Monday, June 11, 2012

Getting Employees Involved in Change

If you're planning a substantial change in some aspect of how your firm does things, be sure to engage the experts--your employees. 

A common mistake companies make in corporate change efforts is telling employees what they need to do differently instead of asking them. That's a poor way to gain their commitment to the change. Plus it's unlikely that management can come up with specific solutions as good as what those who must ultimately implement them could do.

Not to suggest that firm leaders need to seek staff consensus before proceeding with change. They appropriately determine what must happen and why, in most cases. But the how is best left largely to those who are closest to what is being changed. At least they should be involved in designing the specifics of the change. Some guidelines to keep in mind: 

Solicit input from affected employees. Change is hardest when it is unilaterally imposed. Giving employees a voice empowers them to be contributors to change rather than victims of it. Whether you solicit feedback from every employee will depend on various factors, such as the type of change, the extent of its impact, or the practicality of polling everyone. Usually you can invite input in some fashion from all affected staff without unduly burdening the change process. Not all will contribute, of course, but at least they won't feel excluded.

Assemble a representative implementation team. While you may choose to seek input from everyone, you'll want a smaller group engaged in moving the change process forward. This implementation team should be fairly representative of the employees subject to the change, so that staff feel their interests are being considered in the process. You might even encourage employees to convey concerns and suggestions to the team member who they best identify with, much as a citizen would with his governmental representative.

Of course, this becomes more difficult the larger the firm and the more complex its organizational structure. But don't go overboard with the concept of representation. Keep in mind that the purpose is to unite the team in pursuit of a singular approach to change, not divide it into various competing perspectives. Which points to an important consideration in determining who will serve on this team: You want people who can work well together despite being independent thinkers and creative problem solvers. 

Remove structural barriers. Overcoming people's natural resistance to change is hard enough without encumbering the process with organizational hurdles. Such impediments always exists, and sometimes they can become insurmountable if not dealt with appropriately. Examples of change-inhibiting structural barriers include:
  • Organizational structures that promote competition rather than cooperation
  • Policies and procedures that conflict with new approaches
  • Failing to eliminate old ways of doing things so that employees don't have to change
  • Metrics that don't align with new goals or approaches
  • Managers or departments that don't support the change effort
Once you have prepared an implementation plan, spend time identifying structural barriers that will hamper success. Then determine how to eliminate or mitigate them. 

Sometimes removing structural barriers can be the most painful part of change. In fact, this often constitutes a moment of truth--a test of how serious firm leaders are about making the change. I've been involved in change efforts where leaders confused activity for progress,  failing to address the barriers that stood in the way of real success. Beware of cosmetic changes that fall short of addressing the root causes of obstacles. 

Secure adequate time commitments from team members. Change efforts take time and most, if not all, of that time will come from nonbillable labor hours. Most firms have the capacity--in terms of potentially available nonbillable time--to implement change initiatives, but the common failure to manage that time impedes progress. Successful corporate change cannot be achieved with leftover time.

I advise managing change initiatives like projects. There should be specific goals, milestones, tasks, assigned individuals, budgets, and measures. Once you've determined what needs to be done, don't stop short of determining how much time it will take. And whose time? Where is that time coming from? Assuming that you don't have people with excess time on their hands, you need to figure out how to shift responsibilities or offload work from team members.

As a corporate change leader, I sometimes had team members sign a contract committing a certain portion of their time to the change effort. Signing one's name to an agreement can give the assignment much greater weight than simply volunteering (leftover) time. We would assign an internal project number and track team members' time, as well as their meeting critical milestones. If someone failed to give the promised commitment to the effort, I would sometimes fire them from the team. 

Reward people for their contributions. As noted previously, change is hard work. For those who contribute to its success, there should be appropriate recognition and reward. Be sure to set intermediate milestones that can be reached every few months. Celebrate progress and acknowledge contributions. Many change efforts are vitally important to the firm's future, and those who make it work--including rank-and-file employees who exemplify the new approach to doing things--deserve kudos.

Next week, we'll explore the role of positive reinforcement in facilitating change. Since I've already dealt with this topic at length in previous posts, I'll focus particularly on its application to corporate change efforts.

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