How to ensure organizational alignment during large scale change

Every change or transformation project in which I have been involved has required different functional teams to change the way the work with each other. When they don’t adopt change effectively, they experience cross-functional dysfunction at an operational level. These organizations brought me in to help them overcome these issues.

I have found a simple approach to help organizations identify and resolve issues that might otherwise cause cross-functional dysfunction.

1. Identify each function that will be impacted by the change.
2. Identify a top operational leader within each of the functions identified in step 1.
3. Ask these leaders to identify the following as pre-work to a larger meeting:
a. Changes required in their organization based on their understanding of the change. These might be work process, policy, or people changes.
b. Changes they will need from their functional counterparts for them to successfully implement the change in their own function.
c. Impacts they will cause to their functional counterparts because of implementing the change.
4. Hold a meeting with these operational leaders to discuss their pre-work with their counterparts. Have someone document issues and solutions coming out of the discussion. These meetings are extremely powerful and can prevent problems later in the program.
5. Conduct follow-up meetings as needed to resolve all priority issues.
Each time I have employed this approach, the organization experiences greater success in driving their change. It is a simple, yet powerful approach to drive success.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to align on purpose and outcomes

One of my clients had a long history of failure in implementing change, particularly those related to technology. They had recently implemented a large HR and Finance system that failed when they decided to implement an organization-wide system that would impact almost every employee and every customer. As this system would run almost all the organization’s underlying operations, they had to be successful. Failure would put them out of business. They asked me to help them manage the change.

One of the first things I did was help the senior leadership team understand that this was not just a technology change. The technology implementation would cause almost all their business processes to change. This meant that people would now be required to connect with each other and work together in ways they had not previously. This change was more about culture than it was about technology. The senior team embraced this and began to align to the true purpose of the change.

As the change project proceeded, we met with the senior team every two weeks to help them engage with the project and intervene to resolve issues and risks where necessary. In a few meetings, we performed a “deep-dive” into the changes that were taking place within a function. These “deep-dives” focused on changes in work process and human interaction. We stopped talking as much about the technology. As a result, these senior leaders began going back to their own teams and talked about the change in different terms. They also became much more supportive of the change.

Ultimately, this project was successful, with the senior management team calling it one of the most successful projects in the history of the institution.

Every change is different, but I have found that there are a few common things leadership teams must do to align and drive successful change:
1. Identify the purpose of the change in business terms, or outcomes. How will the change improve market share, customer satisfaction, and the bottom line?
2. Relate the change to how it improves the employee experience, such as how it helps the working teams, or individual employees.
3. Get real about the implications of the change. The case above cites how a technology change was actually a cultural change. Think through the consequences of changes you are considering.
4. Together, identify how each leader and her function will support the change. Be clear on the role of each senior leader, and hold each other accountable to drive the change.
5. Hold regular status meetings to engage with the progress of the team, and visibly resolve issues preventing success.

Incorporating these three features into your change or transformation will significantly improve your chance of success.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to improve trust and increase healthy conflict

One of the principle causes of cross-functional dysfunction is a lack of trust and healthy conflict among senior leaders. One client who suffered from the effects of this did not have the right forums in place to encourage interaction. Mistrust was high, and people “tip-toed” around each other. Conflict was considered inappropriate. Change initiatives failed regularly; one failed change initiative disabled a manufacturing division for several weeks. They called me in to help them drive greater success.

We implemented two councils to help them drive greater accountability for change. The first council was a regular meeting of senior leaders to monitor the progress of the change and interact to resolve conflicts the change team brought to them. Time didn’t allow for trust-building sessions; we dove in and facilitated their interaction to have dialog in ways they were not accustomed. The common goal was a looming deadline.

The second council was a group of lower level managers who would ultimately be responsible for implementing and institutionalizing the change. The first meeting or two were rocky – they also were not accustomed to working in this way. After a few meetings, they began to interact and experience the give-and-take necessary to be successful.

