Change: A Pay-Now or Pay-Later Proposition

By Eric Hansen

Tuesday, May 12th 2015

The art and science of change management has been a focus in business literature and for business leaders for many decades, and rightly so. However, as the pace of technological, economic, and social change has picked up, the language used to address the issues associated with change management have become more nuanced. The term “management” now connotes a level of reactivity and a sense of being “old school.” 

Instead, recent writings use more proactive language, coupling “change” with “readiness” or “agility” to signal that different capability is needed for businesses to thrive in our highly dynamic marketplace.  These words suggest that rather than waiting for the next change to emerge, leaders must take a proactive posture. They reinforce the idea that to thrive, organizations must seek out change opportunities and bolster their ability to continually identify, initiate, and deftly adapt to presenting opportunities in order to create advantage, minimize risk, and accelerate performance results. 

Regardless of your organization’s posture toward change, there is one central variable that remains constant, and it is on this hinge that the sweeping gate of change swings or sticks. Sustainable change of any kind, even when rationally, economically, technologically, or socially justified, ultimately succeeds only if the people impacted actually behave differently. Getting them to behave differently requires an investment in building stakeholders’ understanding, shaping their attitudes, and investing in the development of their skills to succeed in the new reality. All of the orchestration and hard work must ultimately build toward the crescendo that Malcolm Gladwell defined for us:  “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”[i] 

Unfortunately, we have worked with too many executives whose desire for change surpassed their understanding of what was required or exceeds their willingness to expend the needed resources to realize it. Too frequently, these leaders will have worked covertly to architect some change, only to be surprised and disappointed when their proposal, finally revealed, wasn’t adopted immediately—or even eventually. From this evidence we conclude that effective change is always either a pay-now or a pay-later proposition. You can choose who becomes involved and when, but you must never forget that the change piper must always be paid. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with creating needed change in isolation; however, you must acknowledge that under those conditions only the relatively few who were involved in defining the desired change have any understanding or commitment to it. Therefore, success demands that an investment to build understanding and adoption of the change take place after the fact if the intended change is to be effectively implemented and embraced. Alternatively, when the level of involvement is initially broadened and the expenditure of resources to initiate change is undertaken simultaneously to define the needed change, we find that both the quality of the proposed change and the rate of successful implementation and adoption are remarkably higher.

Over the years we’ve led many projects to design and implement both large- and small-scale changes in businesses, using each of the four options identified above.  Each is useful within a specific set of circumstances and with the recognition of its respective benefits and limitations. Our purpose is not to declare which is best, but to emphasize that how and when you involve stakeholders in the change you desire also defines the timing and degree of effort required to realize the full benefit of your intentions; but remember that whichever you choose defines the payment terms.

Leading change is a critical competency for individual leaders to acquire and an even more vital capability for organizations to develop and exploit. Without the ability to effectively adapt, an organization lacks the means for self-preservation and the ability to thrive in the longer term. Truly change-agile or change-ready organizations are those in which leaders engage employees to help positively shape a set of opportunities and the means for realizing future individual successes, while ultimately setting the stage for full adoption of needed changes and the realization of collective success. 




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