“Change now impacts all organizations—and all employees—all of the time,” said Karen D. Walker, president of growth-oriented business consultancy Oneteam and author of the upcoming “No Dumbing Down: C-Suite Strategies to Support External Growth.”
The problem is that some organizations, and the humans who comprise them, are struggling with responding to change. To wit, 54% of C-suite executives polled by management consultancy A.T. Kearney said that having a corporate culture unable to embrace digital technologies was one of their biggest barriers.
“Digital transformation is not a technology problem—it’s a people problem,” said Jen Kelchner, co-founder of consultancy LDR21, which helps companies and individuals develop open mindsets. Traditional change management approaches focus on driving or implementing a change but do little to ensure that the change is sustainable.
“More often than not, managers assume that change will be resisted, and therefore change management is all about overcoming resistance,” said organizational psychologist Dr. Alison Eyring. “But this assumption does not tally with my [experience]. The primary need is not overcoming resistance but enabling and supporting people to adapt.”
To that end, there is an increasing appetite among digital business leaders for new or overlooked ways to help their organizations deal with change and support the flexibility required to embrace continuous transformation.
“The pace and magnitude of change has ballooned to the extent that it is causing more stress than ever,” said Wendy Quan, a veteran change management practitioner who started her own consultancy, The Calm Monkey, to help organizations provide mindfulness and meditation training for their workers. “Experienced practitioners are, indeed, seeking new, innovative, and effective ways to tackle constant change.”
Approach #1: Address Individual Responses
It has been said that there’s no such thing as organizational change. Rather, it happens one person at a time. That’s why traditional change management so often fails—it doesn’t factor the personal impact of change.
Some individuals are more welcoming of change than others. LDR21’s Kelchner has spent the past several years studying those patterns. Her company has developed the “human agility suite,” in use by beta customers, which categorizes individuals into eight change profiles. “None of them is an indication of change resistance per se,” Kelchner told CMO.com, “but it tells us what that person needs to step into the new.”
Some might naturally analyze or ask a lot of questions when confronted with a proposed change, for example. They need details and clarity to adapt. Corporate leaders can use the platform, which will be widely available next year, to enable self-assessment by employees and use the resulting data to analyze the composition of a team or look at individual contributors, divisions, or locations and determine how best to implement a cultural change.
Early results have been promising. “We’ve seen how dynamics have already shifted with our beta customers,” Kelchner said.
Approach #2: Embrace New Organizational Models
Julita Haber, clinical assistant professor of organizational behavior Fordham University, also cited a shift: “from traditional approaches of reducing [change] resistance to increase the adaptation of new ideas at work. Companies are expanding employee empowerment to embedding empowered teams into organic, more flexible organizational structures.”
Self-directed, team-based models can enable organizations to be more dynamic in response to frequent technology and market shifts. Some companies flatten their hierarchies or get rid of them altogether in favor of so-called holacractic structures in which governance is arranged by self-organizing teams, Haber told CMO.com.
Zappos is the most well-known halocracy, although a number of for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations around the globe have adopted the approach with the goal of increasing transparency, accountability, and organizational agility. Regularly updated roles replace rigid job descriptions. Distributed decision making supplants delegated authority. And smaller, faster iterations supersede big-bang implementations.
Open-source software maker Red Hat has embraced what its CEO calls the “open organization,” and launched a movement to evangelize the approach. It does not demand that companies abandon hierarchies but rather embrace a core set of principals around transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, collaboration, and community.
“There can be a measure of fear that goes along with the idea of an open organization. ‘What happens if I give my team control? Where is my value? Will this destroy everything I’ve worked to build?’” said Kelchner, an ambassador for Red Hat. “We’ve only been talking about these new organizational models for the last couple of years, but you can already see several big companies doing very well with more open, distributed models.”
Approach #3: Give Employees More Control
Going all in with a halocracy or an open organization won’t work for every company. But there are other ways to involve individuals in organizational change. Doing so not only results in better decisions, it increases employee commitment to the changes.
“Individual employees, C-suite to front-line, must be committed to the change and not merely compliant,” said Doug Ringer, an independent growth consultant who has worked with senior leaders at Honeywell, GE, and Schneider Electric, and author of “The Profit Imperative: Profitable Habits for Improving Organizational Performance.” “This provides the firm with the expertise of their employees, and the individuals’ commitment increases.”
It also heads off some of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that accompany top-down decisions. “Change is less threatening when there’s a feeling that ‘we’re all in this together,’” said Diane Domeyer, executive director of Robert Half’s digital, marketing, and creative staffing division The Creative Group. “Letting staff members share ownership and responsibility for the transition will help them feel more in control.”
CMOs and digital leaders should enable employee participation early and often, said Dick Axelrod, co-founder of the Axelrod Group and author of “Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations.” “Experiencing that your voice counts is different than feeling as if your voice counts,” he told CMO.com. Involving employees not only in the tactical decisions—the what’s and the how’s—but also in the strategic choices—the why’s—helps people find meaning in their work and the ways in which it changes, according to Axelrod.
“One of the most successful examples we’ve seen of organizational change was where the senior leadership team set the vision for a cultural shift within the company and agreed upon several non-negotiable tactics, but from there they empowered a cross-functional team of leaders and individual contributors to manage the project,” said Maura McCarthy, vice president of communication solutions with global engagement consultancy ITA Group. “It was incredibly difficult for the senior leadership team to let go at first, but all admitted that the more they let go, the more amazed they were by the results.”
Decisions were more creative, and the company was able to prevent some of the misalignment and resistance that it would typically discover downstream, McCarthy told CMO.com.
Approach #4: Help Employees Help Themselves
As digitization increases, so can cognitive overload. “Companies are expecting knowledge workers to [consume] exorbitant amounts of information without guidance on how to manage the rapid influx of learning,” Fordham’s Haber said. “The effort to keep up with knowledge expectations leads to stress.”
The Calm Monkey’s Quan first introduced mindfulness and meditation during an enterprise transformation. The percentage of participants rating their personal resiliency as low at the beginning of the project decreased from 40% to 2%, and those characterizing themselves as highly resilient increased by a factor of 600% to 72%.
Quan helps organizations including Google and the government of Dubai to introduce such programs. “If an organization is going to adapt itself to constant change, employees need tools to manage the psychological stress that comes with it,” she told CMO.com.
Quan uses change-specific meditations to help employees understand their perceptions about change, recognize those emotions and their behavioral impact, and learn how to mindfully choose their reactions. “It makes them realize how they are showing up at work, and what their critical role is in the success of the change organizationally,” Quan said. “This creates personal and organizational resiliency to constant change.”
It’s important that leaders understand the impact change—and frequent change—can have on the mind. “Your brain scans the environment for threats ten times more frequently than it does for rewards,” Axelrod said. “It comes as no surprise that when people encounter change processes based on the previously identified beliefs, their brains sound the alarm. The innovative, cooperative parts of the brain shut down.”
Not all employees will be interested in mindfulness or meditation—and may even further disengage, he added. But leaders can do other things that address the neuroscience of change, such as creating psychology safety for workers.
“Make it safe for people to speak their minds, even if it means identifying why the proposed change isn’t a good idea or why it won’t work,” Axelrod said. “This means listening for understanding rather than trying to convince people why your change process will work, and then incorporating ideas for improvement into your change process.”