Radical change for a radical world

When it’s a case of change or die, HR needs to implement quickly and forcefully
By Ken Keis
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/28/2004

Change is seldom a pleasant word in business circles, but it is often vital for corporate survival. Eaton’s didn’t change and the market didn’t wait for them. Change is often implemented too cautiously and too slowly. HR departments can push for change faster than they realize; looking back to reflect on the process, HR professionals often say the change should have happened sooner, gone even faster and been implemented more forcefully.

Recently an automotive dealership wanted to implement a PC-based showroom-control process but hesitated because the sales team was not computer literate. Hey, wait a minute. Who’s in charge here? Making business decisions based on the lowest common denominator or the poorest skill level does not make good business sense. The dealership needed to defy tradition and disregard managerial norms that safeguarded its established (but outdated) ways of doing business.

Change has three phases: the ending, the neutral zone and the beginning. The ending is the end of the old way. The beginning of the new requires the end of the old. The neutral zone is the place where employees cling to their old ways, or where the old ways are reshaped and new ways are tried. In this trial-and-error period, an unavoidable sense of confusion or even chaos may reign and that might cause a temporary backslide to the old ways. HR must hold the course; people who want to avoid the new culture or change may be sabotaging the process. Last comes the beginning, the point at which the organization really starts functioning in the new ways.

To implement radical change, change must be implemented radically. Never let the existing culture dictate the new approach. Make business decisions based on what is best for the business, not what the staff can or cannot handle.

Focus on the future:

Analyzing what the company is currently doing is studying history. It is more valuable to look to the future.

Deliberately destabilize the team:

Something has to hit the organization hard enough to shatter the status quo and it should make enough noise to get people’s attention. That’s how a company creates the opening necessary for change. If there isn’t a crisis already, management must create one.

Apply tough love:

We used to have gentler alternatives; in times past it was acceptable to settle for gradual, evolving change. Those days are gone. Now we are living in an era of accelerating change and it’s HR’s job to help the organization keep up. If the corporate culture doesn’t adapt rapidly everybody loses. HR must care enough to take the company through the tough, unpopular struggle of change so it can survive. Trying not to disturb people and seeking to appease everybody by taking it slow and easy can be the cruellest move of all; it’s like tearing a bandage off slowly.

Change the reward system:

If significant changes are not made to the corporate reward system, the company will actually reward resistance. Employees should not be expected to change their behaviour significantly unless it’s worth their while. Change is hard to come by unless people can see a big payoff for behaving in different ways. Sticking with the old culture must start to hurt and buying into the new change must bring pleasure. Then the company has a decent chance of actually changing things.

Keep score:

When the measurement of results becomes imperative, people will take HR, and the change, seriously. Change must be measured and results rewarded — and the team will assume a different attitude.

Promote the vision:

Change can cause people to become disoriented, demoralized and dispirited. The team will drift, become confused and feel aimless unless a focus point captures their imagination. They must focus on a vision that holds their attention and hooks their hearts. Promote the vision, sell it and give the vision drama, glory and excitement.

Expect casualties:

The upheaval involved with significant change can be enormous. Some people won’t make the cut. To effect change, a company doesn’t have to get rid of people, but it does have to get rid of wrong behaviours. Employees need to understand this. They can stay, but their old behaviours, those in conflict with the new cultural objectives, must go. If a company does manage to hang on to all of its people, it’s either a miracle or a sign of bad management.

Demonstrate unwavering commitment:

Major change will not occur unless it’s driven by deeply held convictions. Management must be relentless. People have to believe the company is deadly serious about the endeavour and determined to see it through.

Involve everyone:

HR’s job is to give everyone in the organization personal accountability for transforming the culture and implementing the change. The change effort won’t benefit from benchwarmers or spectators. Everyone must be an active player.

Bring in a new breed:

Turnover has its virtues. Used correctly, it gives a company the chance to reconstitute its workforce. It’s done in sports teams — change a few people and the chemistry of the team is transformed. Break out of conventional selection and placement practices and find people who clearly do not fit the current industry culture. Look for achievers bent on making their mark.

Go flat out:

Start out fast and keep picking up speed. There are no valid arguments for going slow. Everyone could use more time if it was available, but the blunt truth is the world waits for no one. Either the organization will change or the marketplace will leave it to die a slow death. Think of Eaton’s.

Ken Keis is the president and CEO of Consulting Resource Group in Abbotsford, B.C. (www.crgleader.com). He can be reached at (604) 852-0566 or ken@crgleader.com.

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