Getting Organizational Change Management Right the First Time

July 20, 2018
Most OCM approaches are ineffective about meaningful change because they focus only on behavior.

Is your organization contemplating major changes in structure, operations, business practices? Unless the change is something minor, like a process adjustment or a new role, making lasting change through an organizational change management (OCM) program requires understanding, discipline, consistency and commitment.

Why Most OCM Programs Fail

They don’t take thoughts and emotions into account
Most OCM approaches are ineffective in bringing about meaningful and sustainable changes because they focus only on behavior. This produces a kind of Pavlovian Operant Conditioning response—e.g., the employee follows the new protocol because that’s what’s expected—but it makes no change to the internal life of the employee.

Human behavior is one of three aspects that make up the whole person. The others are thoughts and emotions, which are, of course, what gives rise to observable behavior. Truly sustainable change comes from the inside. Any OCM engagement must take the time to understand and facilitate change in the whole person.

They don’t address work culture
Work culture is made up of all the observable behaviors in an organization. Cultural forces are powerful because they operate outside of our awareness. Culture is all around us, but most of all, it is in us. Even in the face of overwhelming challenges and information to the contrary, people will continue to act according to their cultural assumptions.

One CEO’s predilection to avoid risk delayed simple improvement initiatives worth millions in annual savings. The company’s engineering team had recommended installing remote monitoring systems to reduce inventory, reader error, liability and transport costs and improve safety. The CEO, an attorney, believed the new systems could cause a fire and spark liability problems. It took an active on-site demonstration at a customer’s location to convince the CEO that her perceptions were not based in science or fact, and that the initiative should go forward.

They don’t cultivate buy-in
Since thoughts and feelings drive behavior, acceptance of the change and buy-in to new tools and processes are required. This is a difficult task, but one made easier when you can demonstrate the benefits to an individual by answering the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Changing behavior does not change the culture, and no one person or small group can work above their culture for long. Instead, changing culture is what changes behavior. Any organization that wants to make lasting change must understand the culture and the out-of-synch conditions that have given rise to the gaps and shortcomings management wants to “correct.”

Take, for example, installation of a new SAP system. Any change creates some sense of trepidation amongst those affected by it. With its bewildering array of complex actions and screens, SAP can be, by far, the most intimidating. One way I’ve been successful in helping people accept this type of change is to show them that they did not have to master all of the system. In fact, most jobs need only 5 to 7 different screens and transaction codes.

Getting OCM right
Ask these three questions. Then incorporate three essential steps into your organizational change program.

1. Is leadership aligned? This is fundamental. Don’t begin any change initiative until your management team is on the same page.

Identifying problem(s) is the first task for management. Without an accurate definition of the problem, any improvement initiatives are likely to fall short of even minimal expectations. It’s like beating down the door to the wrong room. Alignment means:

  • Understanding gaps and/or shortcomings, such as market position and economics.
  • Agreement on what to do and how to do it.
  • A shared vision of what better looks like.
  • Agreement on how to measure economic results (not just OCM activities like how many people received training).
  • Forming an executive steering committee, complete with behavioral expectations and a charter with milestones.

2. What results and outcomes are we aiming for? Too often organizations focus on activity instead of results. They are confusing motion with progress.

  • It’s pointless to train for team-building, problem-solving, and group facilitation unless that training is tied to one or more specific goals.
  • Don’t confuse motion and activity with progress—a common decision misstep. Don’t assume that real results will follow if a critical mass of employees are trained in improvement techniques. This is much like assuming that a rain dance will bring rain … it’s called magical thinking.
  • Training should happen at the appropriate time and focus on effective use of new tools (e.g. software) and accompanying business processes.
  • The appropriate time to communicate broad-based organizational change is after new tools and business processes have been set up and people understand how to use them.

3. Are we assessing what needs to change at the same time we’re analyzing how our OCM program should be set up?

Getting one’s OCM ducks in order means taking baseline measurements of current business processes, assessing whether leadership is in fact aligned on goals, gathering information to build an estimated timeline and developing a plan for the OCM part of the initiative.

  • These steps will provide your OCM team with initial insights on how people will be affected by the change.
  • The assessment is also the time to take the organization’s cultural temperature and other vital signs using tools such as a cultural baseline analysis and focus interviews.
  • During the assessment, develop your stakeholder management and organizational communication plans. People who aren’t given the whole story and context of the change will revert to catastrophic thinking. The thought experiment which demonstrates this principle goes like this: “Suppose you pull up to a red light, preparing for a right turn to go to your house. You look over to the right and see a plume of smoke rising into the air. Whose house is on fire?”

Three Steps to Success

1. Using both the shared vision of what changes will look like and their expected economic benefits, begin developing a plan to communicate how they will benefit customers, the organization and its employees.

  • The benefits plan should be reviewed with senior management frequently, especially at first, until the estimate passes what is commonly referred to as “the management smell test.” When the plan fully aligns with management’s expectations for the change initiative, only then are you ready to begin communicating.
  • The messaging you include in OCM communications should include sources and time-phasing of benefits, magnitude or ranges of expected benefits and the rationale behind why these elements of the business will improve (based, for example, on Value Proposition or Efficiency and Effectiveness models).

2. Determine the short-term intervals in which employees will be receiving information about upcoming changes.

  • This should start with a management announcement letter about the purpose of the initiative and information about what to expect, such as interviews, questions, requests for data, etc. This can go a long way to reduce employee apprehension.
  • The general communication should focus on the planned activities and schedule. It may include answers to frequently asked questions which have arisen in conversations with employees.
  • Detailed communication that provides specifics to key stakeholders should be based on the overall stakeholder management plan.

3. Once an improvement plan is in place, track the organization’s progress against that plan.

  • Your vision of “better” has informed the expected/forecasted results of the improvement initiative. The improvement plan has established how the organization will reach that level of performance. Since this doesn’t occur all at once, tracking progress is how we know whether we’re moving to the ultimate goal.
  • Performance tracking has two paths. The first is to track the activity and implementation of processes and tools, focusing on areas or elements lagging behind the plan. The second is to continue to work with the affected individuals and address their concerns and confusions with coaching and reinforcement.

These questions and steps form a set of interlocking elements, each dependent on the others to be successful. They must proceed in a logical order, building on the steps previously taken.

One final truth: Change management does not bring about change. Leadership does.

Jon J. Thorne is senior consultant & associate of Daniel Penn Associates. He has conducted maintenance and operations process consulting for a wide variety of industries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He holds an MBA in operations analysis from the University of Minnesota and a BS/BA degree in communications and industrial engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

About the Author

Jon Thorne | Senior Consultant and Associate

Jon J. Thorne is senior consultant and associate of Daniel Penn Associates. He has conducted maintenance and operations process consulting for a wide variety of industries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He holds an MBA in operations analysis from the University of Minnesota and a BS/BA degree in communications and industrial engineering from the University of Wisconsin. 

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