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Managing the Pace of Change

You’re the new sheriff in town. The owners or leaders of the business believe you are the person they can rely on to help the organization to achieve its goals and objectives. You know that your success depends on your ability to engage the team (or teams) that report to you in a manner that aligns with the goals and with you as their leader. Sometimes, the process of realignment requires substantial change in direction, practices and even organization culture.

Change can involve wholesale reconstruction of an entire corporation after a turnaround or significant merger or acquisition. Change can be limited to a specific department or group that needs rebuilding and realigning to raise their performance significantly. Alternatively, change can resemble a series of incremental improvements in skills, practices and processes. Regardless of the nature of the change, once the need is clear your chances for long-term success depend on your ability to drive the change process through to conclusion.

The nature of the change dictates how and when you begin to implement the change management processes. If your charter is to implement a massive organizational change such as a large merger integration or rebranding, your mandate is clearly determined before you start working. In this mode, as soon as you learn the desired end-state for the changed corporation along with important elements like vision, mission and objectives, you are ready to begin assembling your change team and asserting your position. Everyone knows that the change is coming and the reason for the change, so you have significant political and executive authority to drive the process.

Likewise, if your goal is to turn around a particular department or group, your mandate is also clear at the outset. In this case, a little caution will be helpful before you begin to implement any change. People will know that you are there to make changes to the team and the uncertainty about their future in the new department will create fear. That fear will cause them to withdraw into defensive bunkers and hope this chaos will end soon, exactly the opposite behavior from what you need. Before beginning the change process, take the time to get to know the strengths, weaknesses and desires of as many of the members of the team as possible. Then engage the team leaders in a process of developing an organization and a plan that will produce the desired results and ongoing performance.

In both of these change scenarios, once you have the change leadership team, goals and high-level plan defined, you are now free to execute the change process. For the first 90 to 100 days, assume a hands-on approach by engaging directly with the team leaders and other important influencers and stakeholders in every milestone and every task of the project. Keep the team highly focused on executing the change with little time or ability to think about anything else or to listen to the negative voices that invariably exist in any organization. This will seem like micro-management, which in any steady-state environment will prove tedious and uninspiring. However, your goal is to cause the change and the change management process to become embedded in the team until it becomes clear that the project is gaining sufficient momentum. At that point, you can back off and let the team or the organization begin to assume the lead and report progress.

If the desired changes involve incremental improvements to skills, process and practices, you have much more time and opportunity to engage the relevant parties in the need for and process of the change. This can be looked as continuous improvement, which should be the mindset of any leader whether they are new to an organization or not. However, even if the change is small or only involves a few people, you must approach the change with the same urgency and diligence as if it were much larger. You must engage the organization in change early on, either while you are still new to the organization or shortly after the need for the change is clear. Failure to do so can build long-term barriers to your success, as individuals and groups begin to realize that they can successfully ignore you and your agenda.

There is a case for deciding to watch and learn for the first ninety days before attempting to propose any changes. This is a sensible approach when the people who hired you envisioned no significant changes. Disrupting a well-oiled machine on a whim can be very dangerous to operational productivity. The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” applies. However, any business operation can benefit by making continuous improvement a habit and sometimes, changing habits takes time.

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