"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."
— Niccolo Machiavelli
The above quote from 1532 also calls to mind the old adage,’ the more things change, the more they stay the same’. Change is a constant and successful change is one of the key challenges faced by business. In a tough economic climate, the rate of change can often speed up and overload can occur as increasingly ‘out there’ ideas are tried.
Working with employers to implement change, I have seen and been part of a myriad of change approaches and environments within the workplace. One of the main observations I can share from this is that no matter how good the idea, if it requires employee engagement but is handled poorly from the outset, the change process will be significantly more difficult and may often fail.
In the context of the workplace, change can be defined as a variation to the current workplace practices, structures, direction, workforce, customers or any other key aspect of an organisation. Workplace change comes in many forms, including
Change management is the process by which you transition your business and workplace into the future framework. So how can you manage change for maximum effectiveness to reap the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls? There are many recognised models around change management; how these are interpreted and implemented in each organisation may vary wildly.
Regardless of your business type and change issue, there are some key steps that can be considered if you are to successfully introduce change.
Taking the long view
A first and key issue for business is whether you are equipped to see change coming, or whether it is effectively forced upon you. Not all change will be expected and it is important to regularly and critically consider your business in a ‘worst case’ scenario. If you found out you were about to lose your largest client to a competitor, is there something you would be doing differently now to change your business? What about if your top performing staff member left. Are you equipped with an adequate plan to protect your business? Equally, what opportunities may be currently out there, or can be created, for your business to benefit from?
Even the largest of businesses are not immune from a failure to successfully plan ahead and move with the times. The Kodak story serves as a stark reminder of this. An industry pioneer, it was once the name synonymous with photography. However, it’s inability to embrace and lead change in the world of technology led to its demise and saw the organisation fail in core business areas.
Undertaking this regular review of how you are travelling will assist you to identify factors that are within your control right now. It also assists in avoiding reactionary solutions to longer term issues and a considered approach to change management.
Working on your culture now
At one time or another, most of us have had the experience of sitting in a room while a new idea is rolled out and will remember thinking ‘that's not going to work’. What happens next is almost wholly dependent on the culture already in place in the business and the manner in which the idea is presented.
There are few things more frustrating from an employer’s perspective than hearing 'I didn't say anything, I thought you'd have already looked at that', when an (in hindsight) obvious issue emerges.
Businesses that elicit the required feedback at the first meeting, rather than after the fact, have strong tendencies to actively listen to their staff and present 'ideas' as exactly that, rather than a fait accompli. Even if you are not considering major change, you can make some major investments in your business future by seeking feedback from your staff on a regular basis as to how the business can be improved. While you don't have to act on every idea, you may get some fantastic ideas and also get a far clearer picture of your employee’s views of the business.
Giving your staff feedback on ideas that are taken up and not shying away from commenting on those that aren't going to be implemented at this stage can play a core role in engaging your team with the business success.
Is change the answer? If so, how much?
In order to successfully answer this question, you firstly need to be able to identify the following:
Having a sounding board in the form of someone you trust and who understands your business issues can be a great asset in shaping your thinking around an issue. Don't be afraid to ask others for input. Often undertaking this analysis at an early stage will show that the benefits may not outweigh the risks for a particular concept.
Planning and counter planning for change
We’ve all heard what can happen to the ‘the best laid plans’. The quote is derived from a Robert Burns poem and speaks to how these plans ‘can often go astray’. This doesn’t mean that planning is ever a wasted exercise; however it neatly encapsulates the necessity for flexibility in implementation and ensuring that a good ‘Plan B’ is part of your overall change plan.
Often we see businesses that identify the need for change however they may be inflexible in how they achieve this. A business may identify the need for a reduced head count for example, in order to reduce labour costs and continue operating profitably. Where that business may fall down is, having correctly seen the need for cost reduction, they are not then open to how it is achieved or sufficiently nimble to work around obstacles that come up around ‘Plan A’. This is where we see often industrial issues, with claims about unfair treatment and lack of required consultation emerging.
Explicitly factor in your people
My team at Victorian Chamber and I are primarily working in workplace relations, where we are often dealing with the ‘unknown’ of how people may react or respond in certain situations. In this type of environment, we often need to be armed with a number of different scenarios to allow us to respond effectively on factors that may be unknown to us prior to commencing the meeting. We have found that thinking through, and planning for, each scenario allows us to best prepare and influence an outcome for business.
A simple example of this is considering a proposal to an employee group or union around a change of rostering times or opening hours. In this situation the best outcome is that no one has any concerns with it and you can proceed. Worst case scenario could be that you are faced with an disgruntled employee group, potential industrial action, concerns around their child care and travel arrangements being raised and no clear answers to ‘what now?’, firmly placing you on the back foot. So how is your staffing group going to react to change?
As managers within a business, you are uniquely placed to consider what may be the sticking points for your people, and this can equip you for best determining the approach that is most likely to succeed in engaging your business. Will you potentially have champions within your work team for support around particular ideas? Can you pinpoint resistance areas and address them proactively? Businesses that can identify and harness these factors are generally more effective at change management.
