English explorer William Edward Parry and his crew were exploring the Northwest Passage and needed to go further north to continue their chartings. They calculated their location by the stars and began a treacherous march. After many hours they stopped, exhausted.
Parry discovered they were now further south than when they started. He and his crew had been navigating through constantly moving ice floes and against a southward current. At one point they realized they had only progressed one mile in five days due to the ice moving four miles south per day. Parry had expected to be on an unbroken ice plain but instead found that they were on an ice floe that was traveling faster south than they were walking north.
In a manner, Parry was taking one step forward, two steps back.
At times, efforts to implement change can experience similar outcomes. Project teams can spend ample time assessing, preparing, designing and implementing plans to successfully transition employees and the organization through the change process. However, unexpected forces can come into play that slows progress, or in worst-case scenarios, drive an organization into a state of regression. Just like Parry, project teams can become exhausted and frustrated as they continue tirelessly to implement change resulting in little to no progress. When this happens project teams can suddenly be tasked with questions such as:
- What response should be taken when business policies and practices are enacted that contradict behaviors that are being cultivated?
- What course of action should be taken when resistance surfaces where previously little to none existed?
- Whose help should be solicited when project leaders are pulled away from sponsorship duties to handle urgent day-to-day business needs?
- What adjustments should be made to address missed project activities, deliverables and milestones?
- What needs to be done to get back on track to achieve the expected project outcomes and return on investment?
A recent large-scale change initiative went through this particular experience. The first year of the project went relatively smoothly as changes to processes, organizational structure, systems and tools were implemented. Quick-win teams worked in parallel on tactical activities that achieved rapid improvements and financial savings. While employee resistance manifested as expected and a few technical challenges surfaced along the way, progress was still being made toward the goal of improved operational and reliability performance.
As the initiative moved into the second year an unforeseen event occurred that forced the organization to downsize, cut budgets and implement stopgap measures to business practices and policies in order to overcome the unexpected turn of events. The initiative was significantly impacted due to these constraints. Progress that was achieved through new behaviors and activities began to slip as the organization returned to the old set of behaviors. As participation and interest waned in rollout areas, realization set in that forward momentum was slowing, if not drifting backward, placing the organization in a state beyond the original starting position.
Changing Change Management
After conducting a thorough evaluation into what was causing resistance, the project team came to the conclusion that employee desire had fallen to an all-time low. Employees had lost interest as concern over job security increased. They were being overtasked due to reductions in staffing, perceived that the future state could not be performed due to the new constraints, and observed a loss in sponsorship by key managers and leaders.
The project team realized a change to the implementation strategy was needed, specifically to address change management activities. Instead of continuing down the predefined path of training, coaching, and reinforcing activities, the team adapted to the current situation and set out on a new course to regain sponsorship and employee engagement. Key activities to foster desire included:
- Acknowledging and communicating the reality of the situation with employees throughout the organization.
- Sharing that senior leadership was still supporting the initiative.
- Providing employees with a platform to share concerns and ask questions.
- Identifying and communicating components of the change initiative that were not impacted by the stopgap measures and could still be implemented.
- Communicating benefits of implementing the changes at a personal level with a goal of helping employees understand “what’s in it for me”. (WIIFM)
- Re-communicating the “what” and “why” of the change initiative and allowing employees to develop ideas and methods on “how” to achieve the desired outcomes.
- Revising the rollout strategy to focus implementation activities in pilot areas where employees were receptive and better positioned for success.
As the second year of implementation came to a close, the project team continued with its revised approach, resulting in renewed interest and an organizational determination to continue its pursuit of improved operational and reliability performance.
At times change can be rigid but more times than not, change is fluid because it involves people and takes place in a constant changing business environment. Due to the fluid nature of people and business, projects can experience delays and slippages. To overcome the “one step forward and two steps backward” phenomenon, project teams should be on the constant lookout for the unexpected and be prepared to adjust quickly. Successful organizations equip project teams accordingly and allow freedom to change course as required to help ensure initiatives continue to move forward and to achieve project outcomes.