Ambiguity and adaptability, chaos and flexibility. These terms come up again and again in the language of change. But for all the talk, organisations are still not getting it right, and all too often HR comes in only after senior management perceives there is a problem.
A recent survey by consultancy Changefirst found that fewer than four in 10 employees are committed to strategic change when it comes their way. Failure to win over key influencers, lack of role models for new behaviours, and insufficient support for front-line staff all contribute to the inability of change initiatives to take hold, reveals the survey.
United Biscuits has operated in an environment of “constant change” for years in response to the fast-moving, highly competitive snack-food manufacturing market. “Initially, we focused on the project and process aspects of change,” says Les Bacon, who took on the role of change manager 18 months ago. “Where we weren’t getting it quite right was in making sure that, when it goes down the line e_SEnD say, with a new IT system – people completely understand how it’s relevant to them.
“The first thing to do, from my point of view, was to get my HR executive on board, to recognise that people were the key issue. It was the emotional element we needed to engage people on.”
Now when United Biscuits plans change initiatives, it scopes out the people aspect as part of the analysis of tasks and benefits. This looks at who the change would affect, the number of groups, the size of those groups, and whether that change project would impact on other projects and processes, says Bacon.
Mapping out the impact of change on people is much like doing any other process analysis, argues Robert Myatt, a director at occupational psychology firm Kaisen.
“Map out the gains and losses,” he says. “And when unsure go and find out, rather than second guess.
“What typically works most effectively is to create a group of change agents that includes not just HR, but people who know what areas of the business will be impacted upon and the different sub-groups in that population,” he advises.
For example, at Serco Solutions, which expanded through acquisition nearly two years ago, HR offered its ‘change champions’ mentoring and coaching.
It’s also important for HR to focus its efforts at senior level, translating their vision into ‘actionable steps’ for those down the line. This worked for Chris Thomas, HR director at health insurance provider FirstAssist, which went through a management buyout from Royal and SunAlliance three years ago. “It’s my job, with one foot in the senior management team and one foot at the coal-face, to say: ‘This is the reality, this is the vision, but we’ll only be able to do a certain amount in the next six months’,” says Thomas.
Line managers, particularly, need focused development during change, yet all too often they’re overlooked, according to Grahame Russell, managing director of Penna HR Consulting. Mentoring and coaching will allow them to come to terms with change themselves before leading others through it, he says.
HR needs to take responsibility for building the skills, processes and mindsets in managers at all levels to make change happen, according to David Miller, managing director of Changefirst. “It’s about more than just getting people on board,” he says.
When facing change on the front line, managers must work on communicating key messages, says Ceri Roderick, head of assessment at Pearn Kandola. Roadshows are fine for broad messages, but there needs to be a more direct approach down the line.
“Not doing this for managers makes them cynical. It puts them in a rotten position, with their teams asking them questions they can’t answer or appear unwilling to answer,” Roderick says.
Getting the communication right, particularly when it comes to the unknowns, can make or break a change initiative.
“People will create information where there isn’t any and generate suspicion out of all proportion,” says Roderick. “The best thing is to lay out a timetable, and you can say, for example: ‘We won’t be able to decide on the structure of that division until May because the managing director won’t be appointed until then’.”
It is important to tailor communication to particular groups, says Bacon. “You could use different media, but you also need to look at how you tailor that language to suit each audience. That could vary between groups and between sites.”
One change often sparks another, as external factors force organisations into continuous change. Where change is monumental, HR must ensure a phased approach so as not to “overload the change agenda”, says Thomas. “You have to break it down into chunks. If you were trying to communicate to people then what we’re doing now, it would have been too much.”
It is essential to “look at the linkages” between projects, says Gary Miles, principal consultant with management education centre Roffey Park. “All our research on change shows that managers crave consolidation. It means if you’ve made a change and need to change again, you consolidate rather than just start over.”
The role of HR is to ensure new business initiatives occur in the context of previous changes, and are not viewed merely as separate events.
“The line manager will think about it in terms of procedural tasks. HR can flag the people stuff,” says Lucinda Carney, head of learning and development at Siemens Communications, which amalgamated a number of its corporate functions into a shared services model in 1999.
It is important to remember, too, that people go through change at different speeds. Because those in the top corridor leading the change are, in a sense, ‘already there’, they run the risk of underestimating how threatening change feels to those down the line, concludes Roderick.
“Recognise there is a change cycle and people will respond according to their own personal characteristics. Don’t simply group them into ‘for’ or ‘against’ change, or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
What’s the best way to deal with change?
“Expect to recruit new executives, managers and technicians because you need fresh ideas. We went from being a corporate to a venture capitalist-backed small and medium-sized business, which requires different skills. The whole environment is different.”
Chris Thomas, HR director, FirstAssist
“Too often, change work is outsourced to consultancy firms, despite having people in place who could do it. HR professionals could spend more time working out what their distinctive skills are that they could bring to the business than whether they’re sitting at the right table.”
David Miller, managing director, Changefirst
“One of the key things with change is that the manager is expected to look after individuals in the organisation. The reality is that the ones who are most scared of the change are the managers themselves. Coaching and workshops are important so they can come to terms with it themselves to then be able to lead others through change.”
Grahame Russell, managing director, Penna HR Consulting
“HR needs to ensure that people are able to go through this process. If the organisation chooses to force the change when people have not let go of the past, people will not engage. They will be apathetic or, worse, be very anxious or even hostile towards the change.”
Robert Myatt, director, Kaisen
“Give special attention to the ‘worriers’. The enemies of change are ‘doubters’, ‘preservers’ and worriers, and the worriers often make up a large proportion of your workforce. You need to create support networks within the organisation so they have the opportunity to discuss their concerns and worries with other people.”
Gary Miles, principal consultant, Roffey Park