A Terrible Change Strategy

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How NOT to get what you want

Over the years I’ve helped restructure the operations and business development practices of a number companies, financial advisory and other professional service firms. Though I’ve not read it, I’m starting to believe there is a secret manual on terrible ways to change an organization. I say this because I usually work with companies after they have already attempted to change. Most have failed for the same reasons. By listing these I hope to reduce the number of failures owners and partners experience in the future.

If you have ever directed or been a part of a change initiative encompassing your entire organization or even a part of its operations, you may have fallen into one of the three following traps:

1. Drive change from the top

Question: In a bacon and egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig?
Answer: The chicken was compliant, but the pig was committed.

Nothing turns off a professional staff more than being told of the change in the organization’s strategy and operations and then being given a new task and told, “Make this happen.”

When the change initiative is force fed from the top you may see compliance, but rarely will you experience commitment. At the first time of trouble – when the pressure increases – we tend to rely on what we are most familiar. And lacking commitment, it is easy to fall back on our old habits.

Earlier this year I met with the owner of a large financial advisory firm. Recently clients have started to question the value of the firm’s services. Some had left. Others were negotiating lower fees. We both agreed that it was time to change the core business model, including the services clients received and the fees they were expected to pay.

Over the years the owner had attempted to do this. However, the discussions held with key employees usually ended in frustration. Now, he believed, it was time to “tell them what the changes are and they will do it.”
He is partially correct. Good professionals will usually follow direction. At least until there is resistance … or an opportunity for a better job. Either way, the changes will probably not last.

2. Do it yourself

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.–Albert Einstein

In most private companies the owner’s role is largely undefined. In time she may assume any high level job that needs doing, or low level job that needs filling. Naturally, then, owners believe they should be the one in the forefront of any change initiative.
They would be wrong.

Let’s look at this logically. The basic DNA of any privately owned business consists of the vision, influence, desire, drive, personality, strengths and weaknesses of its owner(s). These form the filter through which organizational change is viewed and the tactics that are used to bring it about.

A “motivational” owner will, therefore, seek to rally the troops toward a new set of goals and accomplishments. “Analytics” provide factual points, detailed reports and compelling arguments showing the importance of leaving one direction for another (unfortunately for most analytics there is never enough information to make a firm decision toward any new direction). “Drivers” will try to force everyone to change, using their personality and position to enforce compliance.

An outside expert not only brings a different perspective but the inertia and energy the change process needs to get started. In addition to the experience and insight you would expect, he should bring an element of leadership that builds trust and influences new behaviors.

In recent years I’ve been brought in as an “interim executive” to help guide a company’s change initiative. Working from “inside” the business as the CXO (let’s call it, in this case, the “Chief Change Officer”), I not only have the role (responsibility) but the position (authority) to work with leaders, managers and others to draft, design, execute and instill the changes needed to meet the challenges of the organization.

I bring a fresh perspective to long-standing problems. But as an “executive” I am expected to lead the change and support its lasting impact through training, guidance and encouragement.

3. Rely on your industry – only

A jury is a group of twelve people of average ignorance – Herbert Spencer

If you want your business to be average, make sure you never look beyond your industry and competition for insight into your organization. Let’s say, for example, you’re a partner in an engineering or architectural firm. Reading your professional journals and attending conferences will help, but if that’s all you do you will miss the breakthroughs taking place in other professional firms (financial advisory, accounting, legal and consulting).

Not long ago one of my friends left his early retirement to become the “interim” CEO of a large healthcare organization. He had been working on his golf game, trying to match the scores that I kept telling him I was shooting (I did NOT tell him that I was lying).

In recent years leading health providers have significantly improved their operations by borrowing heavily from the manufacturing industry. Since the “Toyota Way” was published, a growing number of manufacturing companies have used “lean thinking” to improve their performance and profits. The health service industry took note and looking beyond themselves started to adapt processes more aligned with building cars than repairing bodies.

They looked outside to improve within.

Surprisingly not every industry has followed their lead.

When working with professional service firms, it’s pretty common to adapt tenets of “lean manufacturing” to our client’s operations. While the principles are the same, the focus is re-directed from a finished product to the firm’s customers and their expectations.

The goal is to enhance the customer experience while increasing revenues and improving profits. Done successfully, the overall value of the firm rises. Shamelessly following the example of leading medical practices we have learned to improve within you should look outside of your industry.

4. Execute poorly … if at all

If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.–Gen. George Patton

Let’s assume you have successfully avoided the first three traps. Instead of a top-down solution you gained firm-wide support for the changes needed. You hired your brother-in-law, Barry, to help you. You downloaded, The Toyota Way to your iPad. There is still one important element that will drive or limit your success:
Unless people are trained and then held accountable for their actions nothing will get done.

Too often the bridge between great ideas and consistent execution is missing.

Last year I met with the leaders and producers of a professional firm. After another disappointing year, the firm’s owner had me assess their situation to see why they had stopped growing.

I spent a day interviewing leaders, producers and other members of the staff. After doing so I felt it was time for them to revisit their core practices and dramatically change their organization including their fee structure, service model, client service experience, hiring procedures, job descriptions, marketing, business development, regional influence, targeted audience, training and finally (since this would drive the behaviors holding the process together) the compensation model.

Put simply, they were a mess! And the mess was starting to take over.

There were, as you would expect, questions, particularly from the producers; those responsible for generating the firm’s income. To my surprise they weren’t resisting change, they were skeptical as to whether or not it would even come about.

For several years this group had been given annual production goals including the number of new clients they would obtain, the amount of revenues they would generate, their client service scores, etc. Then, twelve months later, they were all given raises, even though none of their goals had been met. The firm had created a culture in which accountability was an “idea” without substance.

In their minds, the change initiative would be the same.

To succeed, owners have to make certain the environmental factors that support performance are in place. Many fail. They don’t set clear expectations. They don’t give feedback. They don’t provide tools, resources and training. They don’t put incentives and consequences to guide behavior.

And finally, they do not make certain the people responsible for the changes have the skills and knowledge needed to excel.

The lessons

At some point in time your organization will need to change. Whether these changes occur over time, encompass your entire operation or are limited to a few areas your efforts will likely fail without commitment, without insight and without building a stable bridge of execution and accountability between your ideas and your results.

But with these, watch out. That future you have hoped for? Is closer than you think.

© Paul R. Brown, 2012 and beyond. All rights reserved.

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