Change Management: Transforming an Organization Doesn’t Have to Be Painful Commentary

By Natalie Meehan on September 8th 2016

Undergoing any kind of change can be fatal for previously successful businesses. Confronted with disruption, some companies struggle through a period of change which, as reported by Associate Professor at the London Business School, Donald Sull, can lead to active inertia.

As Sull explains in his 1999 study on disruptive change:

“The problem is not an inability to take action but an inability to take appropriate action.

There can be many reasons for the problem—ranging from managerial stubbornness to sheer incompetence—but one of the most common is a condition that I call active inertia. Inertia is usually associated with inaction—picture a billiard ball at rest on a table—but physicists also use the term to describe a moving object’s tendency to persist in its current trajectory.

 

Active inertia is an organization’s tendency to follow established patterns of behavior—even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.”

So how can the leadership ensure that a business undergoes change in a healthy, non-destructive way?

The role of the leadership in the face of a period of change is arguably the single, most important factor in whether change will actually take place.

Leadership is about taking those risks, about being innovative – and the best leadership teams will foster an environment of clarity and strategic focus in which their teams are able to take such risks without fear of failure.

As somebody wise once said, ‘Change is difficult. Not changing is fatal.’

woman with black umbrella looking infinity in a surreal place

Change management isn’t the sole responsibility of the leadership team, however – it has to become part of the heart and soul of the business. Something that should play into everything that every team member does, in all parts of their role.

Of course, this is no mean feat in a corporate organization with histrionics, inherited processes, and leaders who may have experienced the fallout of active inertia themselves. Let us also consider that each industry will differ, and each organization will have its own complex politics to navigate.

But, ultimately, it all starts at the top. Here are some pointers for leaders to keep in mind.

Leaders: Show, don’t tell

The leadership in any organization (hopefully) forms and shapes the culture within. Culture – the language, symbols, ideology – is essentially the ‘how things get done’ in any business.

Of course, there are debates that the leadership may not have as much impact in the organizational effectiveness of its reports, but for sake of argument we’ll take the view that it does.

And when it comes to adjusting an organization, change needs to be seen to be happening at the top, as well as being required of everyone else.

As an example, one global financial publisher created a digital transformation team who, after discussing how they would embed social across the business, moved the desks of the leadership team to be sat in amongst the data scientists.

Working in an open plan office

This move cemented the idea that social was becoming woven into the overall business fabric – the leadership were very visibly demonstrating how important social intelligence was to the business.

This move was also important for another reason. It showed a willingness to ‘get their hands dirty’ – being close to the projects being undertaken by the teams working with social meant they were, by osmosis even, becoming more conscious of the applications of social data.

This type of move doesn’t have to be permanent. It doesn’t even have to be particularly long-term. What it does do is show commitment to change, and that speaks volumes to the rest of the business.

The leadership are named as such for a reason.

Leaders: Get involved in projects

Of course, even better than being around the projects is by becoming involved in them directly.

Forbes’ Leadership Commentator, Glenn Lopis, explains the benefits of leadership embedding themselves across the wider business.

“Don’t get stuck within the confines of the generation that you are most familiar with. Get out of your comfort zone and learn how to multiply the opportunities for growth and innovation; invest time to understand the insights in the broader field of talent and customers that lie around and in front of you.”

Our CEO at Brandwatch, Giles Palmer, takes an active role in projects relating to product. Other members of the leadership are encouraged to get hands-on in areas they don’t necessarily work in regularly.

Knowledge of how the nitty-gritty unfolds is invaluable, and getting really involved in projects allows leadership to better empathise on the challenges and struggles that can arise when working in different departments.

Go on sales visits, talk to clients. Listen to customer service calls. This all may sound irrelevant, but having a rounded view on what’s happening across the floor and being involved shows the leadership is taking the time to understand the whole business.


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Leaders: Respect the pull of the past, but push forward

Donald Sull again sums up nicely why pushing for change can seem so daunting.

Active inertia exists because the pull of the past is so strong. Trying to break that pull through a radical act of organizational revolution leaves people disoriented and disenfranchised, cut off from the past but unprepared to enter the future.

Change is naturally unnerving. Leaders need to respect that some departments will be resistant to this; listen, take the feedback on board, but ultimately push forward.

A tabby cat sitting on wooden floor and looking at the running (or jumping) tiger sketched (chalk drawing) on the wall.

As Co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group puts it:

“Entrepreneurs get excited about change, but for staff members it can be downright threatening.

 

It’s your job as a leader to be sympathetic to this fear and to set policies that will indulge mistakes during the transition. You must publicly affirm your belief that with change comes a period of confusion, and that you are willing to accept the occasional blunder. As a leader, you can create a safe learning environment if you let others know that you believe a blunder can be a great teacher, and that mastery and achievement are the result of many mistakes.

Ultimately, the leadership is the driving force behind any major transformation. Amy Weeden, director of people and strategy is ACME Business Consulting leaves us with the below point.

Large-scale transformation requires consistent energy and enthusiasm. We have all seen major change initiatives that take the big bang approach—a lot of momentum at the start, but as things get challenging, enthusiasm and follow through wane, ultimately causing the program to fail. Momentum is sustained by frequently celebrating successes and if a long initiative, declaring victory on substantial milestones.

 

Furthermore, as a leader, you must relentlessly pursue impact. Success is less about completing the project or a milestone, but achieving the business results of the change that you are embracing.

Change management requires clarity, vision and hard work. Remembering the above points will hopefully set you on your way. Good luck.


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Natalie Meehan

@Natalie_KateM

Natalie has worked in marketing for a decade, and is the Head of Content and Social at Brandwatch. She'll put an egg on almost anything.