Embracing change Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

Embracing change is never easy, and it’s even more of a challenge when a company is focused on continuous improvement.

But Ed Robinson, general manager, Southeast division at Definity Partners, says the best companies make ongoing change a priority.

“You have to be committed to driving change in your business; you can never rest and determine that you are where you need to be,” Robinson says. “Leadership must constantly push their people to get better, even after they’ve achieved heights they never thought possible.

“There’s no checklist out there that makes change sustainable. It has to become a mindset and a way of thinking in an organization.”

Smart Business spoke with Robinson about how to create a company culture that embraces continuous change.

Where do you begin to create a culture that embraces change?

The most important thing to realize about change, or continuous improvement, is that it’s a cultural shift. It’s not a project with a deadline or an initiative for one area of your business. Continuous improvement requires your entire team — everybody in your organization, from top to bottom — to embrace change and focus on driving improvements in your business. You cannot allow it to rest on the shoulders of one area or one person in your business.

The biggest constraint to change management is that most people view continuous improvement as a project, with a beginning and an end. The most successful change management initiatives succeed because they are part of a culture that focuses on identifying ways and opportunities to make the business better.

How important is it to get everyone involved in the process of change?

The major constraint at many companies is limiting the vision by not including all the people that work and impact the business. It is critical to get everyone involved. You have to have a communications system that allows people to bring up ideas. Many times, the employees assigned to implement improvements are unaware of all the problems that exist. Thus, you have to find ways to get the people who are involved in doing the work to communicate and work closely with the people who are making the improvements.

Communicate with everyone about what is going on and outline the opportunities to improve. Leadership should actively seek feedback from the different levels within the business, especially in formal settings like huddles and meetings. They also have to be out there talking with the people who are facing the challenges every day.

How do you overcome people’s natural resistance to change?

Overcoming resistance comes down to results. There are a lot of things you can do in the present to allow people to get that temporary buy-in. Ultimately, it comes down to delivering on what you say you are going to do — whether that is an improvement, a tangible number, or just a simple commitment that you’ve made to an employee. You must deliver results. Results are going to drive the momentum, and the impact of momentum on a business can be amazing.

On the flip side, if you don’t live up to what you say you’re going to do, you create an adverse effect. Employees quickly begin to feel a lack of empowerment. Too often, leaders are quick to react negatively to something that didn’t work out the way they wanted. The biggest obstacle to change is a fear of failure. You have to create a culture that is open to things not working out the first time.

Be committed to seeing things through and be careful about disciplining someone for not achieving results the first time. Eliminating that fear of failure allows people to try new things. People on the front lines and in non-leadership positions need to see that it’s OK to try new things. Those in leadership positions need to force themselves to be alright with people trying new things.

How do you get people to buy in to change?

Many companies implement change by trying to get people to buy in to their vision. Unfortunately, many people in the organization don’t share that vision or they struggle to see or fully understand the vision. If you’re looking to change, many times you have to start by communicating the behaviors you expect to see.

Take a clean workplace, for example. If you just go out and constantly preach about a clean workplace, many people may not share that same vision. Yet, if you identify key benefits of a clean workplace and work to develop complementary behaviors, people will start to see the value of changing behaviors on a daily basis. The team will eventually start to form the same value that you have.

Too often, companies attempt to get employees to share in a vision; instead, you need to start from the ground up and focus on driving the behaviors that support the vision.

Ed Robinson is general manager, Southeast division at Definity Partners. Reach him at erobinson@definitypartners.com or (404) 304-1292. For more information visit www.definitypartners.com.