IT Innovation

Are You Change Enabled?

Iterate and inculcate change along with its disruption.

By David Ferguson

January/February 2011

I marvel at organizations claiming to operate in a change-enabled culture. I have seen my share of enterprise resource planning (ERP) application implementations with tumultuous change baked in, but I have yet to see an operating environment that could be described as conducive to change. Regretfully for most organizations, pending application changes are not given the thoughtful consideration they deserve, and when planning does occur, it comes way too late in the game.

The idea that a work environment stands ready for change in advance of any and all destabilizing/restabilizing events required under the banner of process reform is a heroic one. The assertion, however, runs contrary to the natural tendency we all share toward normalcy.

In the absence of unusual influencing factors, a process will approximate a steady operating state. This is due in part to human behavior. Generally speaking, people protect the expected outcome of their work and wish to avoid the unexpected results brought about when changes are made. The unexpected can put an individual into an uncomfortable position. Equally, people are generally more satisfied when things remain relatively stable. Stability suggests that actions and events are somewhat predictable. Associates understand their roles and their responsibilities to the effort at hand. Interactions with others working within the system are well understood. Throughput is manageable. We draw a certain amount of strength and confidence from the routine, and it is less stressful.

In contrast, change-enabled organizations have figured out how to iterate and inculcate change along with the disruption it can bring into their culture. They assume a higher level of risk to the business in exchange for a higher level of reward. They are less likely to hold onto conventional or historical practice for the sake of stability. They work to remove the stoic mechanisms that serve to maintain the status quo. They also strive to reduce the impact change has on their people.

The people working in change-enabled organizations share distinguishing traits as well. They are more open minded. They are willing to take calculated risks and, more importantly, to discuss their successes and failures without reservation or fear of retribution. And they share the belief that a perfect plan is rare—that any plan will need to adapt over time to deliver results. Honest feedback and fair appraisal are essential to keep things moving on time and on track.

In change-enabled organizations, transparency is requisite within the context of failure. Mistakes often produce revelations—in fact, they are important learning experiences. In talking about a configuration problem related to an Oracle E-Business Suite implementation, an executive sponsor at an Oracle Applications Users Group (OAUG) member company once told me, “If we had not made the original mistake, we never would have fully explored the available profile options for the feature in question. We would not have found a better fit to our desired operation. And we would not be where we are today.” Change-enabled organizations actively look for an upside in every learning experience.

To make change stick, change-enabled companies ensure that all the methods and practices inherent to the previous operating procedure are permanently retired. Associates will gravitate to the old way of doing business if the opportunity exists and the preexisting tool remains in play. Regression returns stability to their work environment but forestalls proper adoption.

I have seen associates take on activist roles to preserve their current environment. Usually, it is the same people who had been complaining about the very application they are now fighting to preserve. Faced with the uncertainty of change, the resistive forces are convinced that the old way of working is inextricably linked to future success. They are energetic in support of their position.

Driving the resistance is a perception of increasing complexity—a new skill to learn, a new tool to master, and a new way to accomplish the work, all of which can be very unsettling. Understandably, most people are drawn to the familiar ways of the past. You have to be willing to assume a reasonable level of discomfort for progress to be made.

Remember, too, that organizations have a limited capacity for change. Change needs to be managed at the highest levels. Too many competing initiatives will quickly overwhelm the absorption rate of those affected by change, and the anticipated benefits will be lost. Establish a threshold for the organization’s perceived ability to destabilize/restabilize relative to the operational challenges you are facing.

I applaud those of you who truly understand the dynamics involved in change enablement and who have incorporated the concepts into your culture. You are breaking ground in areas beneficial to all. For the rest, I hope you’ll consider moving change management up on your company’s—and your own—priority list.

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