A large part of my professional career in corporate India has revolved around bringing about organisational change, different organisations gave it different titles, some fancier than the others, stacked initiatives differently within the organisational maze but the expectation has more or less remained unchanged in last 16 years – simply put, ‘make it better’. The ‘it’ has been a variety of things to a diversity of people in a wild medley of circumstances. I’ve written about my experiences with bringing about transformation in many articles (26 write-ups in the last 10 years). Every time, I revisit the topic though, I find that my understanding has differed from my previous chronicles of it; I can’t say for the better or not, I would let you be the judge of that. But it has not remained the same.
It is rather easy, some would even say commonsensical to believe that bringing about change is about coming up with a winning and a powerful idea, one which is better than prevalent practice in every conceivable way and then going on with it. After all what else can one need to drive organisational evolution? I used to hold this belief close to my chest too before I began my journey 1.6 decades ago. I could not have been any further from the truth, though.
You’ll grow old listening to how dearly people want ‘reform’, vociferous support for the cause will fall from the skies before you can say the word ‘TOM’, and yet CHANGE does not happen, as smoothly. Private opposition comes from the very constituents that renders lip service to it in public. The dichotomy that surrounds transformation is fascinating, it is paradox of all paradoxes. Martyrs are respected, celebrated and idolised and yet no one wants their own kin to become one – such is the story of change. People support an idea as long as it does not demand a personal investment of time, effort or money, especially a change that is seen as taking the game away from those who enjoy control. It is fought with tooth and nails. Organisations pride themselves on the value that they generate, remember a unit keeps running only as long as it keeps making those who have invested in it, richer than they were before and therefore it is not a love affair that one can keep running despite occasional heartburns. The whole world knows the story of “Kodak”, “Nokia” and “BlackBerry” and yet, change is resisted.
One wonders why?
People make societies and very people like you and I make organisations too. Our strengths play out just as much as our insecurities do; in that sense, the profile of an organisation is a collective characterisation of the people it employees, nothing more and nothing less.
I’d like to summarise my tryst with a change in two categories :
1) Change capital
2) Change capability
I see below 5 elements as essential, non-negotiable building blocks of what I call the ‘change capital’. Without these in place, making any alternation is impossible. So if you find yourself in a setting wanting of any of these, you got to take a pause, first work on priming the situation.
–  Intellect and thoughtfulness of the leadership team.
–  Collective Intent of the controlling vote of the board.
–  Business urgency.
–  Long-term commitment.
–  Innate desire of the chair.
Let’s go over them one by one.
Intellect and thoughtfulness of the leadership team
Two questions come out undeviatingly from the label, 1 – Intellect and 2- leadership team; one might ask why these two? To pull a large change, one that has transformative potential and organisation-wide reach – the most fundamental prerequisites are:
1. Knowing what to change; the core idea itself; requires thoughtful consideration, deep intellectual exploration and creative thinking.
2. Saving the idea from atrophy of inaction requires budgetary allocation and muscle for execution.
Both of these can only come from the top. People at the bottom of the pyramid no matter how engaged, skilful or well-meaning lack organisational control and influence needed to bring about large scale change.
Collective Intent of the controlling vote of the board.
Bringing about real revolution is a lot more than romanticising with the idea of change. All transformative endeavours are daunting in nature, necessitating constant reinforcement. It is a long drawn process, it may start with a directive but can’t be carried through without substantial investment in bringing the culture of the unit up to it. Cultural shifts are unlikely to bring about unless intentionality is displayed and demonstratively pushed and practised by those at the top. The inertia of the organisation, the old normal works against it with every fibre of its body.
Owners of the P&L unknowingly train their senses to smell and see monitory gains in the short term with a great degree of clarity and objectivity, everything else is just dressing not the main dish. Not every change, pays returns back on the day of commencement, benefits of some initiatives are only realised in the long term and that steals the thunder away from the hustle that change brings with itself. Attention is often diverted to what is considered both urgent and important for carrying the day out. ‘Cause of the change’ becomes the casualty, here.
Long term commitment
A tenant can’t be expected to worry about the structural integrity supporting the longevity of the property that he or she occupies, for them it is just not relevant, as their needs are momentary, at best. Contemporary calls are always dearer to the leaser. Change management bears uncanny similarity if leaders do not have long term commitment with the business they would not care enough to have it transformed, into anything better. The incentive of implementing change is understandably just not stimulating enough.
The innate desire of the chair
How badly do you want to win? If you want it for real, you bring it to the fore, at the top of the agenda. Otherwise, you naturally keep shifting “the need for transformation’ to the future. Do those who hold the key to the business want to change, is the critical question? This issue is less organisational and more personal. Before it is answered the leaders must drift on an introspective journey. The process is taxing, long term and one ridden with conflicts so unless the desire is ironclad, there is no way to make the change for the better happen.
Let’s assume you have all the key ingredients in place; congratulations you are halfway through. To bring about an effective change you’ll still need a few more things.
