Breaking lances, dying in ditches:
A survival guide for the international change manager
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The high failure rate of change management projects is well documented. One of the key reasons for this is the selection of change agents who are either temperamentally unsuited to their role or else inadequately trained for it.
The following article provides practical advice on five key dimensions of the change agent’s function (context, limits, role, audiences and messages) as well as an analysis of the six essential characteristic of the successful change agent.
KEYWORDS: Champion, context, role, limits, audiences, messages, cross-cultural
At a seminar held recently in Frankfurt, I asked how many of the delegates had been involved in a change management project. Seventy per cent put up their hands. I then inquired how many of them had been involved in a successful change management project. Not a single hand was raised.
The delegates – some twenty-five well-qualified young professionals working for international corporations – had come to the seminar to find out more about change management. They had also come with the latent assumption that change management is something which:
a) happens to you
b) doesn’t work
This is depressing. It is depressing for the change management specialist whose hard-won expertise encounters endemic scepticism; but it is also depressing for those young professionals who embark on their careers with the ingrained assumption that change is something terrible which could happen to them at any second.
The Frankfurt group – composed, incidentally, of alumni and students of City University’s MBA course – revealed some other interesting statistics. Some forty per cent of those present had been involved in more than three mergers in their brief careers. And of those few who had held the role of change agent, not a single one had undergone any form of training for the task.
This last statistic goes a long way to explaining why so many change programmes fail. There are many other reasons, of course, but this is a prime one: people who have been brought into a company to perform a specific operational role are all too often assigned an additional, transformational, one for which they lack both the natural aptitude and the specific training. This article attempts to redress the balance in some measure by outlining some of the classic challenges of international change management and suggesting practical solutions.
Rules for success
An extensive literature exists documenting the cultural codes appropriate for doing business in different parts of the globe. A great deal of this material can be very useful, and professionals preparing for an assignment abroad or for participation in an international team would be well advised to study the relevant titles.
This material should, however, be treated with a degree of caution. In the first place, not all intercultural guides are of equal quality, and in the second, mere familiarity with foreign mores does not of itself guarantee success in an unfamiliar context. While business partners from different cultures will always be pleased at your attempt to speak a few words of their language or demonstrate your conversance with their culture, it should never be forgotten that the prime object of the relationship is to do business with one another. And really successful international businesspeople have an ability to migrate between cultures, finding common ground with everyone with whom they come into contact.
For this reason, I shall dwell in this article not on specific cultural scenarios but rather on issues which go beyond individual cultures and are likely to be found in virtually any change management project, regardless of where it might be taking place. I shall also focus on the individual who has a responsibility for driving change in some capacity and attempt to offer some insights which might help make a hopelessly complex task into a clearly manageable one.
Whether you are in an in-house role or a consultancy capacity, there are five golden rules to bear in mind when attempting to implement change. These are:
- Know your context
- Know your role
- Know your limits
- Know your audiences
- Know your messages
These will be explored individually in the following.
Knowing your context
Change management is deeply contextual. The market situation of a company, or its regulatory environment, or its place in a technology chain engenders a situation which calls for transformation of some kind. Outside pressure mounts, and whatever form that pressure might take, it calls for change from within. The irony is that the situation is usually so distressing to those involved that they lose all sight of the context which triggered the change in the first place. The change process itself thus becomes the focus of attention, but because it cannot of itself effect an immediate remedy, it soon falls into disrepute. Within a short time a situation arises whereby people are asked to devote energies to something which is patently not working; they thus cease to invest effort in it. The failure is pre-programmed.
As a change agent – whether internal or external – it is thus vital to have an informed understanding of the context which is triggering change. Equally important is the ability to communicate that context and the strategic imperatives to which it gives rise.
An appreciation of the market, its structure and its evolution is thus essential. This involves understanding the organisation’s products and services as well as those its of competitors. More than this, however, it calls for an understanding of the technology which defines the market and of the key issues associated with that market. People will not be persuaded to change their attitudes and working practices merely because they are told that change is good for them. They need a clear rationale which relates the evolution of the wider world to what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of international change projects. A company which has operations in various countries, or which is merging with an organisation in a different country, will have a range of different cultural and market contexts which, for those working within them, represent the norm. Workers at a paper processing plant in Norway which is acquired by a US paper manufacturer – to give one fictive example for many - will have completely different expectations from those of their new bosses in the States. These will include fundamental notions concerning the employment relationship, the transmission of information and the role of consensus in management processes. They will also include deep-seated beliefs concerning the products sold, the processes employed to produce them, and the markets in which they are traded.
If neither side is educated to the basic assumptions of the other, then the two will work at cross purposes. The Americans will complain that they have a sullen and uncooperative workforce, while the Norwegians will insist that they are being run by cowboys: the result will be not transglobal collaboration but transglobal parochialism, with the narrow mindset of each party reinforced by the tension between them. This scenario is currently being reproduced all over the world as companies extend their global reach in order to protect market share.
Knowing your role
It is impossible to achieve anything without having a clear idea as to what you are attempting to achieve and why. In the context of change management, the need for understanding is pressing: when organisational objectives, values and relationships are being redefined, it is vital to understand what role you yourself play in that process of change, and to make that clear to those around you.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of role for the change agent. The first is visionary, and involves communicating the rationale for change and the strategic direction to be adopted by the organisation. Big-picture thinkers are frequently poor at detail, and the idealistic exhortations of corporate evangelists can prove counter-productive unless backed up by action. To be credible, then, the visionary needs the support of people who will help translate that vision into reality. He or she will not succeed by speeches alone – or, conversely, by assuming responsibility for implementing the ramified details of the plan. The visionary should inspire and delegate, ensuring that employees’ talents are put to best use while the organisation is kept on its new strategic course.
