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How to implement change in your organization: the key: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Implementing organizational change is a difficult and critical task. It has always been that way and is getting more so with the accelerated rate of change in most organizations. Whether the change is being forced by external issues (such as wartime scenarios or base realignments and closures) or being brought about internally by leadership decisions (such as implementing new financial systems or consolidating financial services), most people seem to resist change even if they agree it is needed. If, however, one gets below the surface, people may not be resisting change but, rather, the process or transition that change requires.

Change and Transition

Change and transition are not the same. Change is the event and transition is the process of getting there. People often avoid transitioning from what is known to what is unknown--from how things are to how they will be, from saying good-bye to the old way of doing things and saying hello to the new. Successful change implementers (such as leaders, managers, and change agents) focus on the human side of change--the process of transition that groups and individuals must go through for change to take effect. Thus, any model for leading or managing change should focus on the transition process.

Change Implementation Model

The Change Implementation Model consists of seven steps to help implementers address the key transition issues. The steps focus on people, leadership, trust, vision, enablement, celebration, and institutionalization. Although listed linearly, the steps may occur concurrently. Effective communication is the mortar. There must be open, honest communication within each step of the process, and communication must connect the steps to each another. Nothing can damage an effort toward change faster or more permanently than poor communication.

Some years ago, I saw how a failure to communicate the necessity and the advantages of contracting out many functions at an Air Force base led to hostile reaction by those whose jobs were threatened, by their friends and associates (which included much of the base population), and by the local civilian community. The effort was rescued when strong, credible leadership intervened to inform people and get communication back on track. If honest and open communication is missing, rumor mills run rampant. Truth, however, is almost always better than rumor.

Here, then, are the seven steps for effective transition.

Assess and Address Human Concerns

Most organizations claim to put people first because people are their greatest asset. Yet many organizations fail to live up to this claim when employee concern is greatest. Change implementers should invest time and effort to understand human concerns, put themselves in the place of those affected, and then practice the Golden Rule of treating others the way they would like to be treated. Remember, change threatens people, fosters uncertainty about the future, and engenders fears about a job loss or the ability to do things a new way. That's why effective communication is so important. People fear the unknown. Bad news is usually better than no news; but even better is management's assurance that although things will change, workers will receive every consideration, including the necessary training and time to learn to do things the new way.

Demonstrate Strong Leadership Throughout the Organization

Without strong leadership, positive change won't happen. Recently, Troy University made a dramatic change that involved much more than a name change from Troy State University. The result was a combination of four major campuses, an e-campus, and dozens of worldwide sites to implement shared policies and procedures, remove barriers to academic transfer, and promote a worldwide brand identity for "students who wish to excel in a globally competitive world."

This change certainly would not have happened without strong leadership from the chancellor and his leadership team; but, quite frankly, the change was smooth and effective because hundreds of people demonstrated strong leadership. They were committed to the change and worked hard to make it happen. No longer can organizational leadership be the domain of a few--every responsible employee must do what it takes to reach organizational goals. This is especially true when change must occur. Many must step up and assume leadership. Spreading leadership and decision-making responsibilities inspires and motivates everyone to take a role in implementing change.

Build Trust in the Leadership

Trust is simply the belief that you won't be harmed when vulnerable. Obviously, the level of mutual trust between labor and management or between supervisors and subordinates affects the health of an organization. But trust of leaders by subordinates is doubly important in times of change because workers feel especially vulnerable. Jobs, self-esteem, community standing, and economic stability may be in the balance. Some people dread relocation and face the decision of whether to stay with an agency, especially those who may have left the uniformed services for what they thought would be location stability. Even retirement-eligible employees want to depart on their terms rather than being forced to do so, and those who have been told they will keep their jobs are often unsure and may be afraid that even if they have a job, it will change so much that they won't be able to perform in a competent manner.

Change implementers must display absolute integrity, reliability, openness, and fairness--always behaving in ethically and socially responsible ways. Likewise, they must communicate that they care about both the people and the organization. These characteristics are foundational to trust; leaders must adhere to them.

