Challenges in today’s business environment often involve dealing with change. What isn’t widely known is that only about 33 percent of change initiatives are successful. This series of articles lays out the vital points of successful change implementation — points that I can vouch for after nearly 30 years of advising organizations of all sizes. This fourth article in the series is about the value of those doing the work designing the work to be done.
Two Big Reasons for Failure
The two major sources of failure in implementing change are not empowering those doing the work, and, not handling correctly the human side of change. Avoiding these failures requires eliminating the dominant tendency of American managers to empower managers, rather than the workforce, and responding to a lack of cooperation with authority, rather than with understanding.
Our experience has been that overcoming these tendencies requires an outside agent to design and manage the process. It’s just too big a culture change to make without an outside catalyst.
A Case in Point
After years of watching state agencies fail at attempted change, and hearing from cynical state workers in planning or teambuilding sessions, we were, at one point, asked to bid on a major project to define and implement best practices in a half-dozen permitting processes at a major state agency. We declined, but indicated a willingness to take on the project if the agency would change its project approach. “Why?” they asked. We answered that the chances of success, if an outside consulting group imposed a design, were “slim to none.” We said that if they were willing to gather customer feedback on the existing processes, and empower employee teams now doing the work to design and implement the new methods, we would be willing to take on the project.
A long story short: All six permitting processes were re-designed and implemented. That saved the state more than 50 percent in personnel costs, and greatly improved customer satisfaction. The model has since been adopted by other states.
We’ve refined our process over the years, but the principles remain, and thus far, we are batting 1000 percent at successful implementations that reduce costs and improve outcomes. So, we know this principle works.
Why It Works
There are at least five reasons why this approach works:
- Motivation: The vast majority of employees believe their potential contribution to their organization is thwarted by insufficient latitude to modify how they work. That, and the inability to get timely decisions from management. They want to contribute more, but the system won’t let them. Further, those closest to the customers are the most frustrated by the customer’s complaints. If given a chance, they will seek to design methods that facilitate their productivity and increase customer satisfaction.
- Knowledge: Quite simply, those closest to the process know where it is performing sub-optimally and what a solution would look like.
- Support for the new design: Resistance to change is a normal human reaction, chronicled in many popular books. The principle reason, is that we’re usually talking about an imposed change. Changes designed by front-line employees encounter far less resistance. Instead of management convincing those not involved in the design to cooperate, you have peers doing the selling.
- Less resistance to innovation: The less you have invested in the way things are, the less resistance to inventing the new. Most often, existing methods were designed by, and enforced by, management, with little front-line input. Front-line workers are easily-moved “outside the box” of existing methods and on to truly startling innovations.
- Co-option of opponents: We encourage management to identify and select those employees most likely to resist the change to join the process design teams. Again, the opportunity to create it as you would like to have it turns potential enemies of change into the biggest cheerleaders, to the amazement of fellow workers who now are more easily enrolled.
What’s the Ideal Design Team
Ideal design teams number five to seven, and they include viewpoints that cover, from beginning to end, the process targeted for improvement. In addition, it is often advisable to include an information technology expert, because IT is an enabler in most innovative solutions.
Include fresh faces. Sometimes those newest to the work can see glitches that others have grown accustomed to, and don’t see. It takes courage to put a future design in the hands of the inexperienced, but new viewpoints are tempered by experienced members and the payoffs can be major.
What about management? We will cover this in detail in a later issue, but involving management directly in a design team means the normal dynamics of relying on managers for leadership, decision, or approval, will dominate, and innovation will suffer.
The challenge is how to have enough management involvement to secure strong support for the innovative designs. No small challenge, but, again, that’s a subject for a later issue.
Beware the Dangers of Stopping and Starting
Please be aware that re-starting a change effort that you’ve aborted (because you weren’t ready) is very difficult. We can help you assess your readiness to start a project with a short phone call. To set up such a call, simply send us an e-mail.
Also, remember that, even as our process has evolved over the years, we continue to bat 1000 in supporting change in client organizations.
The rest of the story
To read the rest of the articles in this series on change click on any of the links below: