There’s an astonishingly recurring theme that pops up as organizations think about change. It’s one that I raised in last week’s article, and that I want to expand upon here. And that’s the question of, “Well, can’t we just make them? Can’t senior management tell them they have to, and then they’ll comply?”
My response to this was, yes you can. Distinctly more importantly was my follow-up response, which is that it just won’t work.
The first thing that requires exploration is where the idea comes from that top down imposition of requirements is actually a good thing. Certainly, it’s a prevalent sentiment. In virtually every change effort that I’ve been involved with, someone at some point along the way has raised this as an option.
The experience that I shared last week was only the most recent one. The starting presumption behind the adoption of project management was that “This is just something we have to do. Council expects it.” A follow on expectation was that “We’re not that big; it will be pretty obvious if people aren’t complying.”
A second example was an organization where I was playing an advisory role as they planned out a significant change effort. A fundamental and repeated question of the project manager was why so much effort had to be made to sell the organization on the change. “Senior management should just tell them it’s mandatory, and that they have to do it.” The presumption was that once this edict had been issued, everyone would jump to attention and obey.
These are two short examples, but they contain echoes that many of us will be familiar with. And there’s a lot to unpack in terms of motivation, intent and possible consequences.
For starters, let’s go back to the first scenario, and the idea that “We have to do it; Council expects it.” The audit report that triggered this whole discussion certainly set an expectation of doing something, without question. But there is a great deal of latitude in what that something might actually be, which was largely the point that I was trying to make with my prospective client.
And while Council requires something, they are no more specific about their expectations than the audit report is. More importantly, they expect something now. There is an sense of urgency, brought on by an immediate crisis and perception of problems. Eventually, that will go away. There will come a time in the (probably not-too-distant) future when their attention is focussed elsewhere. In fact, there will likely be a threshold to their tolerance beyond which they decide, “We’ve already done that; it’s taken care of.”
Whether it is actually taken care of, and taken care of well, is a very different question. And the cynic would probably look at this reality as a reason to simple wait out the expectations, while making the minimum effort possible towards compliance. “This too shall pass” is a sentiment that is alive and well, and not unfamiliar to any number of bureaucracies.
The larger challenge is that while you have attention now, it isn’t going to last forever. It might feel urgent today. Other issues and problems will take their place. If you’re going to realize lasting change and shifts in behaviours, you’re going to need more than executive expectation to encourage those changes. People are going to have to want to make the change. And that’s a very different proposition than being forced.
The other interesting by-product of the expectation of “let’s just make them” is that many of the people that I encounter that hold this view are often refugees—which sounds a bit better than “victims”—of large bureaucracies. Where there is a dominant, well-entrenched hierarchy, positional power often shows up. People do require and expect, and the higher they are up the org chart, the more they’re inclined to force rather than persuade.
The punch-line to this sad joke, though, is that change efforts aren’t more successful when conducted in large hierarchies. Not even by a smidge. In fact, they’re typically less successful. Forced compliance is only usually effective to the degree to which someone is watching. And as soon as that attention goes away, so does the compliance.
Moreover, people within the organization are actively looking for signals as to whether they really have to comply. Any edict is typically responded to with a question, “Are they serious?” Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not. In all instances, though, those people in the hierarchy being forced are testing—constantly—the degree to which compliance is mandatory. Any wavering of attention, and compliance falls. Any waiving of exceptions is taken as evidence of lack of importance. Lack of boundaries when tested is a clear message that the organization isn’t serious about the change. The consequence is that the change will be abandoned.
One memorable example—and I’ve used it a couple of times—is an organization I assessed, whose project management process was ISO 9000 certified. A fundamental principle of this quality certification is, “Say what you do; do what you say.” There’s a clear expectation of compliance. And someone is looking. Closely. And repeatedly. ISO 9000-certified processes are independently audited on an annual basis to assess and verify compliance.