Should trust be lost, it is not easily regained. If trust is lost or damaged during the process of implementing change, quick admission of fault is essential, for denial impedes repair. Failure to address the problem will not make it disappear; matters will just worsen. Open communication and an honest desire to understand why trust was lost offer the only hope for its reestablishment. And trust in change implementers is essential for change to occur.

Clearly Articulate the Vision to All

Although this statement is axiomatic, many organizations struggle in implementing change because people fail to grasp the vision and understand its implications. Change expert William Bridges outlines four steps necessary to launch change--steps that leadership should think through carefully before attempting to share the vision.

Purpose. If you want to implement change, you must explain the reason or basic purpose for change. People may not have a realistic idea of where the organization is or what problems it is facing. You must tell them. They need to understand the purpose for the outcome you seek. Be ready to answer these questions: What is the problem? Who said so? What happens if we don't change?

Avoid reliance on such cliches as "We want to be on the cutting edge" or "We want to be a values-laden, customer-service organization." Cliches are catchy, but people must understand the logic for the change before they can process the information and get on board to support and advocate the change. Everyone's help is needed. Remember, leadership is not just the domain of the few--especially during times of change.

Picture. Purposes can be abstract; people need a picture of how things will be after the change occurs. How will people get the work done? How will they interact with each other? How will things look? Consider using visual aids of the new organizational structure, the new floor plan, the new system. And if some other organization or agency is already operating the way you want to operate, take pictures or--better yet--arrange for a visit to see how the system works. Two cautions: First, don't make the picture too difficult to grasp; second, don't expect to have the picture take effect prematurely. Give people time to let go of the past.

Plan. Many people in senior leadership and management positions don't need a plan; they will find a way to the destination once they have the picture. However, most people are not this way; they need a plan for how they will get from here to there. This isn't necessarily a plan for the actual changes, details, or dates new equipment or systems will be in place; rather, it's a plan for how they as individuals will make the transition. Remember, transition is about people.

A transition plan outlines such things as when the change will occur, what will be done to help individuals adjust, when necessary training will be provided. The plan applies to them personally; it tells Fred, Maria, Demetrius, and Dorothy when and how their worlds will change. It takes people step by step through the process.

Part. Even the best purpose, picture, and plan leave doubt in the minds of people if they don't know the part they are to play. First, they need to know how they fit into the changed organization; second, they need to know how they will interact with others; and third, they need to know the part they will play in implementing the change. This last point is important because those people who help implement the change will be supportive of the change and commit to helping make it happen.

Create an Enabling Environment

Organizations may do all the right things to set the stage for change--address human concerns, demonstrate strong leadership, build trust, articulate the vision--all, that is, but create an environment to enable success. Planning for enablement must come early. Here are four things to consider.

Identify potential barriers. Early in the change process, cross-functional teams should use a method such as force-field analysis to identify both driving and restraining forces that may affect implementation. Government pressure, pay for performance, and outside competition may be examples of positive driving forces. Apathy, hostility, and lack of knowledge may be restraining forces. Whatever method of analysis is used, leadership should identify and address forces that can cause barriers or obstacles and forces that can overcome them.

Break the old silos. Whenever change involves reorganization, consolidation of services, or combining of functions, structural silos must be broken. Employees may want to do things the new way, but organizational structure, old loyalties, and fragmented resources keep them from doing so. Leaders must have the foresight and vision to see where old silos may be a problem, and then they must do something about tearing them down.

Provide needed training. In some change scenarios, training is not needed. People may have the skills and experience to do the job. Conversely, some efforts fail to start well--and others never reach their potential--because of a lack of training. It is folly to take 10 people or 1,000 people, place them in new settings with no preparation, and expect them to perform in an effective manner. This especially may affect workers who may have acquired bad habits through the years, habits they were able to live with in familiar surroundings, but habits that will hinder or prevent success in new ones.