With another client, we had more time to build the leadership team. This was a newly formed senior leadership team who had not worked together previously. Trust was low primarily because they had not worked together, and healthy conflict didn’t exist. They asked me to help them develop a stronger leadership culture.

We held two workshops with focused, facilitated exercises to increase trust among team members. We used Myers-Briggs to help team members understand how each other approached their work. We conducted real-world exercises to help them engage more effectively in healthy conflict. Within 60 days, people outside the organization commented on how the team appeared more aligned.

Call to action:
-As in the first example, you may not have time to conduct team effectiveness sessions. Identify a common goal, such as a looming deadline, and call on your team to work together to solve problems standing in the way of success.
-As my mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Use it to drive a culture of healthy conflict. This will require you to call out harmful behavior, avoidance, and obfuscation.
-Build team development time into your agenda. Use this time to work on trust and conflict issues. Perform candid health checks, “how are we doing?”
-Reinforce trust and healthy conflict during your one-on-one meetings with your team. When one of them begins complaining about another, challenge them to take it directly to their peer.
-During team meetings, balance the agenda by providing time for healthy conflict. Allow members to disagree with each other, but watch for over-advocacy and grandstanding. You may not resolve the conflict in one meeting – this can be good to give members time to consider other positions.

When your top leadership team trusts one another enough to engage in healthy conflict, this enables greater alignment, which in turn helps employees see more clearly the future state, and eliminates cross-functional dysfunction

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to identify and resolve cross-functional dysfunction.

Early in my career at Whirlpool, I was asked to revive an underperforming electronic commerce team. The team had several issues. Among the largest issues was a lack of understanding of how other parts of the company had to work together to create successful solutions. For example, to be successful in helping the company provide invoices to customers, order processing, distribution and accounts receivable had to work together in new and different ways. Helping them see this was a challenge. I dubbed this challenge “cross-functional dysfunction.”

Over time, and with the help of colleagues, we provided more effective solutions and eliminated most of the operational dysfunction that existed between various functions.

This is an operational example of cross-functional dysfunction and is relatively easy to identify. Elements that lead to this dysfunction can be harder to identify. If senior leaders are not aligned, or if their behaviors prevent them from becoming aligned, then it will be more difficult to identify and resolve cross-functional dysfunction.

It starts at the top. Senior leaders must be able to trust one another enough to enter healthy conflict, challenge each other, and hold one another accountable. Then they need to align on the purpose of change and on the intended outcomes. Next, they engaged lower levels of the organization to understand how the various functions impact each other. Finally, they must do this early in the change program so front-line managers and employees have a clear understanding of the change and how they need to implement it.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore these remedies in more detail. This will help you identify cross-functional dysfunction in your organization, and more importantly, help you resolve it.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to engage employees in meaningful dialog

One of my clients is a large pharmaceutical firm. Over the last 3 years, they have embarked on a journey to establish a new US Medical Affairs unit, an organization of about 350 employees brought together from other parts of the company. About half of this team is located in remote offices. These “field” employees had some of the lowest engagement scores in the company and had one of the highest attrition rates – almost twice that of accepted industry norms.

My team was asked to assist in several areas, including leadership development, communication, and employee engagement. One of the programs we instituted was a regular lunch or dinner meeting between one or two senior leaders and a handful of employees selected by the senior staff. The program, dubbed “Food for Thought,” was a structured opportunity for the employees to share feedback, issues, and concerns about pre-selected topics. Topics included understanding the impact of the change to the new organization, cross-functional operating issues, and working together more effectively.

Corporate office employees were easily scheduled for a lunch meetings. Field employees participated when they met for other group events; someone from the senior leadership team would have dinner with them during their event. We facilitated the first few of these.

The VP of the unit at the time, Michael Robinson, said this was one of the most useful programs in which he had ever engaged. “Hearing from front-line employees gave me more insight about how to lead my team in 90 minutes than I received in other ways during any given month. These connections to the employees clearly enabled me to be a better leader.”

Other results? Between 2015 and 2016 the field team increased engagement scores by 35% and reduced attrition by more than half, bringing it within industry standards.

