Time for change Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2005
Change affects each and every one of us. Without it, individuals and businesses alike would remain stagnant. Of course, in the business world, change should not be instituted simply for the sake of change; there must be a clear strategy in place to accomplish a specific goal. It is also important to understand that change can be implemented more swiftly in some organizations’ cultures than others.

“The key,” says Don St. Clair, vice president for marketing and adjunct faculty member of organizational leadership at Woodbury University, “is you really have to know your organization. Organizations are living, breathing entities and they all have different personalities and propensities to absorb change.”

St. Clair spoke with Smart Business about how change should be communicated to employees, the importance of acting swiftly yet compassionately and how organizational change can lead to innovation.

What are the basic principles of organizational change?
I think of three things: the change should be intentional and purposeful, it needs to be well-planned and it needs to be well-communicated. Members of an organization should be afforded the opportunity to understand what’s happening, why it’s happened and how it’s going to happen. That really creates the best opportunity for the acceptance of change, and hopefully buy-in. We want people to accept the change as a minimum and what we’re really hoping for is for people to embrace the change.

How should a business owner communicate to his/her employees that there will be an organizational change?
Very directly, first of all. We hear that information is power, but information is also medicine. The more organization members know, the more they are able to process, reconcile and embrace what’s happening.

They need to understand the necessity of change and the benefits of change, or the consequences of not changing. And we can’t just say it once. Think of it as a good advertising campaign: you have to hear a marketing message, depending on whom you ask, seven to 12 times before you really get it. It’s the same thing with communications in a change situation. People have to hear repeatedly what’s happening, why it’s happening and how it’s going to affect them.

The other thing is that the minute change begins, rumor begins. The only way to mitigate rumor is to continue telling the truth so that people are able to hear what’s really happening and recognize rumor for what it is.

How important is it for employees to feel like they have a defined purpose and role to play in the change?
It’s vital. The first human reaction whether it’s from the oldest, most senior staff member or the newest, most junior staff member is, ‘How does this affect me?’ Buy-in or acceptance is more likely to occur if organization members understand their role.

Change is stressful, so understanding how one fits into change reduces that stress. In some cases change has an adverse effect on an organization member. That organization member’s role may change in a way that they’re not comfortable with or their role may be eliminated.

When change is going to have an adverse impact on members of the organization then that has to implemented very swiftly and very compassionately.

It has to be done in a forthright and honest manner because other people in the organization are going to be watching how you treat the people who are coming out on the short end of this change stick. They’re going to know in their hearts that if they’re ever on the short end that’s how they’re going to be treated. That’s going to impact their morale, loyalty and productivity to the organization.

Once a change is in place, how can a business owner measure its effectiveness?
Metrics need to be established up front, before the change is implemented. You need to identify why you’re making the change, identify the outcomes you want and how those outcomes can be measured.

Those outcomes may take many different forms. It can be productivity improvement, customer-service improvement, cost-structure improvement — the list of potential benefits from a given change is endless. More qualitative outcomes like improvements to morale or teamwork are much harder to measure. Outcomes of qualitative nature really require the executive to be in touch with his or her organization in a very personal way.

The key is to identify your desired outcomes in advance, determine how they’ll be measured, set a time frame for when you’re going to measure and then just do it. There will be different metrics and different measurements depending on the organization and the situation.

How can organizational change lead to increased innovation?
Increased innovation must be the purpose for the change. If that’s the case, you’re going to want to engineer change designed to open creativity and encourage experimentation in your organization. Innovation tends to come from consistent effort, constant questioning and the willingness to make mistakes. Careless mistakes can’t be tolerated, but the only way to never fail is to never try. So a company with a never-fail culture will find it very difficult to innovate.

Collaboration is very important to a healthy organization. Bringing divergent views of a problem or market opportunity is a good way to seed innovation. However, when collaboration requires consensus building, innovation may suffer. At some point innovation requires decisive action.

Don St. Clair is vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Woodbury University. He is responsible for the recruitment of students and overall university marketing. He also teaches teaches regularly in Woodbury’s innovative Masters in Organizational Leadership program. Reach St. Clair at don.stclair@woodbury.edu.