Make Change Happen

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

When I speak to employees who are not executives, they always relate to these facts and ideas. I am, after all, describing what they’ve experienced and how most of them feel. So it is not surprising that they always ask, “Have you talked with our executives and upper-level managers? If you have, what was their reaction? Are they even aware of what’s going on? Are they concerned enough to do anything different now that they know how people feel? What can I do to make change happen?’’

The most visible leader in an organizational change effort is usually a top executive. But core change does not happen until and unless an aligned leadership develops throughout the organization, at all levels. Succeeding in creating major change has to ultimately involve the majority of people.

The answer to the essential question, “What can I do?” is, first, get the facts and master them. Every person involved in creating change has to be able to describe the facts easily and, more importantly, clearly and simply.

The next task is to be able to describe the problem and the solution in the “elevator speech.” That means you have less than a minute to get your views across. To achieve this, you need a great answer to the question, “What really matters?” In some ways, crafting the elevator speech is the hardest task of the entire change effort. It’s difficult to be very brief, right on point, and be convincing.

Feelings are always much more important than facts in getting a buy-in to change, and basic change is always unsettling. That’s why the majority of people in the organization have to believe you are telling the truth, you are guided by a deep sense of unease by current practices, and you are convinced real change will achieve success.

Change leaders must create the fear that not changing is much more dangerous than changing. Then, it is time to create hope: “If we pull together and we all get on the train, while it won’t be easy, we can do it! Count me in! “

Generating the motivation for change and specific ideas about how to succeed is only the starting point. Operationalizing anything, actually making things happen, is at least equally difficult.

The task for the organization is to regain the perspective that people are a major asset and management must behave in ways that tell employees they are valuable and important. Ideas, attitudes, and behaviors must be aligned and converge on the single theme that making commitments to our people and gaining commitment from them is the only way we can succeed. When most people share that value and agree on that goal, lots of specific ways to reinforce commitment and engagement will be generated.

No one, not even the CEO, can make things happen alone. To make things happen, change leaders must gain power. There are two relevant kinds of power: one involves role power, people at the highest levels in the organization who are responsible for making decisions in the business of the business. In corporations, those are the people who have the major profit-and-loss responsibilities. These positions have the greatest amount of authority and frequently, the highest levels of influence and political power. Anyone who has access to these people is also seen as powerful simply because these people are accessible to him or her.

It is the responsibility of change leaders to learn which of these decision-makers is already in basic agreement with the view that people are a critical asset. The goal is to identify these people in order to gain powerful allies as quickly as possible.

The second kind of power lies in the power of numbers. When many people in an organization clearly believe the same thing and are calling for change, the importance of their message is greater than that of even a few top decision-makers. The large number of supervisors and middle managers are a ripe source of allies as they are in a position to really know how their subordinates are feeling and behaving and how wide are the gaps that cause people to be alienated.

In terms of numbers, the middle and lower rungs of the organization are a potential source of the largest numbers. There are leaders everywhere; they are simply people that others trust, respect, and want to listen to and follow. Having less education is not a barrier to becoming a leader. Change leaders must find these potential allies wherever they are: at entry level, in blue- and pink-collar positions, in the collarless jobs of professionals, and in the different generations.

When change leaders have a firm understanding of the issues and a clear message of alarm and hope, and when they have identified allies, they need to create an initial basic plan that is so direct and focused that it fits on a single page. Inevitably, the reality of implementation will make the simplest plan very complex and complexity diffuses focus. The more complex the initial plan is, the less effective it will become.


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