There is a variety of methods you can use to connect with and obtain feedback from your employees. Food for Thought was a creative and low-cost method this leadership team used during a time of notable change.

Call to action:
1. When driving a change program, identify the impact on your front-line employees. As a senior leader, you’ll likely focus on cultural changes, such as how employees will work together more effectively.
2. Determine the best approach for your team. Meal time meetings, focus groups, department or work group meetings, and town hall gatherings are among those most often used.
3. Select a cross section of your organization’s employees to attend. Mixing groups is often an excellent idea to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas.
4. Have an agenda, facilitate to keep the meeting on-track and avoid it becoming a gripe session. It’s useful to have an external facilitator to keep things on track.
5. As you hold these meetings, develop a sense of trust and speak with candor. Authenticity is paramount. If employees sense any degree of patronization, you’ll lose credibility.
6. Follow up. If you accept action items from these meetings, you absolutely need to follow through and respond back.

Whether you use a format like Food for Thought, or some other mechanism, gathering meaningful employee feedback during change is a simple and effective way to increase engagement which in turn drives greater institutionalization of the change, and adds significant value as a result.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to make change fun

One of my clients hosted a cooking class for her leadership team the evening before we had a one-day off-site meeting. After we learned how to prepare food in new and more productive ways, we enjoyed the results of our new found skills.  I learned how to dice onions a new, safer and more productive way with fewer tears.

Why is it that we don’t often equate work with fun? In the case of the team mentioned above, the evening’s events served to bring people closer together. We disarmed potentially disruptive perceptions by giving people the chance to learn more about each other. The next day, we had a good meeting that accomplished all its goals and ended early. Who doesn’t want an all-day meeting to end early, especially if you have achieved all of your goals.

Because I am a practitioner focused on pragmatic solutions, I won’t dive into the psychology and science behind fun at work, but I will share a few tips that I have found useful.
1. Don’t wait until the end to celebrate
2. Let employees decide what they’d like to do
3. Give back to the community
4. Interaction is key
Do it now: Often I see leaders host a huge celebration dinner at the close of a project. While well intended, this alone is not sufficient. When driving a significant change, people need to learn to work together in new and different ways. Use a social event early in the program for people to meet one another and learn about each other. Later in the timeline when they start running into issues, they’ll have a personal relationship to reference. This gives employees other resources and makes it less likely they’ll assign blame and more likely they’ll cooperate with one another.

Let them decide: Within budgetary and company guidelines, allow employees to determine the activities they’d prefer. Ask for a volunteer committee to determine the venue and plan the event. I rarely see anyone turn down an opportunity like this, and it relieves you of the task. Give them access to your assistant to help with things he might be better equipped to handle – like purchase orders or scheduling.

Community support: Some of the most successful events are those where the group gives back. Twice my group helped prepare a Habitat for Humanity house. Another time, my team did landscaping for a non-profit social support group. In these cases, we went away feeling like we contributed to a greater cause, and in the process reaped all the other benefits outlined in this post.

Interaction: Dinners are nice and food is essential to maintain life, but I rarely find large group dinners to have the impact necessary to bring people together. Meals are an easy venue if the group is 2-4 people. This paves the way for lots of verbal interaction. My experience, though, is that when you are engaged in something interactive, you learn how other people approach work, solve problems, and simply interact. One client team did ice sculptures the night before our full day meeting. I learned how people on this team approached problems and interacted with each other to build something.

Having fun while driving change is important. It brings people together. It helps them learn about each other. It helps them learn how to work together. And it’s all done outside of the office where mistakes cost much less to resolve. Leaders I work with now ask for these features in their change programs, which we define in my Activate program. Click to learn more.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

p.s. Looking for more wisdom in the art of strategic change? Check out another expert, Jeff Skipper.

How to turn resistance into a positive force for change

“This project will be a failure, and we want no part of it.” – Statement by the head of a union representing 85% of the stakeholders in one client’s major transformation.

