Seven Ways to Create a Change-Ready Workforce

Seven Ways to Create a Change-Ready Workforce

If change is the only constant, it has to be a core competency. Here's how CIOs and other leaders can help their teams embrace change.

In today’s turbulent business environment, enterprise change is constant and accelerating.

You knew that. But can you truthfully say that ‘embracing change is a core competence’ for your workforce?

Now, more than ever, companies need their workers to embrace change, but that is not typically the case. Some contend this is an even greater problem in IT departments.

“IT is not attracting change-friendly people,” said Lisa Jackson, CEO and founding partner of Corporate Culture Pros, a consulting firm based in Denver. “The average IT organization is really rewarded for consistency, so those two things can seemingly be in opposition to one another.” Dealing with constant change is something that has to be learned, “whether you’re twenty-five or fifty-five” years old, she adds.

Can your organization say that ‘embracing change is a core competence’?

So what can CIOs and other leaders do to help make frequent change not just palatable but a core capability? Jackson and other experts offer seven ways to cultivate change-readiness in the organization.

1. Make ‘innovative flair’ a key hiring factor

It’s easy to check the boxes on technical skills when hiring new IT talent, but it’s harder to gauge a job candidate’s willingness for change and innovation.

One of Jackson’s CIO clients asks candidates directly, ‘Where have you been a disrupter, brought value, or solved a problem in the organization? Where have you helped them make more money? What innovation you’ve done in the systems you’ve worked in?’

Their answers will be predictive of their willingness to not just grudgingly accept change, but to even instigate it.

“A deer-in-the-headlights look in response to that question” is not good, she adds.

2. Rotate staff responsibilities

A fresh point of view often motivates employees to embrace change. Vanguard CIO John Marcante previously detailed how he rotates his staff through different locations and disciplines, in part because it increases their adaptability.

The rotational model provides a canvas for diverse thought and fresh perspective, Marcante said. Change is not only encouraged, but expected throughout the organization.

Marcante worked in client-facing business and technology roles where he developed a greater appreciation for how Vanguard serves its client. He also worked with a variety of leaders and Vanguard employees.

“Our rotational culture ensures our professionals are constantly developing, resulting in a deeper understanding of the markets, our funds, and our operations,” he said.

And rotations provide career and skill development for the employees. Cisco’s Future of Work research found lack of such development is one of employees’ biggest sources of dissatisfaction, so staff rotation can have a positive impact on employee motivation and retention.

Everyone wins when this practice is implemented well.

3. Make resistance constructive

CIOs should be willing to have pockets of cross-functioning teams that lead change efforts and not expect an entire organization or department to embrace change at once, Jackson said. She recommends starting with a test group in a part of the organization that could benefit most from proposed changes.

“I’m a proponent of piloting a type of change in a part of the organization where they’re already feeling urgency,” Jackson said, “then assemble the people who are most ready to be change agents.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, Jackson advocates for inclusion of some resistance — in order to identify roadblocks early.

“Always add a few of those people who are known to be ‘negative resistors,’” she said. “Bring them in early to the process because they have a perspective that people aren’t thinking about.”

4. Measure (and invest) for change

3M famously set a target that a significant percentage of its revenue should always come from new products. The “Vitality Index” created by 3M became a top research and development performance index indicator in North America. Today, when many companies are allocating a smaller proportion of their revenues toward research and development, 3M is continuing to expand, raising its target from 5.5 percent of revenue in 2017 to 6 percent in 2018.

Not only does R&D investment satisfy finance and business professionals to see the products they’ve invest in become successful, but from a change perspective, it satisfies engineers and product developers the most is to see their newly released products become popular, according to Bradford Goldense, president of consulting firm Goldense Group Inc. in Needham, Mass. It goes right to the core of why they pursued careers in science and engineering, he said, to create things that better the lives and capabilities of others.

Organizations that invest in R&D can promote a similar positive outlook on change.

5. Encourage tribes for change

Tech startups are launched with a culture for innovation and change. Founders have assembled a tribe of like-minded people who may already know each other and share the same innovation goals, Jackson said.

Likewise, organization should promote innovation and change by fostering work groups that are “culturally very tight and unified” – a team, tribe or culture with the motivation to learn. Global or large enterprises can also build subcultures within the organization that are tribally connected. “A trust comes with [teams or tribes] that allows people to speak more openly” and adapt to change.

6. Explain the reasons for change…

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed,” said Peter Senge, scientist, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning.

In an enterprise setting, that means answering the question ‘Why?’ — again and again.

CIOs should train employees on the business realities of why the proposed change is required, why now, and what happens if we don’t change, Jackson said.

“Educate people that we’re not trying to disrupt you, but we have to be comfortable with the process of being uncomfortable on a daily basis,” Jackson said.

Of course, training on agile methodologies have spread from software development to marketing and other organization functions to teach workers how to be faster decision-makers, working with cross-functional teams, to complete shorter, quicker goals – but those innovative behaviors must be supported by incentives and rewards, Jackson said.

7. …and keep the fear factor to a minimum

A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that a healthy dose of fear can make people overcome inertia and get moving. However, fear constantly applied over a long period creates significant health problems and an unhealthy work culture.

What messages can leaders communicate to make change a corporate value, without negative side-effects?

Fear applied over a long period creates significant health problems and an unhealthy work culture.

Roughly speaking, “Seventy-five percent of messaging needs to be painting the vision of why change is needed, and twenty-five percent should be communicating what happens if we don’t change. What is the problem we end up with if we don’t make this change? Then it’s about pacing the feeling of fear that is natural when change comes about,” Jackson said.

CIOs should also acknowledge that change is difficult, and it’s not going to be any easier in the coming months, but frequent communication during the times of change will give employees the sense of a smoother transition. Jackson also suggests investing in mindfulness and stress management training for employees, “which is beneficial to everyone.”

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