George Strodtbeck, author of the book Making Change in Complex Organizations, is currently a Vice President with the consulting firm SBTI, where he is responsible for strategic account management and providing expert change management advice. Below he shares his thoughts on what it takes for organizations to handle change successfully.
It has been said for decades now that “the only constant is change.” Even if this is still true, how is the change within organizations different now than it was in the past?
Two of the most important differences from the past are speed of communication and access to knowledge. In both cases, the effect of the internet has been dramatic. What used to take weeks to communicate now takes seconds. Access to knowledge required a trip to the library to do research. Today that research is available instantly already sorted. This instant access has created the perception of speed in all things. However, when it comes to change, we are still talking about what people do; how they behave. This does NOT happen instantly. Properly used, providing access to information and education can have a positive impact on the speed and accuracy of a change effort. Old fashioned leadership and management is still required and this takes time, energy and resources. I think this second aspect of change is frustrating to a lot of management teams because of the perception created that they can have it now. It just doesn’t work that way.
Do quality management concepts and tools play a role in enacting change in organizations?
Of course. Take, for example, the FMEA. The idea behind the FMEA is anticipation of things that can go wrong. This applies not just to parts and manufacturing processes, but can be used to think about things that can go wrong with a change. It requires a little modification but not much. A ImR control chart can be used to monitor key measures that a change is intended to affect. I think people get stuck applying a tool in only one way and limiting its potential utility. Remember, a screw driver can be used on a screw, it can also be used to open a paint can. When we think of the quality concepts and tools as just tools, a whole universe of applications begins to open up. We can use them for deep understanding of process behavior and what to do when things aren’t the way they should be.
What are a few of the things common to organizations that have handled change well?
Leadership engagement. Leadership is the key ingredient for change success. This is not just the CEO. Some changes happen at the plant level or in the function. Leadership is a scalable concept. Wherever the change is intended, leadership has to engage and lead it. Otherwise, the change is doomed to minimal success at best and failure at worst.
And what about the things common to those that didn’t handle change well?
Leadership delegation of responsibility and accountability for action. When somebody other than the person who wants the change to happen is seen as the leader, everybody for whom the change is intended knows it is not really THAT important and the game playing begins.
How do different ages/generations of employees affect an organization’s ability and willingness to grow and change?
I believe it is less about age and more about time in a job or an organization. Generally, people don’t like change because it’s perceived to be more work. Every day we read about a new study discussing the stress of the modern work place. So, to combat this stress, people learn their jobs and try to establish some predictability. Organizational changes disrupt the established patterns and add to the stress. Therefore, I see people of all ages and generations rebelling against changes of all kinds, even ones that make life better for them.
Making Change in Complex Organizations is available through Quality Press.