Establish a listening post. From the time a planned change first is announced until after full implementation, personnel must have the opportunity to be heard and express their concerns and frustrations. Sometimes they simply must be allowed to sound off. In other cases, they may identify problems or issues that leadership hasn't considered. But in every case, personnel should know they are being heard, that management cares. Not only will a listening post help employees but also it will allow change implementers to learn important information and to be attuned to employee feelings. Leadership must take great care to let people know that their comments matter and that they won't be condemned for them. Never shoot the messenger!

Be spinmasters, not crapehangers. Attitude and approach are crucial. Those who put a positive spin on the situation will always be more successful change agents than those who are crapehangers or pessimists. Senior leaders especially must communicate positive and compelling reasons for change.

Even with forced change, leaders must never give the reason "we are being forced into it" or "we have no choice in the matter." Instead, true leaders should extol benefits of the change. Don't expect enthusiastic and committed support for change from people down in the organization if top leaders and managers don't have it.

Celebrate Success

Celebration recognizes accomplishment, motivates everyone involved, and sends a positive message. Don't wait until the mission is accomplished and change has occurred; celebrate milestones and short-term wins on the way to the goal. In his award-winning book, Leading Change, John P. Kotter advocates generating short-term wins because change often takes a lot of time, and short-term wins encourage people to stay the course. Examples of short-term wins might be cost reduction, performance improvement, or significantly improved customer feedback in a department that has implemented a process that will be adopted organization-wide. Professor Kotter points out that a good short-term win has three characteristics: It is visible, unambiguous, and clearly related to the change effort.

Institutionalize the Change within the Culture

The change must become part of the culture--the norms and shared values of the organization. Often, leaders attempt to change the culture; however, culture is not easily changed. Some change consultants claim to produce cultural change: "changing the basic values, norms beliefs, etc., among members of the organization in order to improve organizational performance." One look at this statement should suggest to even the most casual reader that it just won't happen. Experience at the State Department and within the military services with attempts to change established cultures around the world gives further evidence. Culture does not change easily; therefore, if change depends upon a cultural transformation, the change likely won't be lasting. American business is full of examples where change lasted only as long as current leadership. Change agents must look for ways to graft change into the existing culture.

Here are some ways to help institutionalize change:

* Communicate strong, documented evidence linking performance improvement to the change

* Praise the culture for making the change possible; that is, show compatibility between the culture and the change

* Mentor future leaders on the value of change, especially the change that has just been accomplished

* Once change has occurred, don't promote those who did not support the change


Change requires people to transition, but even those transitions we fear can yield positive results. I have experienced five major job transitions in my life. At twenty-four, I left farming to become a college student. Less than seven years later, after earning my PhD degree, I became a college professor 1,000 miles away from home. Five years later, I went to work as an Air Force civilian in a different geographic location. Twenty-five years later, I once again became a college professor. I had fears each time as I transitioned from a place of comfort to a place of uncertainty. But, in retrospect, each transition was a good one because I decided it would be--and perhaps, even more, because people around me helped me. That is what we must do as implementers of change--help those who are transitioning.

Seven Steps to address

transition issues

1 Assess and address human concerns

2 Demonstrate strong leadership throughout the organization

3 Build trust in the leadership

4 Clearly articulate the vision co a

5 Create an enabling environment

6 Celebrate success

7 Institutionalize change within the culture

Did You Know ...

$5.5 billion

Estimated eventual recurring annual savings from a major transformation effort, the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) round of 2005, according to the Department of Defense (DoD)

$2.6 billion

Largest recurring annual savings from any of the previous four BRAC rounds (from BRAC '93), according to the DoD


Approximate number of personnel under the National Security Personnel System as of November 2006, according to the DoD


Approximate number of positions converted from military to civilian since 2001, according to the DoD


Percentage decrease in headquarters staffs since 2001, according to the DoD


Percentage increase in all federal civilian employees in DoD from end 2001 to end 2005, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)


Percentage decrease in the number of federal civilian Defense financial managers (GS-500 series) from end 2001 to end 2005, according to the OPM


Percentage increase in the real level of U.S. Defense budget authority between end 2001 and end 2005, according to the DoD Comptroller


William Bridges: Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1991, p. 52

John P. Kotter: Leading Change, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996, pp. 117-130
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Author:Kline, John A.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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