Roadblocks to Effective Organizational Change

by Karl Walinskas

Have you ever tried to make a change to something important in your business only to be frustrated a few weeks or months down the road when employees are doing it the same as always? Making change "stick" isn't easy. Learn what major factors stand in the way of effective organizational change and find out what you can do about them.

ChangesAs a business owner or company big cheese how many times have you tried to make an important change within your company just to see nothing happen any differently than before you started? You communicated effectively, telling the rank and file just what they needed to know to implement the new initiative, right? Or did you?

I was taking a shower just the other day at the health club where all the top dogs of local business go to keep that physical edge, the local YMCA. Along comes an officer of a local company for whom I had once done some effective meetings training, quite successfully I might add. I decide to find out what dramatic changes my spectacular training catalyzed.

"So Joe, how are the meetings coming at the shop? Shorter I bet."

"Well…(big sigh) not exactly. We’ve got the remnants of your training in the meeting rooms--parking lot areas hanging on the walls, meeting rules, but no one really follows it."

Suddenly the mental image of Charlton Heston screaming in anguish at the half-sunken statue of liberty on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes came to mind. "Why, man, why!!!"

"What happened Joe? I really thought you guys would change and clean up your act."



"Well hell, when you go to the executive meetings and the president isn’t using the tools you gave us, it sort of loses its impact, you know?"

This was one of those rare moments in life where you get to say "Ah-hah!" and really mean it.

"Ah-hah!", I said.

"Besides, we’ve moved on to concurrent engineering, and when that didn’t work, TQM. Now we’re pushing lean manufacturing. That won’t fly either." (bigger sigh)

This conversation brought to dramatic light two big reasons why attempts at organizational change fail. Ready?

  1. Lack of Management Example
  2. Lack of Management Follow-thru

If that sounds simple and you think you know it already, why don’t all your initiatives succeed? Why don’t you do it? These two issues are the primary reasons (there are several others) why change does not last in any organization, and they are both communication problems. Period.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Lack of Management Example

When Joe told me that no one on the management team was doing the things that I taught the entire company in the meetings training, I felt like saying "I told ya so" to somebody. I distinctly remember saying to the president and CEO during the training session that he attended that none of this would stick if he didn’t show the example in the corporate staff meetings. Being on the spot with the consultant’s finger figuratively in his chest, he stammered an excuse saying something about that there had to be a grassroots change first. I smelled trouble.

Look you people, it’s as simple as this. Workers won’t buy the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do directive anymore. They will mirror what the leaders do. They know that what really gets them a bigger bonus is to do what is important to the higher-ups of the company, and they get that information from watching them--not listening to them! Don’t act so hurt, big fella (or mama). I’m sure your words are extremely profound and can move mountains, but if you can’t back them up with action, that dog won’t hunt.

Employees are like kids and pets. If you manage like the dad who tells little Johnny that smoking can kill you while he’s pulling up to the Quiky-Mart to get a fresh carton of butts, you send a mixed message. Johnny will try smoking tomorrow, no matter how many lawsuits the government wins against big tobacco. Feed the pooch table scraps and then yell at him for begging and you’re doing the same stupid thing. Tell the company that you want meeting time cut in half and more productivity from them while your staff meetings run out of control... get the picture?

To make any change stick, if you are visible to your company employees, you had better be prepared to abide by the same rules in whatever form they can possibly apply to you. If not you will lose something that will take months, maybe years, to regain--your credibility.

Lack of Management Follow-thru

Everyday you read in magazines, books and newspapers that change is happening blindingly fast. True stuff. The funny thing is, the attention span of most managers and company presidents is extremely short. Sometimes you can time the space between corporate initiatives with the CEO’s trips out of town. There is probably a direct correlation between her latest trip to the airport bookstore and when the next big push comes down at the company. I call this Menu Management, where the direction of change of the organization seems like it’s picked off of the latest dinner menu. Tomorrow night we’ll be having something else.

This isn’t enough time for the last big change to stick. Cultural change cannot happen as fast as we read books. You’re working against years of cynicism and built up resistance to change. Furthermore you’re battling the poor examples of the past where major programs never took hold. During my tenure at Big Blue, I remember when ISO-9000 rolled through the door and the comments I heard like "just duck your head and hold your breath and in another six months, we’ll have forgotten all about it," and the less verbose, "this too shall pass."

Look, saying it doesn’t make it so, but...

SAYING IT 1000 TIMES CAN HELP!

Give the project the necessary verbal backing, continually pushing it, and give it time to gel. Lots of clever management initiatives are out there that work if implemented correctly. The problem is that most get started and abandoned before they have time to take hold in the organization. Give any new major change at least a year to embed itself within your corporate culture. During that time, here are some to-dos that you must do:

  • Continually hammer home the message of the change
  • Continually explain why it’s necessary
  • Provide the resources for people to pull it off (training, money, etc.)
  • If you have to start a new improvement effort during this break-in period, don’t abandon the message of this one. IT’S NOT IN PLACE YET!

Remember, if you don’t want your employees and key staff moping around the local YMCA about how nothing ever changes and scoffing at your efforts to move your company forward, make sure that your actions are congruent with your words and that you follow-thru on the initiative for long enough to install it into the company psyche, and that usually means forever. Now you just won’t start exciting ways to improve your company, you’ll finish some too.

Find more great non-traditional marketing tips at the Smart Blog. Post your case-studies you might find yourself in the next post. Karl Walinskas runs Smart Company Growth, a management consulting firm for small companies. His books, audio and other cool stuff can be found at the Shop Smart link.

 
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