What else is needed to make change successful?

by Thomas Fox

Ed. Note-I saw this article by a long-time friend and colleague, Tim Aikens. I was going to write a blog about it but Tim said it so well that I asked him if I could repost his article in its entirety which he graciously allowed me to do. Tim helps companies through the management of change. His website is http://www.azarel.org/index.html. 


What else is needed to make change successful?

I have recently been involved with two clients who are about to embark upon major change in their businesses.  They are very different and each has a very unique style or culture.  As they prepare to set off on their journey I have wondered what else is needed to succeed beyond the ‘usual suspects’?

John Kotter and others have all put forward their ideas, mostly honed after years of practice and delivery.  They are all very useful and I have many of their books on my shelf.  But I am always drawn back to the question above.  After going through some of my own success stories and taking out the usual suspects, I have identified a few things that I believe really matter.

Openness, honesty and transparency.  It’s one thing to create a compelling case for change; to then be fully open and honest about it to everyone concerned is another matter entirely.  I have always been impressed by senior managers who lead from the front and don’t hold back.  I remember one Engineering Director sitting down with his team and saying ‘not everyone around this table will have a job here when we are finished’.  It was direct, open and honest. His team respected him for it.  On another project the manager of the business unit spoke openly to everyone, showing them the chart of financial decline and ultimately failure if there was no change.  One member of the workforce asked me why no one had had the courage to do this before. He now fully understood the need and was fully engaged.

Being transparent means being available and open to debate.  I have run transformation programmes where the project room was always open to anyone at any time; the General Manager held regular town hall meetings and did not shy away from either difficult questions or making difficult statements.

Knowing how to decide.  Many people often think that consensus is a good thing.  In most situations it is, but it is important not to confuse consensus with alignment.  To me the former is about getting everyone to agree and in many cases participate in arriving at consensus.  Alignment is where you have a team thinking and behaving in the same way.  This might be achieved through consensus it may also be achieved through leadership and sometimes by a more autocratic decision making process.  The decision to change is usually taken by a small group.  Decisions on what to change and how to change can vary on a spectrum of autocratic to consensus.  The secret lies in knowing your organisation and making decisions in the right way.  I worked with one client where two members of the senior management team were less than supportive.  After talking to the General Manager the two people concerned were moved out of their jobs and the project regained the necessary momentum.  This brings me to my next point.

Honour and Respect.  In the early 90s Peter Noer wrote a book entitled ‘Healing the Wounds’.  The book is about how to deal with those who remain after a downsizing exercise.  The book has had a major impact on how I think about this issue and I have always insisted that any change project that might involve redundancy or layoffs addresses this issue carefully.  The results are remarkable.  If those remaining know that their colleagues who are leaving are really being given the honour and respect they deserve their input to the project is so much better.  I have even had members of a project team working incredibly hard with a really positive attitude despite the fact that they would be collecting their redundancy cheque at the end of the project!

Positive and creative.  I am a great believer in positive thinking.  I am also a great believer in people’s ability to be creative.  Both are essential to generating successful change.  A positive approach is, I suppose similar to John Kotter’s making an emotional case for change, but it is also more.  Being positive is about leading from the front and clearly demonstrating that not only do you believe the change is right, but you also believe it can be achieved and you believe in the team you have.

Most people can be creative.  In the work environment it is easy to let others do the creative stuff and you get by on doing what you are told, challenging little and following the book.  Whilst I am not advocating anarchy, I strongly believe that this mould has to be broken and staff encouraged to be more creative - especially in any role as a change agent.  I have run workshops on creativity, usually as a precursor to some kind of reengineering exercise.  It works! People like to see that they can be creative and they move on quickly to apply this immediately after.

Next time you are involved with major change, don’t just think of the usual things to do, but consider really soft topics above.

Are you as good as you used to be?

We all have our employment because we are good at something.  Usually this has been demonstrated by academic achievement and a subsequent track record in our chosen career.  Through that career we receive training in various things to improve performance and add additional skills.  So far so good, but are you as good as you used to be?

In some jobs this question is really important.  As a regular flier, I am glad that airline pilots are regularly tested to make sure that they are still on top of their game.  The NHS has recently introduced regulations to make sure that doctors are assessed on a formal basis.  But what about the rest of us whose work does not endanger lives - but could endanger corporate success.  The question can then be considered across the whole of an organisation from the top to the bottom.  At board level, assessment comes through share price and profit, but below that how do you know?

There are plenty of management tools in place to assess leadership and other skills, but how often are they used or should they be used?  I don’t have the answer and I suspect there is no single answer.  I do believe that a lot of testing only happens when an organisation is in trouble which is often shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted!

What about the workforce.  Most businesses rely on skilled staff to deliver, whether it is a skilled mechanic, a call centre operator or a retail assistant.  Their skills can make or break a business.  Training is good, but how does the organisation know that an individual is still exercising all the proper skills and methods they learned during training?  Most of us have come across the surly sales assistant, or the tradesman who does shoddy work.

I think there are two issues to address:

  • Making sure that there is some appropriate mechanism to review and test skills on a continuing basis
  • Developing a culture which accepts that being assessed is OK and not an assault on your integrity or capability

The two go together.  Airlines believe it is good business to test their pilots regularly (do they do the same for cabin staff?).  Equally the pilots readily accept these assessments as part of the job.

A first step might be to decide which critical roles should be assessed and how. At the professional level the performance management process identifies poor performers, but this often occurs too late.  On the shop floor production and quality control act as a measure of capability (how much and how good).  Other roles may need specific intervention, some of which could include self-assessment.


Tim Aikens can be reached via email at, tim@azarel.org.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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