I love a challenge. In this case, we absolutely needed this group to be successful. The project sponsors and I determined how we were going to engage this group, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We formulated a simple but effective strategy:

1. Listen to their concerns
2. Resolve their issues
3. Describe the need for their engagement, and then engage them in the change
4. Hold them accountable

Listen: Advocacy of a change is important to help employees hear how things will be different. Inquiring of them what they see as obstacles is also important. When leaders listen to their employees, they provide a forum where employees feel more valued. If you haven’t done this in a while, at first it might seem like a forum for whining. Over time as you listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, “whining” will give way to constructive thought and dialog.

Resolve: Listening is great, but if you don’t resolve concerns, over time you will lose credibility. My advice to leaders? Don’t be overwhelmed by this. Every question that comes your way won’t result in a major project. Few if any do. Most can be addressed immediately. Some might require research and/or delegation. Do it. Your credibility will go way up.

Engage: Few things are more powerful than telling an employee, or group of employees, that you need their help for the organization to be successful. This coupled with a pragmatic approach to involving them can have a huge impact on the success of the change. It can also have a huge impact on the long-term institutionalization of the change. If the front-line is involved in driving the change, they’ll be more likely to make sure it lives long after implementation.

Accountability: This is where the need for structure meets the need for behavioral engagement. It’s critical for senior leaders to hold employees accountable to deliver and sustain the change. Project plans, progress reports, and metrics help monitor this. Use them.

Leaders galvanize their team when they listen with intent, resolve with sincerity, engage with purpose and hold employees accountable. Learn more about managing resistance to change by participating in my Activate program. Click to learn more.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to cooperate with your front-line to drive successful change

“I told them once, didn’t they get it?”

These words will forever ring in my ears as a textbook example of an executive who doesn’t understand how to effectively lead change. The underlying issue facing this change: the leader failed to engage his front-line to successfully drive a major transformation. Ultimately it failed to produce the intended results.

From a front-line employee perspective:
1. They didn’t understand how the change would add value to the organization
2. They didn’t know how to work differently to affect the change
3. They didn’t understand their role to communicate with other stakeholders

Let’s turn these statements around. Effective transformational leaders engage the front-line to help drive the change. They do this by a), clearly articulating the business case for the change (or the purpose), by b), helping employees understand how they will work differently, and c), enlist them as advocates for change throughout the organization.

Purpose: A leader starts by clearly articulating the transformation’s clear purpose and benefits, and then relates these to the employees. Once employees understand how the purpose and benefits relate to them, they are more likely to embrace the change and support it. For the employees, this is the WIIFM, or “what’s in it for me.” When one client implemented a large transformation, the leaders talked with employees about the benefits to the ultimate end-consumer of their products and services, and how different employee groups contributed to this larger result. As a result, the employees became advocates for the change.

Work differently: I don’t expect a CEO to define in detail how employees on the shop-floor might interact differently with each other because of a change. She will, however, speak broadly about how different departments are impacted by the change. She holds executives accountable to drive to deeper detail AND engage employees to help define and implement the changes in the work process.

Advocates: One of the most effective ways to drive a change pervasively is to engage the front-line as advocates for the change. One client actively engaged their front-line team to talk about the change with others inside and outside the function. This team, once beleaguered with low morale, started talking about the results of the change. Early on when formal statistics weren’t yet available, these employees described how “things felt better,” because of senior leader action. Later the formal measures proved that “things” improved significantly with lower attrition and higher engagement.

A 2012 Gallup report said this: “People have emotional needs, and if they are not attended to, the result is subpar performance and increased turnover. Even the best processes and systems are inefficient if the people who run them aren’t emotionally invested in the outcome. To drive performance, organizations must engage their employees.” I completely agree.

