Change is an emotional business. The failure to address the human impacts of change is at the root of most failed change initiatives. It is not enough just to â€œmanageâ€ change; people need to be led through change.
One of the major change leadership priorities is recognising and addressing the inner psychological and emotional adjustments that people move through in response to external organisational change events.
William Bridges draws the important distinction between organisational change and what he calls the â€œtransitionâ€ that people need to move through in order to successfully adapt to the new circumstances arising from that change.
Here are 3 important guidelines that Bridgesâ€™ highlights:
(1) â€œTransition readinessâ€ is best indicated by an organisations legacy of change initiatives
Whenever Bridgesâ€™ team undertake an assignment one of their first assessments is of what he calls â€œtransition readinessâ€. This is important he says as it â€œprovides an important early indicator of what lies ahead, and one of the things we inquire into is the organisationâ€™s history of changes, both those that worked and those that didnâ€™t.â€
A deeper dimension to this enquiry into the change initiative legacy is to look at the scars left by successful as well as unsuccessful initiatives.
From a change leadership perspective, it is crucial to understand and address the scar tissue left by previous initiatives. The most effective way of doing this is by actions – by demonstrating that you as change leader do understand and care, and that you are taking steps to mitigate the pain.
(2) Executive detachment from everyday work impedes transition
So often it is just assumed by senior management that people can and will accept an organisational change.
But, the failure to recognise and attempt to address this dimension is a significant cause of organisational change failure. The larger the human impact of the organisational change the greater the need for some form of â€œtransitional supportâ€.
Many directors and senior managers have the emotional detachment and objectivity to make clear, sound strategic decisions yet seem to lack the â€œcounter-balancingâ€ self-awareness and emotional intelligence to realise the impact of their decisions.
This omission frequently [and unnecessarily] delays or jeopardises the implementation of their strategic vision and the realisation of the organisational benefits.
Bridges: â€œThese executivesâ€™ detachment from the everyday work-work, which is so often defended as necessary to be â€˜strategic,â€™ keeps these people from understanding what has to happen for changes to work as planned.â€
The higher you are in your organisation – the more quickly you are likely to move through your own personal transition. You know the intended destination, and have probably known for some while. Most of your people however, will not have this head start.
Your people wonâ€™t â€œjust get itâ€; they will take at least as long as you did to transition and quite probably a lot longer.
As a change leader, it is important to understand why your people will not necessarily embrace change.
In my view, the reality is that most organisational leaders come from technical, operational or financial backgrounds and, to put it bluntly, do not have the necessary people skills or experience to lead their people through a transition.
Bridges makes the point that it is significant that: â€œthe great leaders, from Moses and Caesar to Lincoln and Lee, were people who deeply understood the people they were leading.â€
(3) Debrief thoroughly after each change initiative – find out what worked and what didnâ€™t
Bridges says that senior executives are usually in such a hurry to move on to the next change that they fail to learn from each concluding change initiative. He says that executives need to undertake a careful debrief to identify key lessons learnt.
He shares this anecdote: â€œI first realized that after helping a 50,000-person technology company close a fabricating plant. It went very well–they actually doubled productivity per person during the closedown process! But when they called to ask for help in shutting another facility, I discovered that they had â€˜forgottenâ€™ what they had done with the previous shutdown.â€
In Bridgesâ€™ view, senior executives need to regard every change initiative as a thorough learning experience, to ascertain what worked and didnâ€™t and why.
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Stephen Warrilow, based in Bristol, works with companies across the UK providing specialist support to directors delivery significant change initiatives. Stephen has 25 years cross sector experience with 100+ companies in mid range corporate, larger SME and corporate environments.