In today’s political landscape, we hear a lot about the future… what is going to happen to our workforce… what is going to happen to our economy… how the future will be better (or worse) than we can possibly imagine, if we only change the way we do things in some revolutionary (or incremental) way. So much of our politics is negative, though. It represents a view that the current corps of leaders are doing it all wrong and that there are but a few who can fix it.
In that vein, here’s an article (May 13, 2002) in Business Week… Consider how it applies to our world today:
The economy is stuck in the doldrums, thanks largely to the broken promises of technology. Dazzled by seemingly limitless returns, bankers had funded hundreds of companies, all going after the same dubious markets. Heedless, individual investors clamored to get into the stock market, driving share prices to unheard-of levels. Soon the overheated market crashed, turning the new heroes of business into goats and scoundrels. Now, disillusionment reigns, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.
In fact, if that sounds familiar, you might be surprised to learn that the “broken promise of technology” refers to the steam locomotive. The place is England. And the year is 1850. The railroads were the Internet of 150 years ago, and it all fell apart when railroad stock shares plunged 85%.
I bring this analogy forward to say something simple about the today’s organization and strategy and perhaps the evolving workplace of the future. The “technology” (e.g. the way we use tools, the strategies and initiatives we implement, etc.) used to accomplish the goals we have for organizational effectiveness matters little.
What matters more – much more – is the way that people experience their place of work and how they generate knowledge that matters for their organizations’ sustainability.
Some fifteen years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Laurence Prusack, a recognized consultant in the IBM Consulting organization. We interviewed Dr. Prusack because he was researching and consulting with organizations about how knowledge management was happening and should happen in organizations. The quote I remember most in my interview of Dr. Prusack is this:
Knowledge tends to be local, sticky, and contextual. It stays where it is. It’s true in the context of the organization. And it’s sticky the way economist use that word. It’s hard to move. You can move money all over the planet. Trillions every day. You can move people all over the planet. You can move physical equipment. You can’t move knowledge per say. It’s very difficult.
So that’s the rub… we are still trying to find ways to manage this “sticky” knowledge that Dr. Prusack references. Technology is still a challenge – really a beast – that is difficult to manage. Then there are the people – the ones who live and work in the organizations we lead. Their experience is really all that matters, because it is the people – not the technology or the configuration of their space or the whiz-bang tool of the moment – that help them manage knowledge while becoming productive in their pursuit of innovation. After all, the innovators are the winners in today’s economy.
To me, the workplace is a sort of metaphor that represents the way things happen in today’s economy. Arguably, today’s workforce needs a place to work. A desk or a spot in an airport lounge or a space at the big table in the neighborhood coffee shop. The notion of providing a “do everything for everyone” kind of workplace has passed us long ago. Yet, there is still great resistance to the idea that we simply need a place to work. It doesn’t need to be fancy. It should be functional… and interestingly enough, it really does reflect our identity.
We still want a place to put the kids’ pictures. We still want a way to celebrate accomplishment. We want our team’s space to be ours and have stuff we need to do what we do.
For all the money we invest in providing a highly integrated and comfortable space for our colleagues, perhaps the end result is not the goal at all. Maybe it’s the journey of getting there that matters. If you put a group of people in the “workplace of the future”, they don’t always use it in the way the designer intended. In fact, if you gave a group of people an immeasurably configurable space and told them to work there, each team would decide what it should look like based on their preferences, work style and identity.
Reflect on an initiative or strategy or structure that you put in place for your organization. They work best when you bring people along with the process. They seem to “stick” when people are aligned with the purpose and reasoning behind the new “stuff” you are implementing. You see, the “stuff” is much less important than the journey you went through to implement it.
All of this is to say that change management is probably the most important dollar you can invest in any organizational development project.
This process (some might call it an art) helps people through their impressions and feelings associated with the organization they are about to become. Change management is what makes that expensive new initiative work.
There are at least five important tips to keep in mind as you embark on your organizational change journey:
- Everyone is in a different place on the change curve. Some are skeptical, some of excited and most are wondering what it all means. Remember, the first step to good change management is to know your starting point and designing a way to engage your associates to get them from where they are to where you want them to be.
- Leadership buy-in is critical. So many of the projects that I’ve managed live and die by how the leader accepts (or rejects) the change. Be the leader who helps make it make sense. Find the leader who is excited to help. Communicate early and often. Equip them for success.
- Fears and concerns are important. There is a point in the change journey where each individual has the opportunity to move from thinking about things “the old way” to engaging the future potential of the solution. They are both resisting the past and exploring the future… all at the same time. The only way to guarantee that people move forward is to let them express what is holding them back. Provide lots of opportunities for people to express their fears and concerns. Give them time to vent and to cheer on your behalf. Once the issue is on the table, then you can find a solution for the future success of your project.
- Don’t be too late to make a difference. So many times, clients come to me (and people like me) and ask for support of projects that are nearing completion. Change management requires frequent engagements at multiple levels and in multiple ways. Some are going to respond to direct contact, while others might prefer a social or visual approach. Plan for change just like you plan for the initiative. It is money well spent and makes a real difference.
- Never forget who lives in the house. The workplace of today is like a house. Nobody suggests you should cook in your bedroom, nor is it comfortable (or wise) to sleep in your oven. Each place in your home and each space in your workplace have a purpose. But we don’t live there; your customer does. So while each part of your program might have a well thought out purpose or plan for its design, sometimes the residents have a better idea. At the end of the day, the people who are on the front lines of your organization need general guidance but they really can decide how things are going to work best. That is not to say we should allow a team to revert back to the old ways of their past. Instead, the change management process really does engage and bring out the best in all the stakeholders for your project. Let the people who live there decide and innovate how to do things the right way for themselves.
This brings us back to the steam locomotive of the 1850s. While it was probably considered a failed technology at the time, it did become quite an important part of our history and global economic development. That steam locomotive powered us through some pretty difficult times.
What about that “sticky knowledge” Dr. Prusack referenced? Remember, someone or some group of people had to figure out how to make the steam locomotive work. Perhaps it was a change management process of sorts that got the ingrained knowledge of technology development into a productive and working vehicle for our future.
In the same way, there are concepts, perceptions, norms and beliefs that reside in each occupant of each workplace around the world. That transition from resistance to exploration often makes your solutions much more successful and innovative than anyone believed at the outset. Invest your dollars in Change Management… it makes all the difference.
For more information about Gibbard Consulting services, contact Max at
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