Some Thoughts on Managing Change

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

As you read this, you are exhaling atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen that just an instant before were locked up in solid matter; your stomach, liver, heart, lungs, and brain are vanishing into thin air, being replaced as quickly and endlessly as they are being broken down. The human skin replaces itself once a month, the stomach lining every five days, the liver every six weeks, and the skeleton every three months.

To the naked eye, these organs look the same from moment to moment, but they are always in flux. By the end of a year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body will have been exchanged for new ones. Literally, you are not the same person from year to year. Why then, amidst all this change, do we often seek to eradicate changes in our lives, our organizations, our business processes, and in our environment?

Buddy, can you spare the change?

No, you cannot spare the change and neither can your organization! You are in fact changing and your organization will also change. You and it will change or you will die and even death is a process of change. And in today’s modern business world, to focus on the business issues, the pace of change has accelerated to the point of almost blinding speed. It continues to accelerate.

We all know that this is the case, and we all know that it is technology that is driving the acceleration of change. Advances in communication have made our world one global market. We face competition from the same global markets in which we seek the lowest labor cost for our own products. Many of our customers and employees purchase products and work to design products and services from the comfort of their homes. Information (and disinformation) is readily available to all who have access to the internet, and in the industrialized nations of the world, a majority of the people have gained that access one way or another.

We also know that disruptive technology provides leaps in competing products which totally transform the markets in which we move. The classic example is that of the buggy-whip. While focused on making the best buggy-whip in the world, the manufacturer did not see that automobiles would soon obviate the need for buggy-whips. The whole market disappeared. Personal computers have totally changed the corporate information system market and have gone on to fuel the changes in how we as individuals use information and communicate in our personal lives. To not anticipate these disruptive technologies, or at least recognize and respond to their impact, is to invite corporate obsolescence.

Why do we fight change?

While intellectually we all know that change is inevitable, that there is no such thing as security or stability, we often have a difficult time accepting that things must change. My experience is that as long as someone perceives that a forthcoming change will increase their authority in the organization, they will embrace the change. If the perception is that authority or power will be lost due to a change, then all stops are pulled to avoid the proposed changes. Rarely do employees willingly make a personal sacrifice in stature, authority, or power for the general good of the organization.

Sometimes the opposition to change may be due to change overload. Perhaps an employee is dealing with an overwhelming amount of change in his or her personal life; children moving away to school, divorce or simply dealing with relationship strains at home, illness in the family, etc. Under these circumstances, employees may well look to the workplace as the only point of stability in their lives. They spend fifty percent of their waking hours at work, and if everything else is in turmoil, they want desperately to have work be the haven from change.

Institutionalizing Change

As if it isn’t enough to deal with the outside forces of technology and globalization of markets, we now have to deal with the institutionalization of change within our corporations. Management initiatives such as Six Sigma and the ISO9000 programs demand continuous improvement. It’s impossible to imagine improvement without some level of change. Relentless pressure to increase human productivity demands changes in our business and management practices even if we determine that our products and markets are well defined and viable.

The essence of Business Process Reengineering (BPR) is alive and well today. The name, BPR, has been misappropriated for those who would simply downsize their organizations. Yet the original intent of a careful study, measurement, and radical reorganization of a company is still employed today; we just call it something else! Leadership teams have also recognized the need to make continuous incremental (rather than radical) changes for many of our business processes. Regardless of how we make the changes–change we must if we are to survive and thrive.

Shaping the Corporate Culture

How well change is managed in an organization depends on the skills of the leadership team. Not only do they need to understand the organization and the requisite changes; but they must also understand their employees’ capacity for change and the capacity of the organization itself to support and promote changes.

Mr. Michael Mussallem, Chairman and CEO of Edwards Lifesciences, often speaks of “actively managing the corporate culture.” Part of the company credo is that; “We will celebrate our successes, thrive on discovery, and continually expand our boundaries.” Continually expanding boundaries implies not only technological but also organizational change. To actively manage the corporate culture means not only ensuring that the corporate ethics are understood and managed as a process, but that the leadership team affirms and promotes an environment that encourages individual responsibility and a capacity to change the business processes.