Tuesday, October 27, 2015

5 Ways to Mess Up Organizational Change, #2: N.I.I.F.M.

A great conference presenter I know once began a talk on organizational transformation by asking the audience what mattered most to them during times of change.  Some said looking after their direct reports, others talked about the success of the initiative, a few mentioned being able to sleep at night and one harassed-looking executive admitted his top priority was maintaining EBITDA. 

“You’re all lying,” said the presenter.

The audience reacted just the way you would expect.  People frowned, sat up, shook their heads as if they must have misheard.

“You’re all lying,” the presenter repeated.  “What matters most to each one of you when you are going through change is YOU.” 

He was right.  Especially at times of uncertainty, our number one priority is ourselves.  What’s in this for me?  Unfortunately, time and again change architects and implementers forget this truth and use statistics, grand statements, over-detailed presentations and myriad resources to send one simple message: There Is Nothing In This For You.

Why should businesses care whether they are stroking their employees’ self-interest?  Because change lives and dies by how it is implemented, and the ultimate unit of implementation is the individual.  Over a third (38%)  of employees in companies going through change don’t accept the need to change, and almost half (44%) report not understanding exactly what they are meant to do differently. 

Put simply, they don’t see what is in it for them.

Many change leaders start scratching their heads at this point.  But we told them! they say.  We gave them the big picture, we talked about the impact on individual divisions and functions.  What more do these people want?

They want you to notice that they matter.  Part of this is about making sure you don’t use the tone deaf one-track communications I talked about in a previous post.  The rest is about reassuring people’s fears and engaging their hopes – fears and hopes as perceived by them, that is, not by you.

The fears part is easy to map out.  Just about everyone embarking on organizational change is concerned about job security, about their future prospects with the firm, about what exactly is going to be asked of them and whether they are better off seeing how things evolve or starting immediately to look elsewhere.  These concerns are real and urgent.  They demand honest, factual answers, or facts about when you will be able to provide answers.  Crucially, answers should not be presented ready-wrapped, but arrived at through discussions with your people where you contribute the big-picture goals and milestones then talk through and agree the details together.  People who feel more in control feel less fearful, so think guidance and facilitation rather than barking out orders.

Engaging hopes is trickier, because motivating discretionary effort is highly dependent on aligning perceived incentives with cultural expectations, and cultural expectations are very organization-specific, sometimes even workgroup-specific.

In some companies, people feel good about themselves when they are coming up with innovative products or processes; in others, high value is placed on operational efficiency, or customer satisfaction, or contribution to the team.  Some teams take pride in internal competition; others get motivated by using the latest technology or a sense of ethical contribution or social prestige.  Every organization has its own unique cultural blueprint, and you will most effectively motivate people to get enthusiastic about change if you leverage the factors that culture prizes.

How do I figure out my organization’s culture? 

If only more change leaders asked that question!  Too often, a leader assumes that everyone in the organization or work unit shares her cultural values.  The best way to find out the unspoken assumptions, values and motivators is to ask.  

There are good, quick-and-easy-to-administer surveys based on research into the aspects of culture that have been proven to motivate high performance.  The best ones  look not only at how individuals perceive the culture in which they work, but also at what they personally would prefer, so you can get a map not just of what’s generally valued, but of what specific individuals are most likely to respond to.  While you don’t need everyone in the organization to complete a survey, you may find it useful to get this detailed personal data on key employees, especially those who have a high degree of influence over others, so you can tailor your communications and implementation towards energizing change champions, deepening the day-to-day connections between your strategic program and how employees actually go about their work.

But what if the organizational change you are involved in aims at changing the culture? 

Good point.  Here it’s a case of looking for continuities.  Your culture change initiative is not going to involve completely reversing the existing culture – if that is your plan, for goodness’ sake change it immediately as there is no way it is ever going to work.  Look instead for the aspects of the existing culture that should be maintained, even strengthened, in the new organization.  Use those cultural factors to get people engaged with the change program and, as with combating fears, make sure you get them to take an active part in setting goals, in implementing, in assessing progress and adjusting plans.  The more involved they are in terms that resonate with their values, the more they will feel there is something in it for them and the more successful your change process will be.

So, to improve your change outcomes, avoid NIIFM and instead pull those cultural and emotional levers to get people truly involved in the change process.  But don’t forget that there are other ways in which it is all too easy to mess up change.  Next up: Talking Stats, Not Stories.