Call to action:
1. Be sure your purpose is clear, and that employees understand the intent of the change.
2. Help employees understand how they will interact differently.
3. Engage the organization to be advocates of the change

Leaders say front-line involvement is one of the most impactful elements for them because it launches significant buy-in and acceptance, which in turn helps them exceed profitability expectations. This is one of the elements we define when you participate in my Activate program. Click to learn more.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

How to secure Buy-in for Your Next Big Change

One of my clients attempted to drive a large transformation with no consideration for the impact on the front-line employees. They did not even provide training for employees to know how to operate in the new culture. I came in afterward to help them reshape the project, sought to engage the front-line, and helped them drive greater success.

Conversely, wise executives think about how employees will operate in the new environment. They find ways to engage the front-line to (at a minimum) determine how to implement the change. These leaders consider three factors:
1. Cultivate a spirit of cooperation to implement the greater good
2. View resistance as a positive, and use it to rationalize the change
3. Make it fun

Cooperation: In 2017, you would think that organizational culture had progressed to a point where leaders treat front-line employees with basic respect. After all, it is the front line who actually operates the company every day. Yet I still see holdouts to the old view that there are two groups of people: altruistic leaders who look out for the good of the company and the employee base who are wanton beggars eking out a miserable life and who should do what they are told. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but I do it to make a point. True leaders seek to cooperate with the front-line employees to help drive the change. They recognize they need for the front-line to be successful if the company is to be successful.

Resistance: In a recent conversation with a client, he was surprised that I advised him to seek out the resistors. I told him that resistors often provide some of the best input for a project. First, they provide reasons why the change won’t work. This reveals risks to the project that you must mitigate to be successful. If resistors are not heard, these risks may never be known – until you try to implement the change and it fails. Second, if you can convert resistors into supporters, they can be some of your most ardent advocates for change.

Fun: This might sound easy, but making change fun requires creativity. For one client, we incorporated interactive games and relevant puzzles in a one-day, off-site pre-launch meeting. I participated when another senior executive took the entire project team – maybe 20 of us – to a White Sox game (they won). Another time, we took a leadership team through a cooking class the evening before an all-day off-site. These events build comradery and a sense of team – founded on a basis of interpersonal trust and commitment, which helps unite the team toward the common project goal.

Front-line engagement results in more effective change. It generates ideas, buy-in, and acceptance. People simply work harder when they are part of the process instead of having a process forced upon them. Wouldn’t you? Engagement is one of the elements we discuss in more detail in the Activate program. Click to learn more.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

p.s. Looking for more wisdom in the art of strategic change? Check out another expert, Jeff Skipper.

How to advocate for change and simultaneously engage your organization

A few weeks ago, I introduced three topics to help leaders better understand how to lead change. This week we’ll talk about how to effectively advocate for your change and engage your organization in the process.

As a leader, you are busy. Board meetings. Stakeholder meetings. Analyst meetings. There is so much to do. Yet you are in the middle of a large transformational change and you sense you need to do more to help your organization.

You are effective in advocating for the change. You talk frequently about the Why, What and How of the transformation (see March 30, 2017, blog post). This is a great step. Don’t underestimate the power of this – employees want to hear from their leader, especially during times of change.

To engage your employee base so they become the ultimate owners and drivers of the change throughout the organization you might want to consider a few of the following ideas:
1. Develop a change agent network. This is a group of employees tasked with advocating and explaining the change at the lowest levels of the organization. Meet with them regularly to exchange information about progress, and obtain feedback. Incorporate the feedback as appropriate into the program.
2. Hold town hall meetings. Develop regular employee forums where they can interface directly with you, ask questions about the change, and receive feedback about progress.
3. Hold focused meetings or lunches with a few employees at a time. Learn about concerns, dispel rumors (or confirm them as appropriate), and ask for input. Use feedback to shape the program.
4. Conduct surveys and heed results. Conduct readiness assessments to obtain confidential feedback about the program. Also, use these tools to shape your message. Use the results to modify direction, redirect resources, or make other adjustments as feasible and necessary.

These are the methods I’ve seen employed most frequently to help employees embrace change and drive it to greater success. There are others. Regardless, the underlying principles with these are to speak candidly, advocate your position, genuinely seek and apply feedback, and engage employees to help design, implement and institutionalize the change.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,