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Wednesday, 07 August 2013 05:37

Your change initiative isn't working. Have you looked in the mirror?

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'Change' seems to have become a hot topic for businesses again.  As a change architect - and someone who makes her living from organizational change - I find myself greeting the news with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I’m thrilled that more organizations are recognizing the need for change.  On the other hand, 70% of change initiatives still fail in some way, so it’s not like organizations are getting better at it.  And sometimes it seems that ‘change’ has become a strategy in and of itself:  “We need to improve the bottom line.  Let’s change…something!”

Organizations are still looking for the mythical silver bullet, that proprietary alchemy which will magically make their changes work.  Each time they set out to change, they look for some new silver bullet, because the old silver bullet didn’t work.  The problem is that it’s not about finding a magic bullet - it’s about recognizing that successful change needs the right strategy and implementation.

I’ve led lots of change projects over the years, and not one of them has failed.  That’s not because I invented a magic bullet - it’s because I’ve spent more time than most people learning to understand the way I, and the people I’m leading, react to change. 

It’s important to remember that being the ‘changer’ (the leader of change) is much different than being a ‘changee’ (one of the people affected by the change).   Within an organization, senior leaders are used to thinking of themselves as ‘changers’.  But when their change initiatives don’t succeed, it’s often because they forgot that they’re also ‘changees’ - and that their reactions to change, as a changee, are influencing the process in a negative way.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you are Joe (or Josephine), the CEO of a $30 million company in the retail sector.  You’re on your way to work (where you’re scheduled to be in an important meeting as soon as you arrive) and discover that your usual route is closed thanks to unexpected roadwork.  You’re forced to follow a detour that not only takes longer but goes through an area with which you’re entirely unfamiliar.  The delay makes you feel panicky about missing the start of the meeting,  you’re unsettled by the confusion of the detour - and when you finally get to the office, you can’t shake your feelings of anxiety.

Then you dash into the meeting, where you’re hit with some bad news from your VPs.  “Oh, great,” you think.  “Once again, they’ve all failed to meet my expectations.  They’re always disappointing me - what the hell is wrong with them?”  You decide you’ll have to ‘do something about it’, but the thought of having to spend hours coaching your senior leadership team through the next quarter just sucks all the energy out of you.  By the time you head home for the day, you feel like you’ve been been on a forced march through the desert - and you never did get around to tackling all the other items on your to-do list for the day.

When this kind of relatively small, unexpected change unsettles Joe (or Josephine), it’s not hard to understand how big change can cause anxiety, even in senior leaders.  Anxiety can lead to a lack of action, sudden changes in direction, or apathy - and when the leader of a change is paralyzed, inconsistent, or detached, it’s not surprising that the rest of the employees are similarly affected.  (And thinking things like “my team is always disappointing me” is almost guaranteed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

So if you’re finding yourself leading a change project which isn’t going well, the first step may be to look in the mirror.  Are you bringing your anxiety to bear on the project?  Are you setting your team up for success by believing in their abilities, or are you letting them meet your expectations of failure?  Most importantly, are you modeling the kind of enthusiasm for change that you need to see in them?

As the person who initiates change within the organization, you may not be affected by the change in the same ways that those lower in your organization will.  But here’s something to think about:  Change is just as much about ‘how’ as it is about ‘what’ - and how your employees react to change is directly related to the way you do.

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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