Talk to almost any HR practitioner today, and you will hear that the backdrop to most of his or her work is that amorphous thing in the trade that we like to call ‘change’. You love and hate it in almost equal measure, whatever it means.
Why? Because it gives you purpose as a practitioner – and it derails you when you least expect it. And it helps to frame – and undo – the contribution you make to the organisations you serve. Either way, it brings you to the management’s top table, to your benefit or at your peril.
So here is an admission from heady world of change consulting.
We love your dilemma. Because it gives us consultants a purpose too. And we spend a lot of time wondering why it is that you ask us to do a lot of what you can simply get on with yourself.
Not that we are trying to talk ourselves out of existence you will understand. Simply, getting a grip on change will most likely mean that you use change consultants for the stickier issues where we add most value.
What is cultural change?
But what do we really mean when we talk about cultural change?
It happens when the structure of your organisation has shifted. We can identify real social change. There are lasting changes afoot to what people think and believe and what values these people share or aspire to. Internal processes in the organisation are being shaken up, and the relationships between key players throughout the organisation are in flux.
Consultants and HR practitioners can get their knickers in something of a twist when identifying why this happens. Truth be told, there is a bunch of factors that cause change – some obvious and some not so clear; some arise midway through change, and a lot of the time we deal with a confluence of issues that can be tricky to unpick.
Don’t be daunted though. Too often, you can be deluded into believing that the pace of change itself is reason enough not to stop and ask why. (It is a great opening for consultants, but really, something you can handle as competently with your management colleagues.)
Here is a list of factors we consistently bump into. It is not exhaustive, but it might prompt you into finding a few more that are specific to your organisation.
There is a new person or people at the top. He or she is there because those heavy-hitting executives or non-executives with authority to make senior-level appointments have reached a view that that medium- or long-term success depends on changes in values, structure, people and process. They don’t know specifically what these changes should be, but they have identified someone who they reckon can work it out.
The business environment has changed, and your organisation needs to change in response. That might be because customer needs are different, or that there is a new breed of competitors out there. Or more vaguely, there is change in your sector that requires a different kind of response from your organisation.
There is new legislation, compliance requirements and best practice that either you cannot avoid, or that you think will deliver benefits to your organisation and people – often in some less tangible form than dubious line managers would like. From diversity initiatives, health and safety accountability to anti-discrimination legislation and best practice, getting caught up with the local laggards does not brand you, your HR practice or your organisation too favourably.
Whatever the mix, make sure that you – and your line colleagues – know what it is.
What to avoid in taking charge of change
If you misunderstand why, you will confuse symptom and cause. You are likely to deal with the change as an event, which it is not. Whatever, it is a dodgy start.
Don’t get roped into focusing only on the end result. HR practitioners – whether senior managers know it or not – are best placed to tackle the essential planning and preparation that underpins effective change management.
Don’t set goals that are too long-term. Get real. Recognise what can be done now, and encourage line colleagues to reward people that achieve short-term objectives too.
Don’t confuse early wins with quick fixes. Too many HR practitioners get buy-in to short, sharp activities at the expense of what needs to happen a little further down the line.
Poor communication or no communication at all spells doom – whatever the quality of your thinking!
Don’t ignore what has not worked already or misinterpret deceptive successes. Managers will dance and skirt around failed initiatives and laud what they thought worked. You will need to tackle them head on. They will set the context for how you should navigate your way forward.
Don’t be timid. Handling cultural change is not for the faint-hearted. You will make a cock-up here and there. That is to be expected. Make sure that you can lose a few battles so that you can ultimately win the war.
Don’t be dismissive of middle managers. They are the conduits, the gatekeepers and often the reality-checkers that you are best advised to have on-side.
Managers may acknowledge but be reluctant to embrace it; you cannot ignore it. It is that thing called ‘development’. “Let my people go” is a great call to free your people from the shackles of anachronistic ways; “Help my people learn” is a sure way into the promised land!
Want to keep them there? No incentives to change – or insufficient rewards – will turn your watershed initiatives into a quagmire. Keep giving them things that make them happy.
Leslie Benson is managing director at JSB Training and Development, and consultant in organisational and people change and development.