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Friday, 12 December 2014 16:23

Operating or transforming: what's your priority?

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Every so often, pretty much every organization embarks on transformational change. This title may be applied to a major program of systems, process or organizational change, or the transformation may be driven by something less tangible  – such as altering organizational culture. Whatever it is, the organization wants to be different in a significant way.

There has been a whole lot written about the levels of success of organizational transformation programs. It makes sorry reading, but that’s not my subject today. I want to explore in this post is the inherent tension between business-as-usual operational performance and transformation. At heart, this is a conflict between doing a great job today and being able to do an even better job tomorrow. 


There is often a real reticence to consider the impact on today’s level of performance of change. This is especially true when working with senior managers with a pace-setting style of leadership. With this kind of manager as soon as one change is completed the focus moves onto the next change. All the energy and drive of the senior team under such a manager is focussed on change. 

Almost everyone accepts that businesses can't continue unchanged for too long. But before any major change is embarked on it is essential to be clear about your relative priorities between operational performance and pace of transformational change.


Why this tension is ignored

There seems to be a number of reasons why the impact of change on current operating performance is not discussed openly. 

There is the macho school of management, in which any debate about impact of a change agenda is seen as weakness or not being a good team player. Then there is the calculating style of management. This deliberately ignores impact on operational performance from change, for fear of undermining the justification for change.  Finally, there is the cynical style of management. This ignores the impact of operational performance of change as it is someone else’s problem. This approach may be taken by change leaders who have no operational responsibilities.

It does not take much analysis to reject all of these styles of leadership. The macho style has resulted in some of the big change disasters in business history. The calculating style is muddle headed. If the justification for change does not stack up, don’t manipulate justification – rethink the change. The cynical style is wrong and often unethical.

But not all reasons for ignoring operational performance impacts are so contemptible. I can think of 3 more valid concerns.

There are the responses of experienced managers who understand that focussing too much on the problems change will cause increases negative sentiment towards change, making it harder to implement. There can be concerns that if a change team tries to understand all the possible operational impacts it will get bogged down in analysis and lose sight of the wood for the trees. Finally, experienced managers know that opening up conversations about the problems a change may cause can result the change initiative becoming the dumping ground for all sorts of historic problems. If these problems are dumped on the change team they will be overwhelmed. 

Each of these latter three concerns is a valid issue to worry about. The right answer is not to try to ignore potential operational problems of change, but to modify the approach.


Steps to doing this

The type of issues I have highlighted in this article are central ones for all change managers – in fact for any manager who wants to drive change in their organization. The resolution lies in approaching the change in a structured way. 

1.Admit the tension between today’s performance and changing: putting your head in the sand and just assuming you can make whatever changes you want and it will not impact performance doesn’t help. At best it converts today’s problem of building a good justification and plan for change, into tomorrow’s problem of performance dips.

2.Encourage open discussion and work out your priority: discuss the tension openly. In discussing it, you are seeking to achieve several things. You should get a clear understanding of your true priorities. If maximising today’s operating performance is your priority, then delay the transformational change. If transformational change is the priority, then start to think through carefully and completely how you can mitigate the impact of the change on operational performance. This type of discussion also helps to develop engagement with the community impacted by change. Such engagement will be a powerful help later on in a change initiative.

3.Have a robust justification for change: if you don’t have a decent justification for change - don’t do it. It is going to cause pain and disruption and so should only be done if it is going to be worthwhile. Let’s assume there is such a justification - a side benefit is that this will form the basis of some of the key communications required during the change. The scope of the change program should include what is required to fulfil the justification – and only what is required to fulfil it.

4.Critically assess the impact of the change: impact assessment is one of the core tools of the change manager. Analyse: what really will this change impact? I use the word “critically” deliberately. The balance required in a good impact assessment is to be open to real concerns about the impact of the change, whilst rejecting attempts to dump existing problems into the lap of the change initiative.

5.Develop a plan: work out the best way to mitigate the areas of impact. If you are embarking on really radical change you will often find there are impacts you cannot fully mitigate. Then you need to start managing expectations about operational performance drops. This performance drop is part of the investment you are making in your future.

6.Execute: follow the plan, observing and responding to what happens. The best change implementations have a plan but are not fixated on it. They will be following a form of Deming cycle: plan – do – review – adapt the plan.

In doing this, remember two points. Firstly, change at some time will be the essential route to your future state and even organizational survival. You cannot repeatedly reject change because today’s performance is so critical if you want to thrive and survive. Secondly, organizations don’t exist to change. They exist to do, that is to operate smoothly on a daily basis. 

Finding the right way to balance these two points is one of the key signs of a well-run organization.


Richard Newton is an author, consultant and program director. He has written 11 books, which have won awards and been translated many times. His latest book “Managing Your Team Through Change” explores the challenge of delivering change for team leaders and middle managers. It was published in December 2014.

Read 10102 times Last modified on Friday, 12 December 2014 16:30
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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