Hat tricks in business: why change is an unwelcome guest

My earlier post about change management sparked a few interesting comments. Change isn’t always welcomed by the people who ‘ought’ to change.

Why do people treat change like an unwelcome guest?

Change: do you take things as they come? [Click to view on Flickr]

Change: do you take things as they come? [Great photo by Anders Young on Flickr]

People in a business environment are mostly employees, and a smaller part of the group consists of managers, senior managers…

You could argue that change in business means some can’t keep up, and dysfunctional employees or teams show up like a sore thumb. You could even add more (possibly quite cynical) reasons for individual employees to reject change.

Take an employee’s view of organizational change for a moment. Having change thrust upon you for no (apparent) good reason doesn’t help you embrace the process. Especially if you don’t see that there’s anything wrong with you or the way you do your job. But there’s more.

Hat tricks in business

Consider a magician’s classic hat trick in a business environment. Some enthousiastic individual bounces into your office, or cubicle, or wherever, and pushes the hat under your nose. A rather pungent animal smell wafts out. What can you expect? Will you find a cute (but slightly nervous) white rabbit? Or will you end up pulling an unkempt smelly goat out of the hat? Or… worse?

Keep this situation in mind. Now let’s push two distinct groups into the spotlight – call them ‘change advocates’ and ‘bean counters’ – and compare their actions and motives.

  1. Change advocates are convinced that changing [fill in favorite topic] will improve your organization.
  2. Bean counters are convinced that cost cutting will improve your organization’s balance sheet.
  3. Change advocates tell you to work differently in order to achieve more.
  4. Bean counters tell you to work more efficiently so they’ll need fewer employees.
  5. Change advocates believe that a tasty carrot will convince people to change, and say that working differently will make you (feel) better.
  6. Bean counters are of the stick persuasion and say:
    1. If you don’t work more efficiently we’ll fire you.
    2. If you do work more efficiently we’ll wait a bit longer then fire the other guy. Possibly. Unless you grow slack. (If this sounds like Dilbert: I think I swallowed the book a couple of years ago. Have been unable to locate its whereabouts.)

The rest of us are, in the average organization, probably somewhere in the line of fire between these two world views.

Change projects gone cost-crazy

One thing which happens to projects started with the best intentions is that they are interpreted as a way to cut costs by financial teams. Assuming you are in favor of a specific change: if you don’t prepare for this eventuality you could lose control over your project.

How on earth will you combine change and finance without forfeiting every last bit of trust? I would say by starting early and taking the financial side into account from before the word “go”.

  1. Your project plan or business case should show clearly what you intend to achieve and what is out of scope. Prepare a document listing potential side-effects and answer a couple of questions. How likely is it: that this side-effect will occur? That it will lead to a substantial cost reduction? How likely is ‘finance’ to pick up on this possible side-effect and treat it as a fact? How could this impact your project? Evolve a worst-case scenario and look for counter-measures.
  2. Double-check if your plan aligns with any of the plans laid out for your organization as a whole.
  3. Reality check. Meet up with someone outside the financial team, but with a similar professional profile. Risk aversity is a major requirement. Test your plans on this individual to make sure you’re prepared for attempts to hijack a project started with the best intentions.
  4. Make sure you get 1, 2 and 3 sorted out before you enter the bean counters’ den. Otherwise expect fur to fly and the result to be either
    1. some bit of shared Cheshire Cat wisdom on the lines of “if you don’t know where you want to go, you can pick any direction you like” – and your budget slashed, or
    2. your project turned into a cost-cutting tool. A rather ineffective one since you didn’t start your project with the intention to cut costs. And one that will leave any number of employees extremely distrustful of change initiatives in the future.

I hope you enjoyed this post – one triggered at least in part by the comments on my previous post. Have you encountered any ‘hat tricks’ in your organization – or have you seen business change at its best?

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