Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Change Agent Sees Change "Addiction"

After 20 years of experience leading change management programs in the U.S., Europe and New Zealand, BP executive Fiona MacLeod has concluded that the corporate world is "addicted" to serial change management programs that consume massive resources but ultimately fail to solve the problems they aim to address. "What really struck me is why so many of these change management programs fail, only to be followed by similar initiatives within one or two years, often before the original program is completed," said MacLeod, president of BP Convenience Retail USA & Latin America.

Thus begins a great dose of wisdom from change freak Fiona MacLeod, recently presented at the 2009 Wharton School of Business Leadership Conference. You can find the complete text of this great article on the changefreak.com links page. Not that I can add much to her comments, but I will take the opportunity in this blog to add a few words in response to some of her main points.

Can change be an addiction? While I am a firm believer that great good can come from change, and likewise great harm from a refusal to embrace change, I also agree that change for change sake can be dangerous. If all we are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, attempts at organizational change can be doomed from the start! So how can we avoid these change leadership failures?

Many change management programs are doomed to failure because "the change we are putting in place is not sustainable -- and sustainability is absolutely crucial," noted MacLeod. So what are some of the reasons for a lack of sustainability? MacLeod cites three examples:
1. New leaders are more focused on making a "big splash" than following a long term plan for change. In some corporate cultures leaders are expected to make an immediate impact with a flurry of activity, and often nothing covers incompetency as well as frantic and dramatic activity!
2. Employees don't understand why change is needed. This goes to the heart of showing respect to people, an absolutely necessary element to the transformation of an organizational culture. If employees are on a "need to know" basis concerning organizational performance, don't be surprised if they don't recognize the need for change.
3. Ownership of the change rests with an external team or consultants, and not with the leaders responsible for running the business. Every leader should have a mirror by their door with the words "The key to sustaining change" inscribed upon it. People tend to own what they create, not what was imposed upon them. If the leaders don't look in the mirror and see ownership of the change, the grass roots of the organization will never embrace it. "Never assume that leaders get it.... We need to take probably 10 times as long in engaging, empowering and educating our leaders than we actually think we do," MacLeod said.

MacLeod recommends putting "written charters and contracts in place...You need to constantly look at them and discuss them with people." People tend to perform to the level expected of them. The problem is, most leaders never clearly articulate the expectations they have of their team! Time taken to clearly document and articulate expectations is time well spent. Don't ever assume that people understand your expectations, unless you're prepared to be frustrated and disappointed. Oh, and they should clearly understand what they can expect from you as a leader!

One more point to highlight: "I put my winning, end-state organization in place from day one rather than waiting to decide which employees would stay to support the franchises and which would leave." I haven't seen this point covered very often by successful leaders, but it is very wise advice. Taking a long-term perspective on leading transformational change doesn't mean waiting to put a winning organization in place to lead the change. In fact, a failure to do so can be fatal to sustaining improvement throughout the organization. It is true that simply reorganizing or hiring a "superstar" is no guarantee for positive change, but it is equally true that leaving a poor performing organization in place will guarantee a lack of progress and sustainment. Deal with the hard decisions early rather than later. Nothing frustrates the champions of change in an organization worse than seeing leaders ignore or refuse to deal with those who undermine change.

What are your thoughts? Can change become a corporate "addiction?"

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