John R. Schultz | March/April 2011 | 21 | 2
Achieving smooth sailing and sustainable improvements
Improvement is about change. At some point, the innovative answers that were discovered during problem solving need to become part of daily routines and locked in place so newfound solutions do not revert to the old, less productive habits.
Whenever a work situation is altered, people’s feelings are involved. The issues are both technical and emotional. Even though the status quo is flawed and difficult, stakeholders have figured out how to make it work. The helpful routines that enable coping with existing difficulties provide a sense of comfort and stability. So, when serviceable practices are threatened by change, people can become fearful and exhibit defensive behaviors.
Problem solvers are baffled by the reluctance of coworkers and stakeholders to enthusiastically embrace suggested upgrades. The reactions displayed appear as brooding, quarreling, and questioning and result in reduced cooperation, declining output, and sometimes outright expressions of hostility. Nevertheless, those initiating improvement shrug off these signs and chalk them up to the notion that people naturally resist change. Then, they press on without regard for the feelings of the workers.
Problem solving is a two-step progression that includes both problem resolution and solution implementation. Often the challenges encountered during implementation are not handled with the same rigor as complexities experienced during resolution. For example, when applying problem solving strategies, challenges are readily and enthusiastically tackled during the first stage. Problem solvers excited by their triumphs during problem resolution are full of confidence and eager to continue—but they end up undercutting the effort by rushing to conclude remaining implementation activities.
By not taking sufficient time to consider stakeholder needs, well-intended solutions may not find traction as participants come to grips with new and unfamiliar concepts. People who manage and work in the system being changed can become grousing skeptics, procrastinators, and even active resistors. Due to frustration, improvements languish without having a lasting impact. The result is a resolution—a change—that becomes someone else’s problem later on as the revised system slowly reverts back to its original state.
Lackluster solution implementation frequently occurs when one or more of the following conditions exist:
- Time is a factor, and there is a rush to conclude remaining activities.
- Finding a solution becomes the objective, while implementation steps get shortchanged.
- Energy is exhausted on solution-finding activities.
- Project sponsors, concerned about costs, are anxious to conclude events once a solution is found.
- Solutions are pushed upon the system without thinking about effects on people and processes.
- Activities that will make solutions a permanent part of daily work are poorly planned and hastily integrated into new practices.
When any of these situations are in play, this in turn invites others to question the worth of problem solving and the effort spent on improvement. Uncertainty opens the way to counterclaims and opposing actions that can overwhelm and eventually sink a well-intended and meaningful endeavor.
People confronted by new circumstances frequently experience grief and will go through a distinct conversion process before taking on their new roles. The length of time at each stage varies depending on the situation, the type of support, and individual flexibility. Each juncture has its own set of recognizable characteristics. Accepting and understanding these stages will provide an opportunity for the problem solvers—as agents of improvement—to reduce resistance and move forward.
In Understanding Organizational Change
, Lynn Fossum says people experience the following behavior patterns upon encountering situation-altering events:
- Indifference involves belief that a proposed change makes no difference at all and that nothing new is really going to take place. Or, if something does change, individual interests will be resolved. As a result, work continues as usual.
- opposition occurs when people realize the old way of doing things will not work and new rules apply. There is an active push back to maintain old and familiar routines.
- Consideration happens as people recognize that changes are starting to affect the work. Adaptations are required to reduce confusion. By modifying and tailoring processes, some things begin to function better.
- Cooperation describes a new process beginning to exhibit some successes. Workgroups see results, and skeptics and cynics are proven wrong—and thus leave or buy in.
Not everyone will have the same perceptions or exhibit the same behaviors. As a result, the transition effort will call for situational management techniques to shift workgroups toward the completion of implementation activities. Situational management is an adaptive approach based on studies about leadership styles. While managing the activities of realization and implementation, the agents for change are in a leadership position. Sponsors and stakeholders will look to these individuals for direction and expect results. A successful outcome often is the product of organizing and adapting actions based on situational factors.
Authors Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard suggest in their book Management of Organizational Behavior that the interplay between certain factors determines which leadership approach will be effective in a particular situation. Task behavior illustrates the amount of control a leader maintains when giving direction and guidance toward the accomplishment of tasks and goals. A high-task leader maintains tight control while demanding accountability toward the realization of goals without granting much authority. A low-task leader shares accountability bygranting authority and responsibility toward the fulfillment of goals.
Relationship behavior shows the extent to which a leader is likely to build personal relationships with coworkers and stakeholders. A high-relationship leader maintains open communication, supports coworkers and stakeholders with coaching and mentoring, and is personally involved with assuring individual success. At the other end of the spectrum, a low-relationship leader trusts worker abilities, empowers others, and intervenes only when necessary.
Workgroup maturity is the ability and willingness of people to take responsibility for directing their own actions and behaviors toward achieving organizational and work goals. An immature workgroup lacks ability, is insecure, and requires considerable direction and motivation to accomplish tasks. A mature workgroup is highly capable, confident, and willing to take responsibility toward results. Minimum support and direction are required. Confronted with changing contingencies, effective leadership should vary tactics according to the situation.
