When I was young, change seemed to happen slowly. I couldn’t wait to move from grade school to junior high, then to get my drivers license, then to graduate from high school and college, then get my first job and be promoted. Later in life, as changes seemed to come faster and faster, I found that if I wanted to move ahead, I had to let go of the past. Change happens continuously, and clinging to the past causes disappointment.
Many companies fight change and try to hold onto the past. One client asked me to help them develop a new supply chain strategy to reduce costs, reduce inventory and improve customer service. During the project, I often asked people why they were doing things a particular way and the inevitable response was, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” Many employees had been there over 30 years and to them, change was scary. They believed that if change was possible, it meant that their way of doing things was flawed, and no one likes to think they’ve been doing it wrong for 30 years.
How can executives encourage change and counteract fear?
Identify Your Partners in Change
There is safety in numbers. Your partners in change can be people in other departments in the company, your suppliers and even customers. When the company I mentioned above shared their vision for change with their suppliers, most enthusiastically signed on to help because the benefits were so great. As the partners got excited, so did the employees, and the fear evaporated.
Communicate the “Why” of Change
The sponsors of change need to establish a clear vision and a foundation of values on which to build the change. Helping employees understand why the changes are occurring helps focus on the future rather than the past and counteracts the assumption that change is needed only because someone screwed up. World class athletes are always trying to improve regardless of their past performance. Tying the change to consistent company values helps everyone see how the change brings the company into better alignment with its mission, employees and other stakeholders. The changes also need to be consistent with the business strategy and business model to help set priorities during implementation.
Set a Framework For Change
Employees need to know what the plan is and what is expected of them, which includes understanding priorities and what comes next. At the company from our earlier example, we used my 12-point supply chain strategy process as a guide, which clarified the process and reassured the employees. We brought suppliers and employees into the process early on so they knew what we were thinking and could add their input to the framework, which yielded an incredibly strong plan that everyone enthusiastically implemented with dramatic results.
Change Can Be Hard
In high school and college I spent a lot of time rock climbing near Boulder, Colorado. Once we got to the top of whatever we were climbing, we’d often need to rappel down to get back to the car. Rappelling involves sliding down a rope attached to the top of the rock structure, essentially bounding down the face of the cliff you just ascended. The worst part is the first two or three feet, when you’re backing out over the ledge. You need to trust your equipment, your skill, and your climbing partners who hold the ropes that catch you if you fall. Once you get part way down the cliff face, it’s fun, but those first few steps are sometimes more than a person can handle, and that means a long walk back down to the car.
From the Flight Deck
The first few steps of a change are the scariest, but there are ways to fend off the fear. Having trusted partners, a clear context and a solid framework are all vital. Once you make it over the ledge, the rest is exhilarating.
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