The reality of speed
In a recent TIME Magazine article, Mary Barra, CEO and Chairwoman of General Motors, said, “I spend a lot of early mornings thinking about executing our plan quickly.” An executive at a different company said to me recently, “The real challenge is how we actually implement the change on top of our current work load.” These two sentiments convey perfectly the tension that exists in most businesses looking to succeed during this period of intense transformation in global business.
To address this tension, we need to build the capacity for people and cultures to change more readily and for operations to more swiftly adapt to evolving needs. Because there isn’t an industry in which speed, agility and execution excellence are not core to success, equipping an organization with the capacity to repeatedly re-tool ought to be a strategic priority for every company.
How strong is your company’s capacity to change?
The term “change capacity” reflects the factors necessary for an enterprise to successfully change. While many experts define those factors uniquely, here’s my simplified view:
- Do executives have the time to dedicate to key change leadership activities? Most leaders I have worked with are committed, but they severely underestimate the importance of and time it takes to build coalitions, communicate effectively, maintain support through the low periods, track impact, coach managers, maintain urgency, etc. To change the direction of a ship, a leader must be actively involved in redirecting the crew.
- Do senior executives and managers have the capability to coach, inspire and motivate employees who are experiencing the stress and uncertainty that comes with changing how a company operates? How well-equipped are managers to address the natural stress response to change in all its manifestations? Make no mistake that ‘change leadership’ is an essential 21st century leadership capability.
- Do managers have the knowledge and skills to implement the planned changes and lead their people on the transformation journey? In addition to listening, collaboration and coaching, managers need to know how to operationalize planned changes. I worked with a huge, global insurer whose 1000+ person HR division was adopting a new operating model. HR managers repeatedly asked what it meant to be a Business Partner instead of a traditional HR manager, but management failed to offer clear direction and the effort stalled.
- Do employees have the time to learn a new way of working and carry out their day to day responsibilities? Many well-intentioned leaders – so far removed from day to day operations – fail to see the real impact of change on frontline employees’ time. Employees must understand the change and how it impacts them and their team; take training to learn new skills, applications, processes or methodologies; apply what they’ve learned to their work on a learning curve; close out the old way of doing the job; and much more, all while coping with the uncertainty change always brings. Employees can do little good if they’re emotionally, mentally and physically drained.
- Does the enterprise have existing systems and processes that can enable change, such as real time measurement of new activity to track change adoption, communications schedules, active knowledge sharing forums or regular staff meetings? Appster’s CEO has established a practice of communicating with all employees weekly to get and act on feedback about workplace improvements. When it comes time, Appster already has an established vehicle in place to aid in the give-and-take necessary to implement change.
If these foundational pieces are not in place, transforming an organization will be an uphill battle all the way, with high risk of rolling backwards.
Resolving the tension
“Build change capacity throughout the enterprise by establishing a permanent, top-level focus on growing individual and organizational capacity to adapt swiftly.” –21st Century Change Masters™
What do I suggest to build change capacity?
- At the highest executive management levels (e.g. Change Sponsors), be prepared for how intense the demands on your time will be. This isn’t a side job – it will and should be one of your top 3 responsibilities until the initiative has enough momentum to sustain itself. At the same time, be realistic about employees’ excess capacity, which is likely in the negative numbers already. Make tough trade offs in job responsibilities and staffing decisions to allow the best qualified people to focus on critical change related responsibilities.
- It’s not enough to have a great change leader in place. Consider dedicating a change team or program office to oversee the planning and execution of a strategically-critical effort. Keep your program office lean, simple (e.g. it’s not about the reporting template – it’s about making decisions) and in front and center of the change effort.
- Build a change load heat map that depicts employee impact, strategic alignment and timing for each planned and existing change initiative. I also like to include significant events that impact workload (tax season for a professional services firm, for example). Take the change load heat map a step further by adding normal operational priorities to the mix, as advocated by Dean Anderson and Linda Ackerman Anderson in their “capacity review process.” Use this heat map to make difficult but necessary decisions that will help you be successful. Chances are you will need to take lower importance items off the plate in favor of a strategically-critical change initiative. In terms of scheduling, look at how to fit the timing of priorities and changes to your employees’ actual capacity.
Change has always been a part of life but in the 21st century, it is an ever present threat to a company’s health if the organization cannot anticipate it, respond effectively and ultimately, thrive amidst it. Creating an enterprise that can adapt swiftly and respond to changing market conditions should be a strategic priority for every company. How strong is your company’s change capacity?