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June 26, 2007

Becoming the Change You Want to See

I am in the business of change. Everything I develop, teach, share and do as a consultant is related to changing skills, strategies or systems in organizations. However, I typically use other terms like “building capacity”, “producing desired results” and “improving organizational effectiveness” to describe my work. These are all ways of saying I help organizations change without scaring people off.

Why would people be scared off? Because change can be very stressful, even when it’s perceived to be positive. For example, 15 of the 43 life events listed on the Stress Scale (Holmes and Rahe, 1967) refer to some type of change (e.g. “Change in responsibilities at work”, “Change in social activities”, “Change in financial state”). Notice how there is no reference to whether the change is positive or negative – just that there has been a change.

Holmes and Rahe found that people who score higher on the stress scale are more likely to develop an illness. It’s no wonder that people avoid change like it is an illness.

So why is change stressful? Change is often unpredictable or driven by external forces. People tend to resist things they didn’t choose or that they have no control over. Change is hard because we don’t always know up front whether it will be positive or negative…so why take the chance? Change also forces people to think and behave differently, which is hard for those of us who are creatures of habit. And sometimes with so many other things happening at once, dealing with “one more thing” just feels impossible.

But change is necessary. Think about how humans have evolved into the highly intelligent, sophisticated beings we are today. I’m sure we didn’t start out that way, just as I’m sure that the human race isn’t done changing. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

So what does this have to do with your organization? In an environment characterized by constant change – shrinking resources, turnover, new initiatives, emerging needs – people at all levels of your organization must be skilled at managing change in order for the organization to survive. Here are my top ten guidelines for becoming a true survivor:

1. Analyze the need for change. Gather information about factors inside and outside of your organization that create a need for change. Look at trends in fundraising, employee morale, utilization of services, client satisfaction and community needs. If you get in the habit of analyzing the need for change, you’re less likely to have changes forced upon you by someone or something.

2. Involve others in the change process. Lower people’s resistance to change by getting them involved in designing and implementing the change process. It may feel like it takes longer to do this, but you will save time in the long run if you take steps to gain people’s buy-in early on.

3. Create a shared vision. Link the need for change to your organization’s mission, vision and values. Ask yourself, “How will this change enable us to serve our customers better?” Describe what the organization and its people or processes will look like after the change has been made.

4. Create a sense of urgency…which is not the same as crisis or panic. Clearly convey why the change has to happen now versus later – otherwise there is no reason for others to make it a priority.

5. Know when it’s time to let go of the past. History is important, as long as it doesn’t keep you from moving forward. Learn the lessons from past successes and mistakes, and then keep going. Statements such as “It’s always worked this way” or “It’s never worked that way” only keep you and your organization stuck in time while everything else around you is changing.

6. Create an implementation plan. Develop goals, activities, timelines and measures of success. Use the plan as a “road map” to keep everyone headed toward the same destination. Just remember that plans, like people, need to be responsive to change in order to survive.

7. Support people’s efforts to change. Once you’ve gained people’s commitment to implement the desired change, make sure they have the knowledge, skills and institutional support to do it well. Develop clear processes and provide training and ongoing coaching. Otherwise it will be too easy and justifiable for people to say, “I told you so,” and it will be much harder to gain their buy-in the next time around.

8. Communicate about the change before, during and after implementation. Provide opportunities for people to give feedback about how the change is going. Give periodic updates about what is working well and what is being continually improved. Share successes to show that people’s efforts are making the desired difference.

9. Institutionalize the change. Once you have determined that the new process, strategy or activity works, make it an everyday part of business. Write up a policy. Train new staff as part of their orientation. Talk about the new way of doing business in staff meetings. Pretty soon, what was once a change will become the norm.

10. Be the change you want to see. Be a spokesperson for the change and keep people focused on the vision. Work with others to find ways to implement the change effectively. Model the attitudes and behaviors that are necessary for the change to happen successfully, and eventually others will follow suit.

Why This Matters for Your Mission: Change is constant and inevitable. If you can embrace this concept, you will see the possibilities that change creates. Instead of being held back by limitations and fear of the “what if’s”, you will be able to plan for and manage change effectively.

Author:  Nicole M. Young is the Owner/Principal Consultant of Optimal Solutions Consulting in California. She helps organizations overcome the everyday challenges that keep them from fulfilling their missions. To learn more, go to www.opti-solutions.com

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