Change plays a crucial role and is a constant in successful organizations. Its importance increases as the number of changes, the size and scope of those changes and the speed with which they must be implemented grow at an incredible rate. The wise organization pays attention not only to what changes it needs to make, but also how it is going to achieve them.
Today’s business leaders are aware of the failure rate of changes. How does the organization avoid those failures and their resulting costs? How can it manage those changes? By building a systematic and disciplined process to address resistance into every change and developing the ability of employees to live with constant change, to be capable of living in a permanent transition state and to be able to tolerate constant ambiguity in their work life.
If the organization achieves this goal, the changes it needs to make will happen faster, with less stress on the organization and its workforce. If its competitors do not have this capability, even though they are making the same changes, the organization that makes the changes faster, easier and with less cost gains a definite competitive advantage. The chief learning officer of the organization plays a key role in building this competitive edge.
The Role of the CLO
Learning leaders are well aware that building a resilient organization requires a specific set of skills on the part of the organization’s leadership and those who play the role of change agent. However, before building a curriculum to develop those competencies, CLOs must recognize that they are in a unique position to impact how the organization manages change.
Few organizations have thought through what managing change means—what the organization will look like when it manages change well. The CLO who presents the organization’s leadership with a holistic approach to managing change will be doing much more than building competency. In this holistic approach, the roles people play in the change process are elements of an identified change management model and process. Leadership and agents of change are linked to the process of managing change well. An additional role also must be developed: people who will be impacted by the change—the targets of change.
The CLO is in a unique position to help the executive leadership understand that it needs to change the way it manages transition. Gaining sponsorship for this change starts when learning executives help leadership see that not only do people in the organization need to develop greater skill in playing out their roles in the change process, but that they need to apply those skills within a structured and disciplined process that is understood and shared by the entire organization.
It is not easy to gain executive leadership sponsorship for how a change is managed. While they may not be satisfied with the success rate for the changes they are making, they might be reluctant to add changing how it is managed to a long list of initiatives. To gain their sponsorship, the CLO must apply effective change management.
Show executives how change is managed today. Projects are done without a systematic and disciplined process for identifying the potential resistance of the targets of change. While communication and learning are key to all change initiatives, those processes are not always linked directly to the resistance issues and, too frequently, exacerbate the issues rather than mitigate them.
Show executives how change can be managed. Describe what the organization will look like when everyone shares a common process for addressing change issues, and each knows the role to play and the actions required. That desired state is a place where more change can be absorbed by the targets, and the success of those transitions increases because the process is thoughtfully designed to make it easier for the targets to live with constant change.
A Holistic Approach
Before going to the executive leadership, the CLO must search for an effective model that not only identifies the action steps of a well-managed change, but also includes a clear and comprehensive definition of the roles that need to be played, as well as a robust set of action steps and tools to apply effective change management.
After gaining acceptance of the need to put the model in place and practice it with as much discipline and commitment as other core processes in the organization, such as financial tracking, performance management and inventory control, the CLO can then consider how to develop those competencies in the organization. Once the executive leadership has embraced the need to deploy a change management model, the CLO can direct her organization to build a curriculum to teach that model to the management cascade, the agents of change and the people impacted.
A Blended Approach
The learning organization builds these competencies through a traditional curriculum of courses, and by serving as coaching and guiding resources to the leadership and the change agents throughout the life cycle of projects. The CLO ensures that all curricula offered incorporate the change model and the defined roles of sponsors, change agents and targets where appropriate.
For example, in Six Sigma training, the Black Belts, as change agents, need to see how change management fits into their process and how its tools are incorporated into the Six Sigma process. The leadership curriculum—the suite of learning opportunities for the management cascade—needs to be examined to ensure that all courses that deal with change as part of the leaders’ roles address those positions based on the defined sponsor in the change management model.
Change management and the roles and responsibilities that come with it can be learned in the classroom or in an e-learning environment. The application of that learning, however, takes additional coaching and ongoing support on the part of the learning organization.
Leadership Plays a Key Role
All change management strategies make the point most emphatically that leadership in the organization is a critical success factor for the changes the organization needs to make. Leadership accepts that it is important, and the change agents know it is vital. The attention the learning organization pays to developing that sponsor competency is critical.
Despite all the discussion around leadership’s impact on change, most organizations grapple with three questions:
- What is it that leadership is supposed to do?
- Do they know when they are not playing out the role effectively?
- How do they develop the awareness of their level of competency and build it to the required levels?
The role of leaders as sponsors of change can be specifically defined if, instead of taking an organizational perspective, one looks at the role from the viewpoint of the people impacted by the change, or the targets of the change. What is it that they need from the leadership?
Leadership needs to tell the targets of the change why they must change, what they will be changing to and how that change is going to occur. Without that information, targets cannot make an informed and thoughtful choice to change. The message must come from the targets’ own management cascade, not from the change agents. From the most senior leader all the way down to the first-line supervisor, all the messages must contain the same information, though it may be crafted in different ways to be delivered by the executive vice president of the division and by the foreman of the assembly line.
However, communication is not enough. Leaders also must recognize that it is they who own the change, and that they need to be even more passionate about accomplishing it than the change agents they assign.
Underlying all the activities that are required of the leaders, there also must be a fundamental acceptance of the fact that change is difficult, that people will resist it and that resistance is logical and natural when seen from the perspective of the targets.
Even when leaders accept the fact that change must be managed, there is a second problem: Leaders think they are being effective sponsors of change. They showed up at the big launch meeting and gave a speech. They signed off on a huge requisition for the change. What more do these people want? Isn’t that what sponsors are supposed to do? If no one tells them that their actions are not sufficient, how will they know? Too often, leaders are puzzled. They are willing to do more, but don’t know what they are supposed to do.
Leaders who lack the knowledge of what it takes to be effective sponsors of change are not going to develop this capability on their own. Many do not even know that they lack this competency—they think they are good at sponsoring change.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon the learning organization to proactively address this need and these three problems: defining the role of sponsorship, enabling the leaders to gain an accurate picture of their currents level of competency and building that competency to the desired levels.
Is It Worth It?
The CLO knows well that there is a cost to developing improved change management capability. Doing this must have a payback. Improved change management must substantially increase the potential for each change to be more successful. It also must demonstrate an increased capacity for the organization to absorb multiple changes by developing resiliency.
There is great anecdotal evidence that the cost is worth it, and a body of quantitative evidence is growing as well. Developing the capacity and capability of the leadership, the change agents and the targets of change impacts each change in four key ways:
- The potential for key losses during the implementation is reduced: Quality, productivity, customer satisfaction and employee engagement do not suffer as the change is being introduced because of confusion, anger or resistance on the part of the targets.
- Change is accelerated, and the benefits are achieved sooner: People can absorb the change’s impact because they see their leaders doing what they need them to do and because they feel that they have a role in the change process.
- The benefits are achieved: People want to use the new technology, behave in the new way and follow the new process because they accept the change and the way the change is being managed.
- The change does not deteriorate after it is completed, but continues as the new current state: The effort to do things right in the change process means when the change is achieved, the people who were change targets now become the owners of this new way and accept its value.
The literature on the need to build a resilient organization is vast. The role of the learning organization in the development of that capability is key. An organization that commits to improve its change tolerance, asks leadership to play an effective role in change and embeds resilience in the workforce can successfully face the changes it is currently implementing, as well as any future change initiatives. That’s a competitive edge worth developing.
Jeanenne LaMarsh is founder and president of LaMarsh and Associates, and specializes in change management. Rick Rothermel, director of consulting services at LaMarsh, was formerly the chief learning officer and vice president of corporate learning services at Michigan Virtual University. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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