Leaders and managers are increasingly expected to introduce changes in work practices, routines and structures as part of their management role. Myths abound about the challenges of doing this. Here we lay five to rest.
You can’t implement the change until you have thought through every step and have every possible question answered.
Not True. In many situations it is sufficient to have a sense of the end goal, or key question, along with some shared guiding principles about how the change will unfold. For example ‘We need to produce our goods more efficiently’, or, ‘How can we cut our process times?’ With these in place leaders can call on the collective intelligence of the organization as it embarks on learning by doing: taking the first steps, reviewing progress, learning from experience and involving those who know the detail in their areas.
This ‘all-seeing’ belief leads to exhaustive energy going into detailed forecasting and analysis of every possible impact and consequence of possibilities: in the worse cases leading to paralysis by analysis. It slows things down, allows rumours to fill the information vacuum, and feeds feelings of disempowerment.
You can control the communication within the organisation about change
Impossible! People are sense-making creatures who constantly work to make sense of what is happening around them. This means it is not possible to control communication in this way: by withholding information we convey something, usually distrust or secrecy. But more than this, in this day and age with so many communication channels instantly available to people, there is no chance of being aware of everything that is being said about the change. Instead leaders need to focus on making sure they get to hear what sense is being made of what is going on so that they can contribute a different or corrective perspective.
This ‘control’ belief leads to embargoes on information sharing, ‘until we have decided everything’ (see above) and much investment in finding ‘the right words’ to convey the story of the change. Meanwhile people are free to make their own sense of what is happening uninhibited by any corrective input from management.
To communicate about change is to engage people with the change
Not necessarily. People start to engage with the change when they start working out what it means for them, what it ‘looks like’, where the benefits or advantages might be, how they can navigate it, what resources are there to help them. They find out through exploration and discovery. They become more engaged when they are asked questions. “How can we implement this here?’ ‘What is the best way of achieving that?’ ‘What needs to be different for us to be able to…?’ People have to use their imaginations and creativity to start visualising what their bit of the world will be like when ‘the change’ has happened. Everyone needs the opportunity to create rich pictures of what the words and ideas in the change mean in their context. The answer to the question ‘What might it mean for us?’ is jointly constructed and evolves as new information emerges.
This belief leads to an over-emphasis on communicating about ‘the change’. Staff hear managers talking endlessly about how important this change is, how big it is, how transformational it will be, yet no one seems to know what the change actually means for people. To be part of this scenario is to suffer a confused sense of ‘but what are we talking about?’ This in itself is usually symptomatic of the fact that at this point there is only a fuzzy picture of what this much-heralded change will mean for people: much better to get people involved in finding out.
That planning makes things happen
Sadly no! How much simpler life would be if it did. Creating plans can be an extremely helpful activity as long as we realise that what they do is create accounts and stories of how the future can be. Until people translate the plans into activity on the ground, the plans are just plans. For example I might develop a really detailed plan about emigrating to Australia, including shipping and packing and visas and job prospects and everything you can think of, but until I do something that impacts on my possibilities in the world, for instance by applying for a visa, then planning is all I have done. Plans are an expression of intention. Things start to happen when intention is enacted.
This belief in ‘plan as action’ fuels a plethora of projects and roadmaps and spreadsheets of interconnection, key milestones, tasks, measures and so on. People can invest time and energy in this fondly believing that they are ‘doing change’.
That change is always disliked and resisted
No. If this were true none of us would emerge from babyhood. Our life is a story of change and growth, of expansion and adaptation, of discovery and adjustment. Do you wish you had never learnt to ride a bike? That was a change. Had never had a haircut? That was a change. What is true is that change takes energy, and people don’t necessarily always have the energy or inclination to engage with change. It is not change itself that is the issue, it is the effect imposed change can have on things that are important to us: autonomy, choice, power, desire, satisfaction, self -management, sense of competency, group status, sense of identity and so on. If we attend carefully to enhancing these within the change process then there is a much greater chance that it will be experienced as life-enhancing growth like so many other changes in our lives.
This much repeated and highly prevalent belief leads to a defensive and fearful approach to organisational change, inducing much girding of loins by managers before going out to face the wrath of those affected by the change.