Monday, January 3, 2011

The Challenge of Change

Considering the time of year, the concept of change is something to be looked at carefully. The purpose of this column is to explore some of the most common learning & performance barriers that we experience in a time of change.

As John Reh said, “Nothing is as upsetting as change…Nothing has greater potential to cause failures, loss of production, or falling quality than change...Yet nothing is as important to the survival of your organization as change.” Clearly, change matters. However, when the only day-to-day constant is change, it can be difficult to sustain focus and forward progress on true organizational priorities. If change fatigue sets in, our teams can experience reduced morale and important client services and projects can stall.

The good news is that a climate of change is also conducive to continuous learning and performance improvements. In order to capitalize on the opportunities for growth however, we have to identify and address the common Change Barriers. I have identified more than 250 of these in my research and work, but I picked out a few of the most common ones that I see in a time of change:

1. Change Does Not Feel Relevant – When some kind of change initiative comes down the pike, it will usually be rejected if it does not directly connect with people’s needs:

[This change will not help with my problems! I don’t see the relevance of this change to my own situation! I have not been asked to participate in the process, so I’m not really invested in seeing it through!]

2. Insufficient Margin - When a person experiences more demands than they have energy and resources to address them, new learning and performance activities cannot be implemented:

[Help, I’m overwhelmed and can’t manage what’s already on my plate!]

3. Anxiety or distraction from information/communication overload:

[We are too STRESSED to take on anything new!]

4. Tampering - Attempting to implement new behaviors and practices without changing the system that keeps the old behaviors in place:

[We’re spinning our wheels because the same old issue keeps coming up!]

5. Defensive Routines - Deflecting criticism, blaming other people or events, avoiding tasks, or behaving in ways that shift responsibility to others to prevent uncomfortable or embarrassing consequences:

[There is somebody or something to blame!]

6. Inability to successfully cope with or bounce back from adversity

[People are close-minded and feel too defeated to rise to a new challenge.]

7. Clinging to a fixed, positive organizational identity from the past at the expense of current and accurate organizational assessments:

[I wish it was like it used to be; that was so much better!]

8. Too many changes over a short period of time leading to fatigue and resistance to other, more essential changes:

[I’m done; I just won’t change any more!]

9. Performance Whitewashing - Treating all goals and outcomes the same thus diverting energy and attention from the most critical priorities:

[I’ll put out whatever fire is in front of me, even though something more important may need to get done!]

As you consider the diverse list above, it is clear the challenges of change can come from every direction. If you or your team is having difficulty overcoming one or more of these challenges to change, here are three very practical suggestions:

1. Locate the Resistance – What we are unaware of controls us, but what become aware, we can influence. That said, it is critical to locate the resistance to change and understand what it is and why it persists. Asking the question- what is this about - can start a valuable process of clarifying the situation. If one particular change barrier resonates with you, spend some time thinking about it and exchange perspectives with the team to explore what is going on.

2. Simplify the Equation – As greater awareness about the nature of resistance is developed, it is important to simplify the situation in order to identify effective ways to address the change. Examining what is in/out of your control and finding “pockets of influence” can be helpful because it allows you to stop worrying about what you can’t control, and to instead invest energy into the things that can be influenced by your response and action.

3. Respect Others’ Speed Limits – Each person has a pace of change the represents their comfort zone. It is important not to push others too hard toward change, but it is also critical not to ignore the need for change. This balancing act requires respectful discussion and engagement with colleagues about their speed limits for change. Pushing when needed and slowing down when helpful is a constructive give and take that facilitates productive change.

If you need support implementing these three approaches, or if you would like to discuss a specific situation in more detail, the door is always open.

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