With it, I come to the 2nd item – Change Capability
This is a more functional part of the problem, the list below captures it comprehensively.
– [ ] Selection of Idea
– [ ] Communication
– [ ] Planning
– [ ] Execution
– [ ] Transition
– [ ] Course correction
– [ ] Realisation
– [ ] Closure
Let’s look at them one after the other as well.
Selection of Idea
We’re often tempted to ape what others are doing, following the fad is a thing not only in fashion, it creeps silently into the strategy vault as well. You need to know to guard against it. I resort to the process of rejection, list down all the possible ideas for a given situation and then start crossing bad or weak ones out to arrive at the top three or two. Check for its alignment with the larger business objectives. You do not have to work overtime to make the idea sound bold or come out as courageous, it does not have to be. The design needs to appreciate the current business landscape and should have plans for the future at heart. Alignment with the business goal is a must. Every scheme also has the responsibility of proving how it will improve/changes the offering against its competition in the market. As long as these criteria are met, you’ll be good.
It often becomes more important than the idea itself. Remember, for your idea to win, it will need the backing of the decision-maker and also nod from those who are going to be directly impacted by it. When you craft the communication plan don’t ever forget that your audience is unaware of the background work, the research and the rigorous process of rejection that you’ve followed to arrive at the final point, which you think carries the cause well- so keep the presentation of the idea suitably descriptive. Always know the taste of your audience, no point placing Arundhati Roy to someone who has been brought up with Chetan Bhagat; dumb the exhibition down if you must or regulate it a few notches up depending upon the unique requirement of the house that you are going to subject your presentation to. Be a moderator, in the conversation. Being good at language pays in ways more than one, you’ll know when you present your idea.
The devil lies in the detail, break the steps down to their most granular form, never mind, if a plan that could have got made in 20 rows gets extended to 2000, the more the better. But remember ‘more’ and not ‘more of the same’ is being advised here. You do not have to fall into the trap of repeating what has already been said to make the plan look magnificent. A good plan is not an enthusiastic but realistic one. It should account for buffers, count in all the possibilities and the things that could go wrong. Delay is not good news nor is taking too long, balance is the key. Another key objective of a plan is to make stakeholders aware of the contribution that they need to make to infuse life into the idea. Be clear and be firm in the detailing.
I on purpose did not call it project management but execution. As the leader of change, you have to have your skin in the game. You can’t be enacting high almighty who only presents himself to review and to point out what is not right, you also have to shoulder the obligation of making what is wrong, right. The most critical items are best co-owned. Integrity is vital, in the execution phase you must keep the sponsorer of the change duly informed of the progress that is being made. They deserve to know the real reason, not the sweetened one. Tell the truth, call out the slacks, if and when they present themselves. Remember, your primary responsibility is to drive the action as planned to the closure.
Agents of change are seen as thieves of comforts, they are hated because people think that they wish to make the lives of the people who are outside of the change management process (ideation) difficult on purpose. Many times, change exposes the truth, in the most uncomfortable, dispassionate and indiscriminate manner which people fear and therefore detest. Protecting the turf is a primal instinct, therefore change is seen as a possible loss. In an odd situation, the anxiety of change also encourages people to work against it. These anomalies must be identified and flagged appropriately within the organisation.
Not all plans work, and there is no harm in accepting when they do not. A common mistake that change leaders make is that they get so invested in the idea that they operate unreasonably to make sometimes even a failed idea work because they simply do not have it in them to concede – “I got it wrong”. Getting it wrong is not as bad as pretending that all is well when it is not. Not only it is unethical but it also does the organisation immense impairment by discouraging people from trusting future initiatives. Such conduct discredits the process of change. When things don’t work, admit it, go back to the drawing board and try again.
Declaring war is just as important as announcing peace. When the project does draw to a close, communicate so effectively and efficiently. Give an honest account of how true has the endeavour been to the planning that was done. How much of what was promised has been achieved? Go thread bear. After the announcement has been completed, make people aware of the changes that they will have to bring in their routine, aid adoption. Make plans for training those influenced both directly and indirectly. When it comes to letting people know, doing it a little more than needed won’t harm nearly as much as not communicating enough.
At this point, you must have thought why haven’t I confronted the elephant in the room – “Corporate Politics”; well simply because it is ubiquitous. It exists before the idea of change, while the idea is being given flesh and blood and also after the completion. If the inherent culture of the organisation has the antidote, it won’t matter and if the culture lacks the intelligence then the organisation won’t be able to embark on any serious change anyway; so I have omitted it.
Know that life of a change agent is not an easy one, it is full of confrontation, pugnacity, strifes, failures and discouragement – when you sign up for it tell yourself that you’d not let the trivialities swamp you down.
ये इश्क़ नहीं आसाँ इतना ही समझ लीजे
इक आग का दरिया है और डूब के जाना है
With that let me end this, GO MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN!
(Disclosure: The diagrams are from IJRTE Research paper)