support the strategy and create new ways of doing business.
• Discuss new performance requirements and the changing employment relationship until people understand and accept that their employment situation has changed, and new things are expected from them, thus avoiding resentment and confusion.
Change can be threatening because new skills and behaviours are required, some people are no longer needed, and new members may bring different ways of doing things and expectations. Change may erode the sense of trust when basic terms of employment — such as benefits or compensation — shift. And, people may be told that they must develop certain competencies.
Leaders must face these issues by defining the new expectations clearly and creating opportunities to talk and work through these issues.
By leading learning processes, leaders enable members to internalise the change, to help shape the work they do, and to help define their destiny. In this manner, employees become agents of change, not targets. They not only implement changes — they help define them. Executive announcements and corporate redesign are just the beginning — in successful change, the heavy lifting required to develop new capabilities occurs in conversations.
Susan Albers Mohrman is senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organisations in the Marshall School of Business, USC.
Reprinted with permission from Leadership Excellence. Visit www.LeaderExcel.com.
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