Managing Change: Unavoidable And Hard!

Managing Change: Unavoidable And Hard!

In 1976, Charles Handy wrote a book called “Understanding Organisations.” At one point, he described a study where managers listed what they believed their team members were responsible for. These lists were then compared with lists of responsibilities drawn up by those team members independently. The researchers were surprised to find a wide divergence. What employees thought they were expected to do was very different from what their managers expected the same set of employees to do. Why mention such an old study? Because, not very much has changed in the past four decades. When one talks to people in confidence about their work, there are sharp differences between how they describe it, how their juniors describe it, how their seniors describe it, and how their peers describe it. There is often agreement in the highest level of description, but there are sharp differences in either detailed content or priorities, and sometimes both. This is clearly dysfunctional. Apart from uncoordinated waste of organisational energy, it also leads eventually to somewhat unfair appraisals and lopsided development advice. This is especially true for 360-degree appraisals where all appraisers are influenced by their perception of the appraisee’s job.


In many organisations, setting and communicating goals and job descriptions is a somewhat mechanical task. The goals are often incremental variations on the goals of the past period, and job description documents are either completely out of fashion or unchanged over years. All this would not matter if the business world was largely static. People would eventually get a good idea of what was really expected of them and would seek to meet those expectations. However, the world today is anything but that. The changes in the domestic and international competitive landscape and statutes have been happening at a great pace. This is compounded by technological change in each industry and in the IT sector, which affects all industries. Companies have coped in many ways including through mergers, acquisitions and divestments, but these create their own pressures on the way responsibilities get assigned and assessed. This sharpens the urgency of clear definition, communication, agreement, alignment and revision of goals across all levels within organisations. HR managers have a crucial role to play here as enablers. A few months ago, this very author talked of an Italian bank under stress where the CEO visited every single branch to pitch his plan for change and recovery. Unusual times call for special measures. Luckily, there are several well-oiled companies where all this is done to perfection. There is a lot to be learned by getting them to share their practices.


Beyond goals and alignment


Goal clarity and alignment aside, working towards meeting those goals has become increasingly complex because of the very forces roiling the business environment as mentioned above. What worked in the past is unlikely to be equally effective today. Just to offer some high-level examples from within India, past logistics arrangements, including warehouse investments, need review because of GST, past outsourcing arrangements need review because of the changes in PF regulations, legacy IT systems have to be reviewed because of the falling costs of cloud computing and the rising threats from malware, including ransomware, and all entities in the telecom sector have to rework their business plans and staffing after the wave of consolidations. Once one includes non-domestic change factors, especially relevant to organisations with sales, procurement and operations in several countries, the execution challenges are multiplied manifold.


Opportune and sensitive handling


Implementing changes involves changing responsibilities, developing skills and even changing people where required. HR managers have to handle these situations in a timely but sensitive manner. It may be cost effective to replace people for getting new skill sets on board, but this has to be balanced with the cost of administrative and cultural disruption. It may appear fair to train people who are deficient, but sometimes, it makes greater sense to further strengthen people who are already productive. At the individual level, thinkers like Peter Drucker have always stressed building on one’s strengths rather than struggling to overcome weaknesses. This is somewhat true for organisations too. Outsourcing broad swathes of work outside the core business may increase productivity but may also hollow out the organisation and increase the alignment and motivational challenges. For instance, how does one ensure skill‑updation, cultural alignment and high engagement in people who are not on one’s rolls? How does one define work-related policies that accommodate full-time, part-time, and temporary staff in a smooth manner given that traditional full-time staff are outnumbered by the other two in several large organisations? All these deliberations have to happen in real time as speed is of the essence in managing change in a turbulent world.


Implementing change may also involve experimentation, especially when doing something that has never been done before. Laszlo Bock has given many examples of such experiments at Google, like implementing one policy in one part of the organisation and a different policy in another part, and, comparing results before finalizing on a company-wide policy. Companies shying away from such steps should note that this approach is now being practiced even at the level of countries. Finland is often quoted as a good example for many such experiments. Most recently, they tried out a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all residents of a small region to check the economic impact. This is not to be confused with piloting, where a new policy is first implemented in a limited region to iron out implementation challenges. In experimentation, the focus is on learning what works, so that after trying out different approaches, one of them, or a hybrid, can be adopted.


The illusion of progress


During times of change, it is easy to get trapped in activities which create an illusion of progress. So much of the organisation’s resources get invested in these activities that it is often almost blasphemous to question if the desired goals are met, or even whether the organisation is moving in the right direction. This problem hinges partly on poor goal definition and partly on the implementation model. If goals have not been communicated and accepted in adequate detail, measuring progress is tricky to begin with. If implementation has been significantly outsourced, the third-party has a vested interest in choosing and reporting metrics that show it in a good light. Often the internal data collection and reporting systems have not been geared up for the new set of measures that are required during a period of change.


All this can lead to great disappointment, not to mention waste of money and time. HR managers in particular have to be vigilant to avoid the comfort of using run-of-the-mill metrics, that were in place in times of business as usual, and, ideate instead on what should be measured to track the specific goals relevant to the period of change. Organisations like Amazon that have combined explosive growth with rapid widening of business interests are justly recognized for the vast variety of metrics that they collect. Peter Drucker had an interesting position on choice of metrics. He advised a risk‑management approach to selecting what to measure and how. There are risks in measuring one thing and not the other, and there are risks in defining the measurement process in one way and not in a different manner. Managers could take this route to ensure they minimize the risk of incorrect impact measurement.


Complexities in impact measurement


There are several other complexities in impact measurement. For instance, the proliferation of metrics leads to dependence on complex IT solutions for processing them and for uncovering patterns and meaning. An overly small set of metrics, on the other hand, may not adequately capture all dimensions of the goals being pursued. Metrics that focus on end goals may be like post-mortems that are no guides for action. Metrics that are predictive in nature may pre-suppose a business model that no longer exists. However, there is no getting away from these choices if a manager wants to truly manage change.


Often managers are encouraged to use expertise from outside their organisation for managing change. This is a double-edged sword. Seeking expert advice is always a good thing. However, what if one set of experts helps set goals, another agency helps implement changes, a third audits the progress by analysing metrics, and a fourth assesses impact on stakeholders. Where does accountability go and what is the role and contribution of the individual managers? No simple solutions exist for making these difficult decisions. However, one should take heart from the fact that during extreme turbulence past experience is not the best guide and managing change provides great opportunities for innovation and original contribution. The VUCA world should be seen by managers as an unrecognized opportunity for personal development and growth.

Gautam Brahma is a management consultant advising start-ups and SMEs, on strategy & operations including sales, HR & IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors, in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and has been a monthly columnist on HR issues for close to two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]


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