by Phillip Osborne, Managing Director and Head, Asia Pacific and Australia
How will you lead people in your organisation through dramatic change — the kind that requires fundamental structural and operational transformation? Dramatic change will come, whether from unexpected regulation or deregulation, technology innovation or disruption, competitor action, or changing consumer demand. How you involve your employees through such change can make or break your organisation.
Leaders willing to pursue a collaborative approach, involving all levels of employees in the change process, will likely find the best solutions are “in the room.” Here are 5 steps to approaching dramatic change in an inclusive way that achieves beneficial and sustainable organisational outcomes.
1) Start with the right questions.
Before pursuing any course of action, leaders must first ask themselves, “What benefit will this achieve?” and more importantly, “Will this approach bring about positive and lasting change?” This can help steer you and your team away from negative, reflex reactions to change.
One reflex reaction can be to merely reduce head count — a superficial approach to what is likely a complex set of issues. Too often, management carries out a headcount reduction with little or no stakeholder input. The immediate fallout across the organisation is almost certain to be negative.
Another reflex reaction can be to adopt an often-misapplied mindset in management thinking: ipsa scientia potestas est, or, knowledge itself is power. When disruption occurs, leaders tend to keep ideas and plans close to the chest, private, and in check until announcing final decisions. This generates uncertainty and fear and can easily result in the loss of talented people, experience, and corporate knowledge.
2) Pursue a “knowing” organisation.
Knowledge is most powerful when shared.
Be intentional about gathering input and ideas from employees of every level. This approach is more time-consuming, but the result is a “knowing organisation” where every team member feels involved in the change process.
After all, employees have the most to gain from a successful change process and have years of valuable experience and accumulated knowledge. They want to make their working lives easier, and will have specific and helpful ideas about how their roles can be improved in light of dramatic change.
Be willing to share information. Clearly and transparently communicate the factors driving the need for change. Explain your organisation’s cost challenges, and educate employees on how competitors may be better at managing costs and operations. Most importantly, actively listen to your employees’ concerns and inputs.
Of course saying this is easy. Organisations in competitive and rapidly changing markets are often under enormous pressure to make change happen “yesterday.” Managing change is difficult. There is no single magic bullet. But, by involving the entire team in identifying a roadmap for successful change, you can achieve constructive and, more importantly, sustainable change beyond what you and your management team may consider possible.
3) Expect and prepare for resistance.
Engaging in open and honest dialogue across all levels of an organization is difficult. Some members of your leadership team will likely resist such an inclusive approach. They may express legitimate hesitation and concern about open staff discussion and involvement. Some may believe it could give competitors insight into the operation; others, that it’s unsuitable for regular employees to have an intimate knowledge of the organisation; a few may believe employees will be frightened by the challenges requiring change.
Usually, in the context of a well-managed change process, the opposite of each proves true.
4) Establish an open, neutral atmosphere.
Garnering trust takes time, particularly in organisations built on long-established hierarchies, with entrenched operational and power structures. At first, employees may resist offering their ideas. Consider retaining external parties to establish a level of neutrality and a less-threatening atmosphere for your team. These third parties may better facilitate open and honest discussions, information sessions, and training. Arrange for them to gather some information in open forums and also to conduct small-group and one-on-one meetings.
5) Enjoy the outcome.
With guidance, front-line employees very likely will provide some of the best concepts and plans for successful restructuring and process redesign. As a result, you may find team members are better motivated to actively monitor their own performance and seek to improve over time as full participants in the new organisation.
Inevitably, dramatic change includes negative consequences. However, the positive results of an inclusive approach far outweigh the negatives. Of greatest value, however, is leading a process through which constructive changes and lasting results are created for employees — and by them.
The answer is in the room.
A Closing Note
This article is based on my personal experience leading organisations through dramatic change. You may read the full story of one instance in which my organisation, leadership team, and I followed the keys described here to transform a lumbering business into a profitable market leader positioned to undertake a successful IPO.