So change is on the way – how do you now manage it?
Regardless of your business type and change issue, there are some key steps that can be considered if you are to successfully introduce change. While there are many views on this, in my view the key aspects are as follows:
The first introduction to your employee group of the idea of change and how well it is done, can make or break in terms of achieving buy in from your employee group.
A key step in mapping out a communication plan is anticipating what may be the concerns of your employee group upon first hearing the proposal and what your responses may be. In any planning scenario involving communicating with your staff, you need to consider all possible responses and ask yourself the following before commencing:
The above answers will strongly influence how you can communicate in a particular scenario. For example, knowing that if there is no “buy in” from employees that you will not go further allows you to genuinely float the concept as an ‘option for feedback’. If however, it is something that must happen, the outcome would be best presented as a given, however you might need to work on the path to get there.
If you have a situation where you have already identified the outcome (e.g. we need to be able to open our doors earlier to capture business), you may need to put to your staff your analysis in getting to that point and what options you have considered may be possible in achieving the outcome. You can then seek to elicit and understand their views on the challenges and opportunities.
Prior planning should hold you in good stead and allow you to sell the benefits of the change, as well as demonstrate that you are aware that there may be negative elements and have given thought to how to manage these.
Once a final decision has been reached, an implementation plan should be clearly communicated to your relevant key stakeholders. This may include customers, suppliers and employees and should include timetabling, responsibilities, impacts and contact people in the event of any issues.
Keep an open mind
We have recently seen some high profile organisations such as Holden implement changes which were clearly a result of a long term change process conducted with their staff group and unions, leading to some surprising outcomes achieved such as reductions in wages.
Smaller businesses also often find themselves in similar situations of needing to reduce labour costs. Successful outcomes from consultation have ranged from employees agreeing to, or suggesting, accessing their annual and long service leave entitlements while remaining on the books, moving to reduced or changed working hours and considering leave without pay in circumstances where the employer may be able to “pull though” a tough time with some short term savings of labour. These outcomes have been achieved in instances where the employer has a genuinely open mind to the alternatives and can successfully work with their employees who are also committed to making alternatives work. Equally, productivity or profit generation ideas may be developed during consultation with staff as a legitimate solution to cost ratio issues.
Your implementation process on the change should incorporate the following:
It is vital that having decided to implement change, the process undertaken is consistent with your earlier communications, and that regular assessment is undertaken to measure the gains and refine where necessary.
Planning your assessment timeframes and measurements will assist in ensuring that your process remains on track and within budget as much as possible. Any “wins” should be celebrated as this will help your teams in continuing to focus on the original goal and vision. Issues should be recognised and dealt with promptly, and mistakes acknowledged where appropriate.
Where the change is significant, such as a loss of team members, the workforce may feel unsettled. Regular communications regarding the progress and current outcomes will assist in managing this issue.
What are the risks?
There are of course risks to both changing and not changing. In the employment context, there are a number of common aspects that frequently arise for employers.
Key risks to employers from poor change or redundancy processes include:
While claims cannot be avoided, your chances of successfully defending them can be greatly increased by ensuring that you are familiar with your legislative obligations and that these are factored into your initial planning.
A clear planning process which ensures that you are fully aware of the legislative framework – which for example, could render a redundancy an ‘unfair dismissal’ if consultation is required and not undertaken – will ensure that you are well placed to proceed with your process.
Likewise, clearly articulating what you need in the business going forward, and putting in place a rigorous process to get there, should also hold you in good stead against claims of unfavourable or discriminatory conduct in selection procedures. This is a particular risk where two or more employees are vying for the same role.
How much change to a job role is ‘too much’?
A question that often comes up in the employment context is how much change can occur existing working conditions and roles before the employer is looking at a redundancy arises.
When you attempt to change staff duties, you will need to be aware of the limits of what may be considered a ‘reasonable’ change in relation to their position and conversely what level of change might trigger a redundancy or termination, if challenged.
Reasonable changes are generally those that do not fundamentally alter an existing position. In assessing this, the core elements of the role, or purpose of the position would be the key consideration. Adding administrative tasks to a receptionist role would be unlikely to fundamentally change the nature of the role. However, directing this same employee to undertake a sales role ‘out in the field’ is unlikely to be aligned with the original role. Likewise, a day worker being moved to a night shift could constitute a significant change.
It is imperative that you properly plan and consider such potential outcomes prior to proceeding. Unfortunately employers who do not plan in advance can find that they are better off not proceeding when faced with the costs of redundancies. This can lead to them abandoning the proposed change altogether, producing significant uncertainty and ill feeling in a workplace and leaving business in a worse position than when it started.
Where to from here?
Change is inevitable and can be challenging. Seeking professional advice where needed and appropriately early in the process can best prepare you for identifying and implementing changes successfully. Having a clear vision of where you want your business to be and a well thought out plan to take you there will underpin a successful process.
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