Navigating Change post-COVID 19
Updated: Oct 14
As a response to COVID-19 circumstances, the next wave of necessary organizational changes is preprogrammed, if not in progress as we speak. So we better upskill in effective change management.
I define change as deliberately moving an organization (or parts of it) from one state to another. When you embark on a change project, you will be seemingly interacting with three different versions of your organization simultaneously. Herein lies the real challenge.
It is not dealing with the people involved in the change that is challenging, although it might seem so at first. It has sadly become a cliché to make them responsible for failed change attempts.
Let's get the misconceptions about people and change out of the way first and set the record straight:
Misconception #1: People don't like change.
Not true. This idea is so entrenched in organizational thinking that we don't even bother to stop and think. As usual, the affinity to change depends on whom you are facing. People differ, corresponding to the Gaussian normal distribution. Rogers' Diffusion of Innovation model takes it even further if we understand change as innovation. According to Rogers' research, there are five innovation adopter categories—innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. When you get started with the change initiative, you can always count on supporters in the first two groups. They will be helpful and quieter than those who will, for different reasons, resist. The trick is not to be too distracted by the "squeaky wheels."
Misconception #2: We need to motivate people.
Not true. As with above, there are undoubtedly different types of motivated individuals, again normally distributed. It isn't about motivating them; it's about not demotivating them. Identify and fix the instances when demotivation happens. The other day someone mentioned that their leader moves around the facility telling different teams at different times that others are doing much better without any metrics to support the claims. I suspect he is trying to create healthy competition, which is very far from the actual impact. Listening to team members for hours on end, but taking nothing on board or not building on the input for decision-making is another potent demotivator. Or going around half-listening to feedback with comforting words, such as: "don't worry, all will be well" without rhyme or reason is another one.
Misconception #3: People resist change.
Similar to 1. Yes, people are different and sometimes resist the change they do not understand, or that makes no sense. Or change that does not offer them any tangible value personally. A well researched and put together change project makes for a good start. Then storytelling follows and answering the questions: Why? Why now? What? When? How? Who? By when? Once you establish clarity and meaning, engagement is next on the agenda.
To engage others, we need to understand their fears, challenges, wishes, and needs genuinely. Instead of making attempts to understand, we conveniently make assumptions about them in our minds. It is dangerous because, given the lack of actual data, we project our thoughts and fears onto others. It creates the well-known We (leaders) versus Them (all others) scenario. Some leaders have reached a point where they think that they intrinsically always know better what is right for others—a sure recipe for failed change projects.
People involved in charge have to understand what is in it for them, i.e., how would the change benefit their career and make them stand out or how could it resolve a challenge they are facing personally- it is normal human behavior. There is no other way to engage people other than to understand what is in it for them. Otherwise, expect resistance and disengaged behaviors. Progress will be laborious.
Conscious leadership finesse can fix all three people-related aspects quickly- not a real problem, provided you can adapt your leadership behavior.
Now back to the real barrier for change.
In change, as I mentioned above, you deal with three different versions of your organization at the same time. How well you can reconcile all three versions with what you want to achieve, the more successful you will be.
1) The current state of the organization: understanding the existing structure, processes, roles and responsibilities, people involved, and flow of information.
2) The desired future state of the organization: resolving targeted conflicts in the current state to achieve higher productivity and smoother runnings.
3) The political state of the organization: understanding the hierarchies, networks, power relationships, the objectives of the movers and shakers, and the rules of the game.
Oxford Languages Dictionary defines politics as "the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or activities aimed at improving someone's status or increasing power within an organization."
The political state of the organization is mainly about the dynamics of power.
So, what's the deal?
To undertake change, we have to make a thorough analysis of the current state in the designated area of revision. Going beyond the surface level is critical. With connected dots, a story of required change will emerge. It might contradict the initial motivation for change. Even then, trust your data. For example, the motivation for change is to end a long-standing feud between two rival departments. The designated solution is to implement new behavior. After the analysis, you might see that the dispute is just a symptom of a deeper problem related to, for example, unfair performance measurement systems and consistently weak leadership. Once you start to peel back the layers, you will understand more. Analyze, but don't analyze too much, lest you get lost in the data.
The desired state the organization is ideally backed up by your knowledge of how organizations work well based on experience. Unfortunately, there is no leading school of thought or clearinghouse for what this ideally might be, so it is up to you and your peers in leadership to come up with the most suitable and desired variant as the target for the future state.
For example, if you want to upgrade your performance measurement system, you could study its state of the art and bring in an expert to support you, bearing in mind that it has to fit with well everything else.
With regular management skills, you will be able to layout the path between State A (current) and State B (future) in no time. It is not rocket science.
Now on the third axis, there is the political organization that needs to be reckoned with too.
All organizations are political. Anytime people interact together over a while, politics emerge. It is normal.
It is, however, the quantity and quality of the politics that is relevant.
If the quantity of politics is high, i.e., too many relational aspects need to be taken into account. Or too much is regulated in detail, then the organization becomes stiff, clumsy, and skewed. Everything drags on.
If the quality of politics is low, then there is a much bigger problem. It is mainly about the truth of all matters. If it is OK not to keep promises and agreements, distort accounts of personal experience and give inaccurate or misrepresented descriptions of reality to suit own agendas, then the quality of politics will be shallow.
A high quantity of low quality politics is something I don't wish upon anyone.
Truly agile and flexible organizations have a healthy political state and consistent people interactions based on truth, values, and trust. Bringing on change in such organizations is a breeze. Imagine: You trigger the modification you are looking for, and the organization permits itself to power through to the desired state and learn in the process.
Granted, this is easier to achieve in smaller organizations, but still.
With financial goals to reach, shareholders to reply to, and other pressures to abide by, leaders may forget to keep an eye on their organization's political state. Cleaning up the political state takes time and effort but is genuinely worthwhile in the long run.
To those who need to manage change in their organization now: Be actively aware of its political state, what can realistically be achieved, set your frustration levels accordingly, and work carefully with it.