What to do when employees ask ‘what organisational change means for me?’

The challenge of embedding a new company vision

The popular narrative that 70% of change projects fail has been highlighted as a dubious reference by the Oxford Review. Instead, the limited available evidence suggests that change project failure is closer to 6%. Nevertheless, it seems only plausible that with any change project, we shouldn’t just be avoiding failure but striving to achieve the maximum benefits.

Change management is a hefty topic. But a consistent challenge that strikes me (having analysed countless employee surveys and facilitated many a focus group) is the lost opportunity to make change, and new company visions meaningful for individuals. To map this back to Kotter’s 8 step process, I’m talking about the ‘communicating a vision’ phase. So once the dust settles on big change announcements, how can re-born organisations ensure they’re taking their employees along with them?

Presuming the change was well planned, this is the point in time where leaders have demonstrated why the change(s) was needed, and shared their new vision. That could have been a restructure, an introduction of a new process, a merger, adoption of new technology etc. Employees have understood the need for change and tentatively support new company aims, but the question that they really want the answer to is ‘what do these changes mean for me?’.

Until they have the answer to this pertinent question, they are likely to remain in a state of limbo. Like drivers that linger unnecessarily in the middle lane on motorways (you know who you are), employees are not committing to the fast lane to enthusiastically speed towards new company goals, nor are they in the slow lane dragging their feet.

If this is sounding all too familiar, then read on for some top tips on how to get past the halfway house and fully embed change.

Three ways to help embed organisational change

1) Define a new culture, with underpinning behaviours

Yes, I used the ‘c’ word. The very mention of ‘culture’ can set eyes rolling – it’s another one of those HR things and defining culture can feel like a daunting and nebulous task. But it will trip you up if you don’t pin down the new ways of doing things.

Take this example. Following two mergers, a global bank revised its strategy and brand. Collaboration across the legacy companies and global regions was key to successful delivery, yet employees were making hardly any effort to communicate with colleagues in other parts of the organisation. Despite having ‘teamwork’ as one of the values, the supporting behaviours were not specified in job roles, nor in the company wide behavioural framework.

The solution was to design day-to-day behaviours, levelled according to seniority, that clarified what team working really meant. For example, for employees of middling seniority, proactively setting up and attending conference videos/ calls with colleagues in all regions was defined as an expected behaviour.  It was no mean feat to get agreement on what the behaviours should be (we were in danger of too many chefs spoiling the broth), and there’s a balance to get between being clear on behavioural expectations whilst not stifling autonomy and creativity.

Even so, the main benefit of establishing the behaviours was that it dispelled any sense of ‘waiting for permission.’ When a seismic organisational change occurs, employees may not be sure of what needs to be learned and unlearned. Defining these new behavioural do’s and don’ts gives employees the necessary guidance.

*PITFALL ALERT* do not let a handful of people shut themselves in a room to cobble together some behaviours that are then imposed on the masses; involving people from across the organisation is crucial for gaining buy-in. Otherwise you’ll just have a pretty piece of paper with some behaviours on that no one cares about.

2) Bring the strategy to life for teams and individuals

Shall we play ‘management speak’ bingo?

  • Sustainable growth
  • Global presence
  • Putting customers at the heart of what we do
  • Operational excellence
  • World class assets
  • Market-leading returns

These phrases all come from published company visions. It’s not that employees won’t ‘get’ the strategic aims with these sorts of phrases. But vision and strategy descriptions tend to fall short of the mark in making goals meaningful for the front line. Plain-speaking company visions are becoming increasingly popular as leaders recognise the need to spare our sanity. An excellent technique to really bring strategies to life is storytelling. Is anyone else eagerly awaiting this year’s next John Lewis Christmas advert? My favourite is still the 2012 snowmen love story advert. People like stories. As explained in this HBR article, neuroscience plays a part here as to why stories are so impactful, provided they are well structured.

Why not have a company-wide competition to create a 30 second video to illustrate what the organisational change means to individuals and/or teams?

3) Revise job descriptions and assess capability

A global charity revamped their strategy to move away from short-term wins to focus on long-term sustainable results for their customers. The historical, short-term approach brought their passionate employees great satisfaction because they could witness the positive impact on customers, even if achievements were small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. However, a longer-term focus in the strategy would mean that many more customers could be helped and that those improvements would be there to stay.

Two different skill sets are required for each scenario, and job motivators also shifted. For someone to thrive in a front line role now, an individual will need to be able to liaise with government representatives around the world, have excellent written and negotiation skills and enjoy long-term campaigning. Previously the skill set was much more practical.

Simply tacking on responsibilities, (as is often the case because turbo speed is usually demanded for change project completion) is unproductive and confusing. Job re-design and open conversations about whether individuals will continue to be motivated by new responsibilities are necessary to get full alignment between the front line and company goals. When roles change significantly, a capability review is also required – and one that is perceived to be fair by employees unless you want to destroy organisational trust.

So, well designed job descriptions, plain-speaking strategies supported by storytelling tactics, and explicitly communicated company behaviours that support the new direction may just encourage those middle lane drivers to fully commit to the new company direction.

 

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