You would think that compliance must have been pretty good in this particularly case. And you would be wrong. The project managers in the organization saw themselves as firefighters; they knew how to get things done, how to pull strings, how to recover from failures and how to deliver results. They didn’t plan that, necessarily, and they didn’t really value planning. They valued doing. And they liked that role. They liked the fact that they were the central focal point of a whirlwind around them, and that they knew how to successfully navigate the storm. They liked the chaos. It’s what demonstrated—in their minds—their value and their worth.
Which makes you wonder exactly how the organization wound up with an ISO 9000-certified project management process. And the short answer is, the executive wanted it, and the executive imposed it. They saw it as a competitive differentiator. They wanted to brag that they had audited and verified practices that meant they could deliver projects more consistently and more reliably than their competitors. This was nice on paper, and pretty much a myth in reality.
So what about the compliance, you ask? What about the annual audits? They happened, and they happened every year. And the project managers knew it. And for the three weeks leading up to the audit, the project managers all scrambled to get their paperwork in order, as if they had been managing that way all along, which meant that compliance was fleeting, and entirely audit driven. As soon as the auditor left the building, so did any expectation of consistency.
So what’s the point of being an executive? And what’s the fun in fighting your way up the org chart, if you can’t just exert your will once you are there? I’m so very glad that you asked.
Look at any guide to how to manage organizational change, and one of the fundamental ingredients for success is executive support. In fact, it’s probably the most influential factor in the success of change. Without executive commitment, a change effort—any change effort—is going nowhere. That is a fundamental and essential truth. And yet that truth doesn’t quite square with the idea that executives can’t force a change and have that change succeed.
That reality isn’t the conundrum it might appear to be at first glance. First and foremost, change requires a champion. It needs sponsorship and support. It requires attention and focus and effort. As we talked about earlier, there is a very real risk that attention will wane. Change takes effort and work, and eventually the organization will start to feel fatigued. There will be a perception that “we’ve done this.”
Executive sponsorship is the source of visibility and reinforcement. Effective sponsorship requires that leader to understand the change, to recognize its importance and to fundamentally believe in the change as being critical to the success of the organization. People are watching, and they need to see that someone cares. The sponsor needs to visibly demonstrate and reinforce their commitment, and they need to do it every chance they get.
The executive also needs to sell the whole organization on the change. They need to reinforce why the change is so essential. They need to build the case for the change, and to highlight why it is imperative. The sponsor is the the essential messenger in communicating the benefits of making the change—and the consequence of not doing so.
Most importantly, the executive needs to model the behaviours the change requires. They need to demonstrate their own commitment to shifting behaviours and adopting a different way of working. It’s entirely fair and reasonable for them to illustrate the challenges, as well. Again, the organization is watching. There is a real risk that wavering or inconsistency on their part will be perceived as not being really committed to working differently. At the same time, we are all human. We’re going to slip up. It’s entirely inevitable.
Managed appropriately, though, slip-ups can actually be powerful ways of reinforcing the message. They are an opportunity to acknowledge the challenge of shifting behaviour. They are a way of emphasizing that we’re not always perfect, and that mistakes will be made. The consequence of highlighting failures and using them as learning opportunities is it signals that while perfection might be impossible, being better is something that we need to keep working at.
One of the most significant insights into sustaining change that I have gained out of my research and work with organizations is that change requires sustainment. You will never be done. Those organizations that are most successful in shifting strategies, approaches and behaviours are the ones that recognize it is a constant effort. It requires continuing attention and focus, and that attention needs to come from the most senior levels. When attention shifts or wanes, compliance and adherence to the change will also decline. The only effective way to maintain a change is to maintain focus on the change.
If this sounds exhausting, it shouldn’t. And it isn’t, necessarily. As long as the change actually delivers value, and people can see that value, and they recognize that their efforts are valued, they will be willing to make that effort. This requires visibility, it requires support, it requires leadership and it requires commitment. The value the change delivers is the payoff that makes the effort of making the change worthwhile. That’s where leadership comes in, and that’s the power that leadership provides. And it’s a very different proposition from simply forcing the change because you can.