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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Second-Hardest Thing You'll Ever Attempt

The second-hardest thing you'll ever attempt to do is change the culture of an organization.

The hardest thing of all is to change your own behavior.

When you stop and think about it, (How often do we actually stop and think about anything at all?) this issue of deliberate change is at the root of every improvement effort. That covers Project Management, Change Management, process improvement, skills development, problem solving and all the rest.

If all of us would build in this perception as we "plan," we'd be more solidly based no matter what we might be seeking to accomplish. The implications are immense.

Example: I am assigned the task of changing the process in our office to speed up interdepartmental communication and reallocate workload to include a new service we've been directed to provide to meet increased competition.

Senior management believes we have significant unused capacity that can be tapped to handle the change with little or no disruption. They feel most of our long-term administrative staff members continue to do some things we don't really need to do any more, and numerous current processes can be streamlined to be more productive in less time.

This is my first such assignment, and I'm concerned about making sure I put together a good implementation plan and don't miss anything. I also know the staff is going to be unenthusiastic, to put it mildly. I don't have a lot of faith in my ability to get them to go along with my plan, once I come up with a plan.

My tendency is to figure out the new process, research and draft ways to introduce the new way of doing things and improve the old ones. I present my plan to my management, then revise it to meet their concerns. Then I screw up my courage and call everyone together to lay out what we're going to do. Maybe I get some senior managers to attend that session to put some power behind this new process.

Then the fun begins.

How, if I should take my own advice, would I do all this differently?

Well, first of all, I would reverse the order in which I would approach the assignment.

Here's how: Knowing I haven't the faintest idea of how to conduct this big change process, I would determine the real nature of it: Culture Change. The new processes themselves are, at this point, less important than the "organizational culture" -- what people do here, their history, their attitudes, their values, their relationships.

So my first question is: What are the best ways to get this particular group of people to buy into any change at all? My answer is to convince them to embrace the change. This means I don't just get them to go along. I don't get them to just accept the new ways -- I get them to like it, lead it, make it their own.

What? Are you kidding me? These people just don't DO change!

So we arrive at my second question: How do I equip myself to successfully answer the first question? What do I need to know and do to convince them to become cheerleaders and implementers of the new way, whatever it turns out to be?

The best way is to engage them from the beginning, into the examination of the reasons for change, and the devising of the best ways to carry it out. My skills here are those of persuading and guiding. I don't have to come up with the ideas myself, at least not all of them. In fact, I shouldn't.

This may sound tough, but it can be done, and in fact is the only way to do it well. I learn to be the salesman and leader, rather than the staff planner. Learning and using the skills of this role is my real challenge, and it changes my fundamental approach to the assignment.

So the third and final question is answered within the context of full-group participation. I organize the future users of the proposed new process to reach the two big outcomes I've been directed to achieve? These goals are:
changing the process in our office to speed up interdepartmental communication;
reallocating workload to include a new service we've been directed to provide to meet increased competition.

Once I've convinced the group that change will -- must -- happen, and that they can be partners in designing and implementing it, very good things can happen. This is not to say it's quick and easy, because it is likely to be hard on me. But I will earn immense satisfaction, as well as a good measure of respect, by pulling it off.

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