The Key Strategic Error in Delivering Change

Mike_Lehr-Omega_Z_AdvisorsGreg Cook talks with change management expert Mike Lehr, owner of Omega Z Advisors, LLC. Mike helps leaders navigate their business cultures and internal politics to bring change.

In this interview Lehr explains why even firms with great plans, processes and practices often fail at change. Only a third add any true value.

Lehr has witnessed many change efforts from the front lines witnessing how the grapevine strangles the best of plans and how avoidable resistance sprouts.

Greg: Mike, change is high risk and costly. It is unavoidable though. From a strategic level, what do you see as the key weakness of any change effort?

Mike: Greg, your focus on strategy nails it. The key strategic error in delivering change is that most firms do not have a strategy. Most look at change as a process not an effort that needs a strategy. They look at it as about taking the right steps. It is about creating the right path for those steps.

For instance, they think about the change they want. They call senior executives and managers to devise a plan. They might talk to front line managers about their roles. Then they announce it to their people. They follow up with training. Then they expect everyone to change.

Greg: I see that often. It sounds like what should happen. What’s wrong with it?

Mike: They are like farmers who go out to the field. They plant their seeds. They fertilize and water them. What they do not do is prep the soil.

We cannot expect good outcomes if we do not do this. We have to plow the soil and loosen it up. We cannot just throw seeds out and expect them to take hold. In this picture, employees are the soil.

There must be a strategy for loosening up the soil. This must occur before we even begin planting the seeds. The first time most employees hear about change is when they are being trained for it. We need to look at change as an effort needing a strategy not a process needing steps.

In this sense, we need to brand our change. We need to do this in the same way we do for our customers. Instead, we do it for our employees.

Greg: What would this look like?

Mike: It is called an internal communications campaign. The more people think about a change the more likely they are to do it. It is basic marketing. The more people think about our products and services the more likely they are to buy them.

What is the slogan? What are the keywords? How do we talk about change? This is how we take control of the grapevine rather than have it strangle us. We get people talking about it. They talk about it so much that it is no longer change. It is something routine.

We might also need to weave this into our cultures. For example, if we have employee awards, alter their criteria to include openness to change and innovation. Maybe we give better rewards to those who get new customers, start new products or open new markets.

How can we roll out change if our culture does not even have a history of embracing it? How do we do this if adapting to change is not a part of what we have said makes a good employee?

Greg: This sounds like more work? It also sounds like you have to lengthen your time frame for bringing about change?

Mike: That’s true, Greg. That goes back to your first question. We need a strategy, a very sound internal communications one. We cannot look at it as a process where everyone falls into line and just does it.

First off, that way increases resistance. Few people like to be told what to do. They like to have a say. Even if they do not get their way at least we listened. There is value in listening.

Second, we know treating change as a process rather than as an effort fails. By the time we learn that, competitors will have taken the best ground from us. We will also have incurred much cost with not much to show for it.

Keep in mind too that the actual strategy will vary by firm. It depends upon the change, the culture, the relationships and timetable. For firms with a culture well-toiled for change and with success of change under its belt, this will not be as time-intensive.

Change is very much like exercising. In fact, exercising is change. The more our bodies are used to it the easier new and additional exercises are. Once change is well-integrated into our cultures the easier it becomes.

Eventually, being adaptable will be what it means to be a good employee, team, division and company. We cannot plant the seeds of change until the soil is ready. Any farmer knows that it is a waste of time, money and sweat to plant before that is done.

To learn more about leading through change, visit Mike’s website

Greg Cook

Greg Cook is a 10 yr+ online visibility strategist, editor of the local small business news site Akron Small Business Leaders and business writer for Small Business Trendsetters.