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Communicating In Times of Change
By Peter de Jager   Printer Friendly Version

The effective management of Change has become an imperative. It is not enough to think in terms of clichés such as: "Things are changing faster than they've ever Changed before." Today, we experience more Change in a single year than our grandparents experienced in a lifetime.

IS organizations are at the "bleeding edge" of Change. We not only create Change, we must also respond to sweeping Changes within our own industry. To survive these Changes we must develop new, and appropriate skills, otherwise we will fall further and further behind the competition.

We suffer under conflicting and confused priorities, increased demands coupled with fewer resources, the need for higher quality combined with a lack of stability. All of this places us under pressure, resulting in stress, reduced productivity, lack of focus and low morale. All of which generate a sense that no-one is in control, that we are moving forward, but to what? The new order, is a present without reason leading to a future without vision.

These realities are the result of globalization, emerging technologies, shifts in social and economic structures, a reshaping of values, demographics and business cycles, to name only a handful of the forces changing how we live. In short, we are caught up in a storm of Change. A storm which will only blow harder in the coming years. To survive you will require new understanding and additional skills.

Without new skills to cope with this unrelenting Change, people in organizations cannot steer their own course and, as a result, are at the mercy of Change! To control Change, managers, supervisors, staff and professionals - in all sectors of the economy - must acquire better understanding of Change. Only then can it be managed, manipulated and mastered.

The secret to managing Change is to first understand what Change is and what it is not. Change is not a random event. If you think of it that way, then you will end up managing it that way, with random results.

Change has a structure and can be managed in a structured fashion. However, most managers don't think of Change as a process, they think Change is nothing but chaos, or as something that defies a detailed definition.

Consider the following situation. Assume for the moment you are an IS manager with the task of implementing a new accounting package. The accounting department has a staff of about 10 people who have been using the old system for about 15 years. Given the tools available to them, they achieved significant levels of productivity.

These productivity levels were achieved despite serious system deficiencies. The staff developed some ingenious 'work-arounds' to bypass 'holes' in the system. It not unreasonable to label these users as experts. The company is aware of this expertise and treats these hard working and innovative folks with respect.

Working closely with the manager of this department, you have selected the best possible package and have added additional code to reflect some of the more crucial business rules. You've also provided the necessary training to each staff member. Despite all your best efforts to select the perfect package and provide the most appropriate training, the staff still resist the transition.

They are reluctant to make the transfer to the new system, and actively find fault with it. In addition, certain members of the staff, have not attended all the training sessions, instead taking holidays and calling in sick.

None of this is unusual. Every IS manager has been through it. We have all felt some resentment towards users who resist change obviously to their benefit. Certainly we are seldom thanked for all the hard work, extra hours and lost weekends involved in the implementation of new systems. Basically, users are ungrateful for the effort we put in to make their lives easier.

Well, that is one way to look at the problem. I've certainly felt that way from time to time, but is it the correct way to perceive the problem? And by correct, I mean is it a 'realistic' way to respond to this resistance to change?

If we look at the problem from the point of view of the client, a very different picture arises.

Bill is one of these accountants who has used the system for about 14 years. He has learnt how the system works. He is comfortable with it even though it's missing many features. He's confident of his ability to cajole the system through nightmarish month ends where hand holding is required at every stage of the accounting cycle. He's proud of the past 4 year ends which were accomplished with record low levels of overtime.

His annual performance evaluations reflect this expertise and his importance to the department and the company as a whole. Bill feels good about his job and the skills he's acquired over the years, even though he openly admits he hates the accounting system.

As much as he dislikes the old system, he knows how to use it. He does not know how to use the new system, and that is the key to understanding his resistance to the transition.

The new system has moved Bill from a level of competence to incompetence. We have not given Bill anything of worth by providing him with a new system. We have in fact, taken away his competence, his self confidence and to a large extent his self esteem.

Bill's annual performance evaluation is coming up in 3 months, for the first time he's worried. He's heard rumours about some layoffs due to downsizing. The recession is still on and jobs for people with his skills and age are few and far between.

If he gets a poor performance evaluation (and he will, he is not as productive as last year) he runs a good chance of being one of the people laid off. He has two children and his wife is not drawing a salary, his mortgage payments are due, he won't have money coming in, he won't be able to get a job, he'll lose the house and be out on the street, and winters coming and he'll die....

Yes. It sounds stupid. Not rational. Things are not that bad... But we are talking about people and people are not logical when their security is threatened. None of the above line of 'reasoning' makes sense... BUT we've all had similar thoughts... Yes?