For example, if the workgroup is able, competent, and confident, this situation requires behaviors that allow for self-determination, support group decision making and goal setting, and provide minimal feedback. Conversely, an immature workgroup—one that lacks ability, is insecure, and is reluctant to take responsibility for actions—necessitates a leadership style that provides well-defined goals and methods, gives explicit direction, and encourages skill building.
In addition, there are clear implications for helping people adapt to change: Individuals who are still in denial or opposing improvements will require considerable information and direction; those who have moved toward consideration and are showing some adaptability will respond to approaches that strengthen skills and build relationships; and, lastly, people who have matured and achieved buy-in will respond to practices that shore up self-determination.
Finally, when there is resistance to a proposed improvement, it is a signal that something may have been missed. Mistakes may have been made, concerns may not have been satisfactorily handled, or the proposal may not have been adequately presented and thus may have been misunderstood. Remember: The choice of responses is dependent on the personal perspectives of the individuals involved and the challenges encountered.
Lasting improvement is the result of systematic thinking that treats problem resolution and solution implementation as two essential parts of a continuing process. To be effective, problem solvers must complete all steps in the problem solving model and consider how stages interact to bring about change. People implementing improvement should not let pressure undermine the progressive and multistage effort.
A well-designed solution does not guarantee system improvement. Consideration and purposeful action are essential. The following factors are important to keep in mind:
The goal of problem solving is to fix the gap between current and desired performance. In order to create new efficiencies, the system requires modifications that alter both the flow of work and the deployment of labor. Likewise, the mind-set of many individuals will have to undergo change so new routines are accommodated and ultimately become the accepted reality.
- System issues are not resolved until improvements are successfully implemented.
- Stakeholder values and self image— not just processes—are affected.
- Stakeholder needs and feelings will require consideration and accommodation in order to make alterations permanent. System change is contingent upon individual change.
- Individual change is multistepped and dependent upon a person’s ability to make coping adjustments.
- Improvement activities that are planned and sequenced to facilitate coping have greater acceptance and a better chance of producing permanent solutions.
Corrective actions such as problem resolution require a set of well-planned and well-managed steps. The difficult job of shifting attitudes is much easier when using clearly defined actions to alter traditions. With that in mind, the following is a model for improvement and change that bridges the gap between problem resolution and solution implementation.
Step 1: Create awareness. Before improvements can be made, people need to have a reason to make them. They must be motivated—particularly if the current way of operating is comfortable and reasonably effective. No one wants to take a chance when status, competence, relationships, and compensation might be at risk.
Explain the need for improvements. Define why they are needed, and then cut through complacency so stakeholders understand why they’re moving in a new direction. Communicate a unifying purpose. Develop a central theme that people can rally around, and create a sense of urgency so those influenced by change are ready to take a chance on something different. Finally, identify the formal and informal networks in the organization and ensure participation. The voices of diverse workgroups must be heard, and affected individuals must be active in completing the transition.
Step 2: Make a plan. Very little happens until there is specific action to nail down events that can be used to move the current situation toward a defined future. Planning facilitates and manages the details of getting from one place to another. Careful preparation will coordinate and align the change agent’s effort. It is the first step toward determining how to achieve a desired end.
Make a plan for action that illustrates how to get from the current to the desired state. Determine constraints, decide what steps should be taken, assign responsibility, and estimate completion dates. Then, create an opportunity for small but meaningful gains. Break the plan into significant chunks so people are willing to take risks and can readily measure progress.
Step 3: Modify and improve. Change is a process requiring both physical and mental adaptation. While the environment and the structures that support it are being altered, individuals will have to adjust their attitudes and behaviors. This happens as a result of learning, creating a situation where new skills and responses are developed through training or trial and error.
Empower people to take action. Give problem solvers and affected workgroups the authority to make changes and accept responsibility for decisions. Provide training, and make sure people are capable of operating in the new environment. Manage resistance to system improvement by understanding how coworkers may react to change, and develop strategies for helping those who are dragging their feet.
Step 4: Standardize and sustain. At some point, the process being changed will have to be stabilized. However, actions that have been designed to alter attitudes and behaviors can fail once the effects of training have been deadened by time. This can happen because the new routines have not been fully integrated and locked in place.
Complete the restructuring of daily activities. Eliminate the old networks and relationships, and build new ones. Reconfigure communication networks, and align them with the new patterns for getting work done. Keep people on track, maintain faithfulness to purpose, and coordinate and integrate unfinished activities.
Sustain improvements by documenting revised activities. Measure and monitor both system and workgroup effectiveness to make sure they performing as intended. Initiate problem solving if output falls below anticipated expectations. Acknowledge and recognize accomplishments.
Keeping it together
The goal of improvement and change should reach beyond problem resolution; rather, the focus should include actions designed to sustain improvement and anchor change. Successful problem solving and improvement require more than the discovery of a workable solution. Ultimately, the results need to become part of daily routines and solidified so newfound practices don’t revert to familiar, less-productive habits. Using a well-defined set of action steps during the solution implementation phase of change will assure standardized results.
John Schultz has taught for more than 20 years and has 25 years of experience as a consultant, technical services manager, and product development engineer. He was a program director overseeing an advanced technical certificate program in quality management, is the author of many magazine and journal articles, and recently published a book on organizational change. Schultz may be contacted at email@example.com.