Sunday 11 August 2013

With constant change and uncertainty isn’t it more important to take employee feedback when undertaking top-driven organisational change initiatives?

Human desire to be faster and better has led to an exponential rate of change and regular obsolescence of products/services. In fact, the faster change comes, the harder it is to predict the future.

A rational response from an organisation is to undertake change initiatives to bring alignment to the new (and dynamic) reality. My perspective is that the assumption that an organisation can peg its change strategy upfront and execute it mechanically in the hope that it will deliver dividends as per plan is corporate hara-kiri. The need is for more flexibility and more planning for contingencies. Otherwise, change happens to organisations instead of organisations being on the forefront of change.” Given that there is a common rule of thumb that 70% of all change efforts fail there is a need to look at this from another angle.

One of the behavioural patterns that I have noticed with organisational change initiatives during times of change is that the pace and context is usually top driven and directive in nature. My experience of organisational change is that most organisations place a premium upon 'directive leadership' or ‘telling’ (a style of influencing behaviour identified in the situational leadership model) style as leaders have to enforce specific steps. This change in style by a leader is viewed as temporary or transient (in line with various adaptive/situational leadership models for leadership styles), which I consider as an incorrect and flawed assumption given what we know about on-going waves of change (particularly in the IT industry where I make a 'risky' living!).
For me a 'directive' or ‘telling’ leadership style complicates the strategy enactment cycle as it is not conducive for incorporating corrective feedback as the organisational change is being undertaken. Ask any middle-manager who has attempted to explain to his leadership why the execution of a particular strategy may not deliver the necessary dividend based upon their (the middle-manager’s) in-depth knowledge of what really happens when strategy gets enacted in the field. 'Directive' or ‘telling’ leadership style works on the basis of black or white. There is no grey area, whereas middle-management spends its entire existence tackling the grey at the coal-face where strategy is being enacted! 
The only change strategy is a dynamic one when faced with constant change! In fact, strategy literature refers to emergent strategy, which is identified as “as the process of identifying unexpected outcomes from the execution of corporate strategy and then learning to integrate those unexpected outcomes into future corporate plans.” Irrespective of the taxonomy the simple point being made is that emergent strategy implies flexibility and the need for more ‘sense-making’ by an organisation. To me the simplistic parallel is the old adage Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. 
Emergent strategies are usually not visible to the ‘deliberate strategists’ or 'directive' or 'telling' leaders who devised the strategy or are orchestrating the organisational change initiative. It is typically picked up by middle-managers and others who are not burdened by the desire to be proven right or are not emotionally attached to the strategy that was drawn up. [Remember that most organisational change programmes come attached with a job insecurity tag for the leader tasked with enforcing it! It better be successful or else.....].
Corporate 'servitude' over nearly two decades has taught me to listen to my people (‘the employees’) very carefully as they are typically the first ones to pick up that something is wrong in the market as well as tell you what is wrong with your strategy and why the change expected is not materialising. I spend a lot of time walking around and listening. I solicit advice and input without formality or decorum. This means that I am constantly course correcting or re-setting my perspective on the strategy by being close to the field where the real tactical i.e. tacit knowledge resides. Tacit knowledge is referred to as know-how and refers to intuitive, hard to define knowledge that is largely experience based. Because of this, tacit knowledge is often context dependent and personal in nature. It is hard to communicate and deeply rooted in action, commitment, and involvement. Its absence is typically detrimental to strategy implementation, however, deliberate strategy and organisational change initiatives are usually based upon explicit knowledge, which is formalised and codified, and is sometimes referred to as know-what. It is therefore fairly easy to identify, store, and retrieve. Isn't it problematic to design strategy and change largely on explicit knowledge?
An emergent strategy typically arises when deliberate or planned strategy fails to account for an assumption or an assumption fails to hold up. Most of these assumptions I have come to realise are based on explicit knowledge that could have been better understood or mitigated against if there had been a stronger focus on expecting an emergent strategy to appear while leadership was 'chasing' the expected or 'deliberate' strategy. 
Change strategy and related organisational change initiatives could have been validated or corrected if employees were also incorporated into the feedback mechanism either prior or during the change cycle. I concede that this is easier said than done as most 'directive' or 'telling' leaders would react to feedback as evidence of ‘resistance to change’. I am constantly surprised by leadership’s inability to know the difference between ‘resistance to change’ vs. potential to see an emergent strategy being identified that could lead to timely corrective action to save the change initiative from falling into the 70% failure statistic!
During times of organisational change 'directive' or 'telling' leaders put together change management programmes and use terms like management of change (MoC) abundantly. The use of this nomenclature creates a myopic frame of reference and also heightens sensitivity. There is truth in the adage that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail! i.e. leaders start viewing every query or question or feedback from middle management as evidence of bad-faith or active push-back or lack of alignment as that is what they have been trained or advised to look-out for!
I concede that there is a role for a leader during organisational change as most employees would not have access to the broader perspective and imperatives that the leader has but this should not be used to legitimise directive leadership technique but rather an opportunity to find means to bring in employee knowledge and understanding to ensure that organisational change effort succeeds.
I think it appropriate to close with this view-point from Robyn Benincasa -- “When you’re dealing with on-going challenges and changes, and you’re in uncharted territory with no means of knowing what comes next, no one can be expected to have all the answers or rule the team with an iron fist based solely on the title on their business card. It just doesn’t work for day-to-day operations. Sometimes a project is a long series of obstacles and opportunities coming at you at high speed, and you need every ounce of your collective hearts and minds and skill sets to get through it.”
I am not an academic in the area of organisational change but a practitioner who deals with it on a daily basis and the following would be three things I would want to get more clarity on as this has been bothering me for some time.
  • How could one answer the question in the title?
  • What techniques are available to incorporate employee feedback upfront and during an organisational change initiative?
  • How can one bring balance to the need for a 'directive' or 'telling' leader when the reality is that this style is not as temporal as it is deemed to be?
Please feel free to subscribe via email (use 'follow by email' feature on the right) and also share with others using the links/tools provided below. This is the best way for me to broaden my reach and increase my blog's visibility. Thanks in advance for your support.

1 comment:

  1. Well Written Deepak! details most points arising out of "changes impacting organisations". I think leaders at some point lose the balance of incorporating feedback into their strategy in their eagerness to move ahead fast in a big and complex organisation. I think it would be interesting to find out where these 70% failures take place, i bet these must be majority Fortune 500 companies.