Why should Bill thank us for implementing the new system? When all we have really done is take away his job security. It is pointless for us to argue that Bill 'should not' feel that way. Bill 'does' feel that way. If we chose to ignore these fears, then we will not remove the resistance to change.

Patting someone on the head and saying "Bill, you have nothing to worry about, you'll learn how to use this system very quickly and will soon be more productive than you ever were." ignore the real issue that Bill has lost his competence at the task that provided him a living. He has a right to 'worry'. Ignoring this reality means that you cannot communicate with Bill in his time of Chaos.

If we choose to ignore the natural human response to a large change then we lose the opportunity to manage the 'reality' of change, instead we try to manage it the way people 'should' react. In the language of change, that's called denial. Using behaviours no longer appropriate to the reality facing us.

When we arrive on the scene as 'Change Agents' we think of ourselves as the source of positive change, we are sometimes (always?) blind to the realities of how we, as humans with illogical emotions, react to threats against our security.

"Change hurts". This is the primary reality of change. We must stop thinking of ourselves as 'Change Agents' if we wish to take the human element of change into account. An alternative is to call ourselves 'Inflictors of Change' this reminds us that Change hurts, that the real issue of change management is not whether the 'system' is right, but are the people involved prepared for the change?

This is an alternative, and more productive way of thinking of the nature of Change. Change is not Chaos, we react to change based upon our perceptions on how the change will affect our ability to cope. Change is not so much about what the change will bring us, as it is about how much the change will cause us to lose.

Someone who has only worked with a system for a few weeks, will be much more likely to embrace a new system, than a person who has worked with a system for 15 years. To get a feel for the size of a change ask yourself the question, how much of the past must someone let go of, in order to embrace the future.

This might appear to be a simplistic way to look at the Change process, but it provides the beginning of a Change model which can provide a deeper understanding of change than the idea that Change is just chaos.

Each Change situation is unique. However, a consistent Change model can draw a road map of how people and organizations will react to a Change. Without this road map, Change is nothing but surprises and detours. With a map, a manager can predict specific reactions to Change. In other words, the manager can be proactive rather than reactive.

The adjustment phase to any Change takes time. Change is about moving from what you know, to something new. Learning to do something new takes time; Change cannot happen overnight.

That Change takes time is contrary to the predominant belief amongst many managers that there is some way to bring about immediate Change. They look for courses which will tell them how to bring about instant Change; If such courses exist, they can only raise false expectation because real world changes take time. For proof look to newspaper headlines. The Berlin wall can be knocked down overnight... but the adjustment phase takes time.

It takes time because people require time to learn new skills. Bill needs time to learn how to us the new system. He cannot, it is physically and mentally impossible, for him to learn it overnight, he is only human.

Change is a process. If follows a sequence as predictable as an assembly line. People in organizations react to Change in a consistently predictable fashion.

Knowledge and acceptance of how Change really takes place enables you to manage it by communicating directly to real issues. Focusing on the real issues of fear of incompetence, job insecurity and not on the bogus issue of 'they resist change because they're not team players' is the basis of good (effective?) change management.

As managers we have to deal with two fundamental aspects of Change. The first is obviously the direct management of Change - getting your organization to Change (ie. prescribed Change.) The other is personally coping with Changes forced upon us (ie. proscribed Change.) A Change model recognizes both aspects of Change. A Change model provides insights into your personal reactions to Change, resulting in more rational decision-making during times of chaos and crisis.

Without a model, Change and how we react to it, make no sense. The benefit of a model is that it provides a consistent way of understanding a process. A good reality based model can transform Change into a process enabling us to understand why people react to Change in the way they do. In other words, a model can make sense out of seemingly irrational behavior.

We can all manage what we understand; if you don't understand Change, you can't manage it. Once you understand and accept the mechanisms of Change, it becomes manageable, perhaps for the first time.

During times of change there are at least two camps. Those wanting to implement the change and those suffering under the change. Both groups are motivated differently, one by the desire to move forward and the other by the understandable desire to remain within the safe and comfortable status quo. To be a Master of change, its necessary to understand both motivations and be able to communicate to both groups.

The problem with the way we manage Change today, is that the models and tools we use, are inappropriate. We apply solutions and communicate with each other based upon our inaccurate and incorrect understanding of how Change works, and then we are confused when these solutions fail to deliver the desired results. Our solutions can only be consistently appropriate when they are based upon a model and related strategies and tactics, which accurately represents the reality of Change.

A Change model based upon the idea that "Change Hurts" is a good start.

Reprinted with permission of the Author, (C) 2000, Peter de Jager pdejager@year2000.com

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