Are We Ready for This Change?

‘Planning for change’.  It’s showing up in more job descriptions.  Even when it’s not in the job descriptions, it’s inherent in the job.  Change is part of every leader’s work these days.  We’ve talked in these blogs about being cognizant of the importance of thoughtful change management as you plan for changes.  But there’s a big step many leaders forget to take before plowing into their planning.  When is the last time you seriously asked the question, “Are we ready for this change?”

Study after study, survey after survey of executives keeps coming back with the same dismal numbers: roughly 70% of change efforts are deemed to be unsuccessful – benefits of the investment are not attained.  And a large proportion of the time, had the readiness question been asked, the answer would have been predictive of the poor results.

Readiness for a change can feel somewhat ephemeral – how do we actually measure it?  But actually, it’s not that hard to get the answer.  ‘Readiness’ is a state of confidence on the part of all the people who must be part of both implementing the change, and those carrying it out in the ‘new order’, that all the right conditions are – or can realistically be put – in place in order to make the change successful.  So measuring it is a question of asking those confidence questions.

The trick is asking all the right questions, and, when the answer is not a strong vote of confidence, deciding what to do about it.

What are the right ‘readiness’ questions to ask?

The most fundamental questions are around capacity to get the job done: the people, technology, work processes, organizational systems and physical resources needed.  Are people available?  Equipped?  Do they have the time?  Do they know how to get it done?  Do they understand how to work in the new environment?  If leaders do think about readiness for change, this is usually what they consider – and usually where they stop.

There are factors, however, that contribute more, and more subtly, to attaining confidence in the success of a change.

Readiness is also a function of commitment, or shared resolve, to see something through to not just implementation, but to successful operation.  Here’s where the confidence pivot point can really be detected.  If the intended change calls into question some organizational values, for example, commitment is compromised.  Consider the company that prided itself on customer intimacy, but then planned a change that no longer gave phone service options to customers who had bought lower-priced products.  The cost savings from the change were never realized, because employees found ways to still service these customers by phone, and managers turned a blind eye to the practice, believing it was only doing what was right.

Commitment is also felt in the degree of participation in the definition of the change and the way it is implemented – but how often do leaders insist on in-depth participation, especially when juxtaposed against a tight schedule?

Leaders rarely ask the question, “How committed does everyone feel to making this change work to its fullest?  What might get in the way?”  When employees, managers, and even senior leaders are only paying lip service to their agreements to the change, studies demonstrate that they’re unlikely to demonstrate behaviors supportive of success, like perseverance in the face of difficulty, a bias for adoption, or championing of the change.

Finally, questions about readiness for change need to plumb the depths of cultural landmines.  A change may require employees work differently, but the ways they get promoted are still based on old work behaviors.  A new regulatory requirement may be implemented with a specified formal structure for oversight, but if there is an informal decision-making hierarchy that is more powerful, the formal structure may be emasculated.  Very often, people feel these cultural issues as discomforts that they don’t know how to voice, so asking specific questions is important to ferret out potential cultural barriers to successful change.  “Are there any policies or norms (how we’re paid, how we’re promoted, how we’re rewarded, what is acceptable, etc.) that we follow in this organization that may impede the success of this change?  Are there any formal or informal ways of doing things that could cause our plans to operate differently than we expect?”

Leaders are wise to ask these readiness questions more deeply – and when they do, they have an obligation to make decisions based on what they find, even if the decision is to shelve the change because the organization is not ready to absorb it or to make it operationally successful.  One leader, when faced with a number of issues that would likely torpedo a change he wanted to implement, continued to want to move forward.  “I’m really fond of my idea,” he said.  Good leaders will separate their fondness for their own ideas (or the boss’s) from the organization’s readiness to make them work.  They will take a clear look at the organization’s capacity, commitment, and culture before deciding whether to move forward.  If they make the decision to move ahead, it will be because they have a solid plan for addressing the potential issues that could torpedo the change’s success.

Good leaders take change readiness seriously, with data rather than emotions.  They increase the chances the organization will benefit from its investment in change by assuring there is shared confidence in the value of, the ability to, and the resolve to see the change through to a successful outcome.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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