I have been writing a series of articles on culture-enabled organizational transformation. Much of my philosophies on this subject are derived from learnings on the battlefield as a Navy SEAL, and in the boardroom as an entrepreneur. There are three phases to my transformation model, each with several components: building the change culture, preparing for the change battle, and winning the change fight.
Once a company is well-prepared for change and high levels of trust and accountability have been woven into the fabric of the organization's culture, only then can they start preparing for the change battle. Behaviors and mindsets must adapt and a plan of attack developed and communicated. The first phase of winning the change fight is to empower the team and enlist as much participation as possible at all levels.
As I thought about the title for this article I initially had reservations about using the faddish term "empower." While I normally try to stay away from overused business buzz words, I do think that in today's ever-changing and more complex business environment that giving a broader range of people more power to drive organizational change is tantamount to success. Inspiring the team is one thing, but physically and psychologically giving them more autonomy to participate in the transformation process is critical.
My experiences within my companies, companies I have consulted with and every case study I have seen points to the fact that a lack of focus on inclusion is one of the core reasons transformation efforts fail.
On the battlefield, mission success relies on the participation of everyone, from the frontline troops all the way to the top. The same applies in business success, especially during times of change.
So let's avoid this pitfall and talk about how to better empower employees to take ownership and effect positive and lasting organizational change.
1. Communicating a Powerful Change Vision.
In last week's article, I wrote about the six principles for communicating a powerful change vision. Keeping it simple and authentic is crucial, as is using multiple channels for communication and finding ways to repeatedly weave the vision into everything the company says and does. The transformation task force guiding the change initiatives must also change their behaviors to be consistent and aligned with this new vision.
One of the most powerful elements of Navy SEAL culture is simple: having a shared sense of purpose and total alignment on the missions. Do we always agree on how to get there? No. And that's also another strength of our culture. We allow every to have a voice and encourage transparent communication from the top down and bottom up. When the team is aligned and bought into the mission, that's when beliefs change. New beliefs lead to new actions being taken and those actions lead to the desired results.
2. Aligning Systems and Structures to the Vision.
This is often where it can get tricky. I have seen many companies do a pretty good job of getting to this part of the process, only to fall short when new systems, processes and structures don't align with achieving the ultimate vision for change.
What do I mean by this? Let's say a progressive HVAC company is exploding with growth and taking the organization nationwide over the next five years. One of the most important parts of their change vision is to be considered the leader in customer service. So they develop a customer-first vision plan. They begin to execute this plan but it begins to stall about halfway through and nobody seems to know why. The leadership team brings in some consultants who quickly uncover the issue. The company is still utilizing many of the structures they put in place when they were a start-up. HR systems and compensation models have almost nothing to do with rewarding customer-first behaviors. They don't have a seamless system for regular customer-feedback. You see where I am going with this. During organizational transformation, the structure most often has to be altered to fit the vision.
3. Providing Training for the New Systems and Structures.
Unfortunately, much of my knowledge on this subject matter comes from the times I have fallen short or gotten it completely wrong. Thus is life. We had been taking one of my previous companies through some fairly radical change to become more efficient, have a more in-depth understanding of our financial data, provide better quality and implement new systems to remain competitive in a rapidly changing industry. One of the needed requirements was a new project management system. But we ended up choosing a Ferrari when we only needed a reliable Toyota, and then we didn't provide enough training nor collect the right feedback from the onset.
Instilling new systems and processes to fit the vision requires training, something many companies think they don't have the time and budget for. But what is the real cost for not investing in the right training at the right time? Sometimes those companies that do have the foresight to invest in training, also fall short because that training only focuses on a few technical skills but leaves out teaching the employees to think differently and develop new behavioral skills.
4. Handle the Anti-change Agents.
Having powerful people that have been around a long time can have both positive and negative connotations during a transformation effort. If they are bought in and evangelize the change to those around them, you are good to go. The opposite can have catastrophic effects as well. Sometimes, even highly intelligent and competent employees are simply a product of their environment. But when it's time to change, they either resist or even vehemently oppose it. And do so in a very vocal manner.
I find that the best course of action is transparent communication. You first want to get their feedback which accomplishes several things. First, they feel that their voice is being heard which establishes trust regarding the new vision. Second, they may have very good ideas when it comes to the new vision - not everything has to change - the old stop, start, continue model. And third, it provides the opportunity to explain the "why" regarding the vision at a more personal level. At this point they either get on board and see the light, pretend to get on board and quietly oppose the actions being taken, or continue to outwardly oppose the new plans. If it's anything but the first option, they must be removed. Not an easy thing to do if they have been around a long time. There will be political and personal implications. But heavy is the head that wears the crown.
5. Actually Give the Team Ownership Over Specific Projects.
This is why the term "empower" gets thrown around far too often. When the team is being told that they are being empowered to take action and own pieces of the change mission, but are then micro-managed to death, their participation will quickly slow. This is where leaders need to adopt a more adaptive mindset and inspire the team to be accountable and take ownership.
As long as the battlefield commander's intent (change vision) is clearly and regularly articulated, more autonomy can be given to responsible frontline leaders. With the proper "lane markers" they can and should be allowed to innovate within the given structure. Will mistakes be made? Sure. But true autonomy can't really exit within a command-and-control leadership mechanism.
With truly empowered employees, winning the change fight is much more likely. The final principles of this phase include managing fear and fatigue while instilling discipline and resiliency. More to come!