Change management

10 August 2010

I grew up in Pretoria east, went to a government school, had my fair share of fights, and managed to finish matric without children, a criminal record, or being expelled.

I learnt a few things along the way. How to drink Hunters Gold and look cool. How to wrestle. How to spot a blackhead at 100 yards.

Strangely, I never learnt anything about adapting to change. I guess they forgot to include it in the curriculum. Either that, or I didn’t need to be taught. I think it was the latter, because I quickly learnt that I had a choice in life: Adapt or be bog-washed at every opportunity.

So how is it that as soon as people enter the corporate world, “change management” becomes such a universal and crippling challenge?

We used this term many times within iBurst. Every time we did something new we would invoke the magic words, “Change is Good.” If we did anything seriously new we would embark on a company-wide change management program.

External “change experts” were sometimes brought in to assist management and staff to adapt to change.

And just as the last “Change is Good” series wound up, we would embark on a new course and be forced to announce a new program. “Change is Good: The Empire Strikes Back.”

It’s all bollocks.

Change is life, life is change. When you get married do you embark on a change management program? When you have a baby do you sign up for a 3-month series of classes on how to adapt to a life of no sleep?

No. And yet, you survive. A new billing system can be disruptive, but nothing compares to the arrival of your first child!

The problem arises when people expect to be spoon-fed and hand-held all day every day.

Give someone a colicky and constipated infant and he manages to get on with life, albeit with dark rings under his eyes and infanticide in his fantasies. Ask that same person to change the colour of his stationery and we have a crisis requiring the intervention of HR professionals and trauma therapists.

Why?

Because in your private life you are responsible for your actions. You own your private life. If you make a mess there is no one to point fingers at. As a famous Afrikaner once said, “As jy dom is moet jy kak.”

In corporate life, however, there is no ownership. No feeling of responsibility. If the product launch is late you point your finger at the engineers, or the marketers, or the researchers, or the accountants, or the manager, or the secretary, or the tea-lady, or global warming.

And you live to see another day.

That’s why “change management” is a challenge for many companies. Employees do not take ownership. When change comes along they don’t suck it up and get on with it. They say, “Whoa, this is not in my job description, help!”

Of course, this does not apply to all companies and all people. Some companies (the vast minority) cultivate a culture of empowerment and accountability, although their staff would prefer to be responsibility-free. These companies are known as “the Exception.”

The corollary is that some employees take ownership regardless of whether their employers empower them. These are known as “Change Agents.”

For me, a “Change Agent” is simply someone who lives by the motto of, “Change is life, lets get on with it.” They see no distinction between how they live their personal lives and how they do their jobs. External consultants quickly identify these people and appoint them as Champions within the organization.

Having panic-attacks about saying farewell to MS-DOS and hello to Windows? Ask your nearest Change Champion for support.

Being appointed to the post of Change Champion is akin to playing chess in high school. You know you should get respect, but nobody respects you. In fact, you sometimes get bog-washed at break-time.

Who’s to blame?

Management. The people tasked with being your leaders. Compare it to parenting. Do you bubble-wrap your child her whole life? What happens when she finally enters the real world, the world that is filled with criminals, Mad Bob’s, poison ivy, claims forms, and pointy-objects?

She gets hurt.

The same applies to staff. If you create a culture where people are molly-coddled, don’t be surprised if the therapy bill goes through the roof when you change the colour of serviettes in the canteen. Or, God forbid, you remove Bolognese spud from the menu.

Kings have been toppled for less.

The best way to deal with change in organizations is to cultivate a culture of accountability. Empower your people, chide for mistakes, punish for the same mistakes, heap praise and reward for success.

If you get the culture right, everyone is a Change Champion. No need to explain the need for a new billing system, new division, new organogram, new coffee. Everyone is signed up, ready to take on whatever comes their way. Or they’re on the next bus outta town.

And you save the consultants fees.

The key is your people. Wrong people and you are onboard the Change-Management-Train (ChaMaTrain), R10,000 per hour and no end destination.

Get the right people and say goodbye to your worries. How do you tell the difference? Simple. Look at every single employee and ask yourself, “Is he/she a Champ, a Neutral or a Whinger?”

Champs need no help. In fact they are so busy charging down the path of change that any offers of assistance are viewed with contempt and pity. They live by the motto of, “Those that say it cannot be done should get out of the way of those that are doing it.”

Neutrals need leadership. That’s where the boss has to step in and lead. The Neutrals will follow once they know the “why” and the “how”.

That leaves the Whingers. Whingers are always a small minority, but they are like poison in the system because they’re so damn loud. They need an express ticket to another company. First-class cabin, happy-ending if necessary, but get them out of your company as fast as possible. Or start bog-washing at every opportunity.

The science of “Change Management” was developed in response to a symptom. By all means carry on with these methods, but until you tackle the true cause you will feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.