The second classic role is that of the catalyst. The catalyst is a person who makes things happen, either by personal magnetism or by the deployment of powerful processes, often by a combination of the two. This role is often adopted by external consultants. Driven by intellectual curiosity, independence of mind and a desire to achieve, many consultants have the mindset and approach to bring about a transformation within a company if deployed at the appropriate time and with the full support of the management. What they cannot and should not ever attempt to do, however, is to identify themselves with the company. Companies which ‘are run by consultants’ or which ‘have consultants crawling all over them’ are deeply unhappy places. The catalyst’s role is to engage with a problem, effect a specific reaction, and then disengage again. This is why this role is generally better performed by external rather than by internal staff, who tend to lack the detachment required to achieve a specific effect.
Finally there are the doers. These are the people who implement the process, putting the detail on the big picture. Without the commitment of these people, no change project can succeed. In an ideal world, all staff would be doers, eagerly implementing the new directives in search of redefined objectives. In reality, the doers who really wish to get involved in the nuts and bolts of the change project are few and far between. They have to have the confidence that they can deliver on the objectives of the project while still performing well in their ‘day job’, and they have to be prepared to improvise in the face of unexpected situations. One of the key tasks of senior management and external consultants running a change project is to identify, motivate and train and doers so that they are really equipped to perform the tasks necessary for the successful completion of the project.
Knowing your limits
Successful change is all about the appropriate assignation of objectives, resources and responsibilities. A key aspect for the change manager is thus an understanding of personal and professional limits.
Effective change agents tend to be outgoing, diplomatic and resilient. They focus on the work to be done and they deploy highly developed interpersonal and professional skills to get that work completed. This might mean very different things at different times, but an agent of change will probably find himself not just analysing and strategising but explaining, encouraging, persuading, supporting - and from time to time biting his tongue very hard. Change processes look beautiful in the form of Power Point presentations, but in reality they are always messy and confused, calling for considerable patience, tenacity and strength of mind.
It follows that people of a more introspective temperament are highly unsuited to the role of change agent. So are those who are naturally impatient, and also those who wish to take excessive control of those around them. A large number of change management projects fail because key roles in them are assigned to people with outstanding professional credentials but the wrong type of temperament for the task. Change agents have to be able to live with contradiction and uncertainty, maintaining at the same time a clear view of what ultimately needs to be done and what process must be employed to bring about that result.
Knowing your audience
In age in which we are all consumers of information as well as of goods, even the most conservative of organisations have come to recognise the necessity of developing a dialogue with their stakeholders. The understanding is that people have a right to know about things affecting them, and that they will make sure they find out if they are not informed in a proactive manner.
What is very often overlooked here, however, is the focus of the demand for information. When a merger or acquisition is looming, when a corporate restructuring is on the cards or a relocation to another site has been announced, people actually only want to know one thing: how this will affect them. The most informative of speeches and conference packs will fail entirely unless they speak to this most basic need. When planning the communication aspect of the change process, then – and this is something that should be planned from the very start – it is vital to map the data that has to be communicated against the audiences requiring it and simultaneously against those audience’s needs, expectations and anticipated frame of mind.
A successful communications programme will imagine the ideal reactions – from investors, customers, staff and so on – and work towards obtaining those reactions. The ideal reaction of a satisfied investor might, for instance, be ‘I have been fully informed of the company’s trading position, strategy and prospects and I am happy to continue to invest in it’, while that of the customer might be ‘I understand the reasons for the merger and the advantages it will bring me, so I shall continue to purchase from this company.’ An organisation’s stakeholder audiences might extend to include local and virtual communities, regulatory bodies, NGOs, former employees, strategic partners and prospective customers and prospective recruits – all of them will need to be informed about the change process in a manner which speaks to their needs and makes them feel included. Not forgetting the media, who are both an audience with highly specialist needs and a channel for communicating with a range of audiences. Planned communication of this kind is not essentially complex or mysterious, but orchestrating it so that the vote goes the right way at the annual general meeting and the Financial Times covers the story the next day is a high art.
Knowing your message
Knowing your audiences will not further your cause, however, unless you are completely clear about the messages which you are trying to convey to them. Here again, the secret is not in arcane complexity but rather in clarity, consistency and coherence. It is important here to stress that the messages which will require communicating in the course of a change programme will not be merely verbal in form. We communicate by nature, and even non-communication is a form of communication. Thus the entire manner in which a programme is conceived, planned and implemented says something about it, and the bad impression created by high-handed management of staff or amateurish handling of analysts will not be rectified by a few glib statements in a press release.
For all the fact that we are living in the age of communication, there are still very few born communicators in any social grouping, and just as few born diplomats. A management team which thinks it can palm off a workforce with conventional corporate blandishments will very soon learn the speed at which goodwill can be destroyed, and will have plenty of time to reflect on how difficult it is to salvage it once lost.
The right team
This brings me to perhaps the most important point to be made about change programmes. All change programmes are fine until something goes wrong. The second something goes wrong, the entire programme will be called into disrepute, and it will be difficult if not impossible to restore belief in something which is perceived to be flawed.
In view of this, is impossible to overstress the importance of selecting appropriate people for the change team and ensuring that those people work together as a group to achieve objectives which can be understood, communicated, achieved, and measured.
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