Don’t Ask How Big the Change Is…


iStock_000011679595Small low posterAsk “How tough will it be to succeed?”

All too often, the needed investment for a change is measured by its cost. But the only way cost measures into success and failure has to do with whether you are investing the necessary financial resources. You can invest thousands (or, depending on the size of your organization, hundreds of thousands or millions) on a software upgrade that is invisible to everyone. This may be a big expense; it is not a big change. On the other hand, you might make a shift in work hours that costs little to the organization financially, yet fails to ever deliver the anticipated benefits.

How tough is the change? 

That is the important question.

Not all change is created equal. The tougher the change, the more time you and others will have to invest in its success, and the less likely you will be successful. More often than not, really tough changes don’t actually deliver what they promise. Beating the odds is not only personally rewarding; it makes for a great competitive advantage.

So, what makes a change tough? We are going to look at three things. 1) How disruptive is the change? 2) How important is the change? 3) What determines success?

  1. How disruptive is the change? 

Why is this important? The more disruptive it is, the more physical, emotional, and psychological energy it will require; the more attention it will take away from the day-to-day; the more the change will affect quality, productivity, and safety.

What makes a change disruptive? One of the things that I always want to determine is how invested people are in the status quo. If that investment is minimal, the disruption will be less than if the change is going to significantly alter “how things are around here.” It is important to remember, it isn’t whether or not people like “how things are,” it’s about how easy–or difficult–it will be for them to let go.

The greater the number of people affected by the change, the more disruptive it becomes. In a family situation, a change that rocks (or destroys) a long-standing status quo is highly disruptive. From an organizational perspective, a change that rocks (or destroys) a long-standing practice–but only affects a small unit–is a small change. (NOTE: It is important to keep in mind that some changes that are small to the organization may be incredibly large to some individuals within the organization. Being sensitive to those who are significantly disrupted by a change is always a good practice.)

Another thing to determine is how the disruption will affect: a) what people do and how they do it; and b) how people think about themselves, the organization, and what they are doing. The most disruptive changes require shifts in both thinking and doing.

2. How important is the change?

Not very? No big deal? That’s easy. If it starts getting tough, just drop it.

It’s a matter of life and death? There’s no future if the change doesn’t succeed? That makes it tougher. Regardless of other demands, obstacles, distractions, doubts; despite anything and everything that might come at you…you have to keep going.

3. What determines success? 

Growing up, I remember the phrase “keeping up with the Jonses.” Believe it or not, organizations are susceptible to the same behavior; they invest incredible amounts of money, energy, employee good will, time, productivity, product quality, and leadership credibility trying to “keep up with the (competitor) Jonses.” If you don’t believe me, ask Dilbert; he hammers this point home on a regular basis.

If the outcome you want is to keep up appearances, your change is going to be a lot less tough than if you actually want to get results.

  • Install the hardware and software, and train people on it. Done.
  • Publish the new procedures and train people on them. Done
  • Collapse job classifications; delayer the organization. Done.
  • BPR, done. Six Sigma, done. Teamwork, done.

Keeping up with the Jonses…

If you’re going for results, not so fast… Training might be all that is required if it is a Microsoft Office upgrade. If it is ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software, it’s a whole other story. You need to shift how people think about information, who owns it, who controls it, where it resides; you are shifting the power and the politics of the organization. You are making changes that will rattle people’s sense of self-worth, of value to the organization, of what they do and how they do it. You have a tough change on your hands!

The same can be said with any organizational change. And, the same is true with personal change. If it is outcome, and not just appearance, that is important, the change becomes tougher.

Why is it important to look at how tough the change is?

If it is really disruptive and difficult to achieve success, but not all that important…maybe it’s not worth doing.

If it’s really important, but otherwise not very tough, keep an eye on it but don’t micro-manage it (unless that’s in your job description).

If it measures high on each of the toughness scales (there are metrics for them), then you need to spend time preparing yourself and others for the road ahead. You need to be prepared to focus your time and attention on the change. You have to figure out how to get your best people engaged in ensuring its success. You need to respect it–and respond to it–as the big deal that it is.

Do you have a story about under- or over-estimating the toughness of a change? What lessons have you learned about executing tough changes? Comment below.



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