Six Questions for Company Transformation

Feb. 14, 2011
Looking to change your organization? Answer these questions first.

It goes without saying that the economic downturn has taken a significant toll on manufacturers since 2008. While many organizations have suffered, some in the same industry have actually prospered, and often the main differentiator has been the organizations' abilities to evolve.

If your company continues to struggle because the global economy is still mired in a trough, you may be looking closely at leading one final attempt at change within your organization. This change should not involve a weekend retreat, or a slogan on a coffee mug -- such simplistic attempts at "change" are certain to fail. In fact, more than 70% of all organizational change initiatives fail because there is a lack of lasting commitment after the initial introduction phase.

No, to truly instill lasting change at your company will involve hard work, time and most importantly, a greater sense of involvement at all levels within your organization than ever.

If you are looking to begin a change initiative within your organization, take a moment first to ask yourself the following six primary questions. Your answers to these questions will provide the context for making the change, and will help lay a critical foundation for you to begin any top-to-bottom organizational transformation.

Primary Question #1:
"Where is the organization's culture?"

Change-management initiatives often false-start when the leader cannot or does not answer this question. The fact is the culture of your company is in your employees' hearts and heads. Culture is the sum total of the emotions, experiences, beliefs and expectations of everyone involved with the organization -- the "collective mind" of the organization.

Whether your organization is made up of five people or 50,000, your culture is created and sustained in what each person thinks, believes, feels and expects about the organization. Until you can describe the core emotions, experiences, beliefs and expectations of your employees, you cannot change their spirit.

That which hinders a company from changing is ultimately inside the people. It is the collective voice that says, "Is this really necessary?" or, "Let's keep that in mind." You must uncover, comprehend and acknowledge these objections, and answer, "Where is the culture?" to know what sort of change must occur. By first understanding the collective mind of your organization, you establish a place from which you can effectively birth the change process.

Primary Question #2:
"What starts the process?"

The tendency is to assume that action is required immediately to begin the change process. In reality, that is much further down the road. The company that acts on unsubstantiated whim will rarely see a result in lasting change.

Dr. David Shaner:
The tendency is to assume that action is required immediately to begin the change process. In reality, that is much further down the road. The company that acts on unsubstantiated whim will rarely see a result in lasting change.
Instituting successful change on the factory floor begins with knowledge. Without it, those on the manufacturing line cannot participate effectively in altering the direction of the organization. While this is a very basic concept, few managers help employees understand the real business environment. This "boardroom awareness" includes understanding the reality of new overseas competition, new technologies and industry consolidation or expansion that dramatically affects the bottom line.

Employees need to know the visible metrics being used to keep score so they can gauge if their collective mind is on target. Mind leads behavior. Your organization's intelligence -- the collective knowledge of its collective mind -- is its truest value. If you misjudge or guess at this, you will always struggle to lead change.

Primary Question #3:
"Whose culture is it?"

Change requires that you help everyone along the assembly line to take personal responsibility for his or her role in necessary transformation. Your people must believe the culture is theirs to own. If you want employees to think and act like an owner, the concept of "owning" the work environment must be clear.

In order to give employees a sense of ownership for the success of the enterprise, you must create tangible ways for them to participate in the change process. Without meaningful, heartfelt participation, people will not take responsibility for the improvement or survival of the organization.

Work must become reinterpreted in the collective mind as a place for personal growth, achievement, satisfaction and spiritual development. If your people learn how to (1) exercise their potential, (2) reach new performance heights, (3) develop interpersonal skills and (4) improve their ability to collaborate with a diversity of people, then the entire change process becomes an opportunity to expand personal awareness, creativity, tolerance and fulfillment.

Primary Question #4:
"How do you know if you are making progress?"

Are your people walking the talk? As the leader of this process, you must learn to not only read the invisible mind of the organization but also read visible changes in speech, action and regular behavior that signify that the change initiative is taking place effectively. When you see change in your organization's collective behavior, you know change in the collective mind is taking place.

Primary Question #5:
"When can you change the culture?"

The only time when you can change the spirit of your organization is right now. World-class athletes know this. They unwaveringly focus on daily goals and improvement because the present moment is the only time they can -- and do -- improve. In the same way, leaders of change must create a sense of urgency because they understand successful execution will require that people do not wait to change themselves. Everyone must be coached to think and act differently -- now.

A negative institutional memory will be the primary deterrent to people changing today. Some of these attached thoughts include "That's the way we have always done things," or, "Let's wait for others to change," or, "Let's wait for our supervisor to get on board." These institutionalized mantras hold people back. They become the equivalent of an organizational emergency brake, hindering all progress, and are a major cause of the 70% failure rate of change initiatives.

Primary Question #6:
"Why do people change?"

The need to change is usually met with resistance. If the leader of change cannot provide a consistent and compelling rationale for change, he will fail to win the collective mind of the organization and change will not happen.

When people begin to trust senior management, when they are meaningfully included in the direction of the business, when they participate in the rewards that accompany superior achievement, then you will have an organization where the people know why they are giving 120%.

Why do people change? They change because they are given a clear reason to.

Dr. David Shaner is a professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and the founder of Shaner & Associates Inc.: Performance Development Consultants, and CONNECT Consulting LLC. His new book is "The Seven Arts of Change: Leading Business Transformation That Lasts" (Union Square Press, Nov. 2010).

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