Change Management: How to Navigate Continuous Change

You may not be acquainted with the acronym VUCA, but you're certainly familiar with its consequences. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and there's no doubt we're living in a VUCA world.

Organizations everywhere are experiencing disruptive changes but few feel prepared for this new reality. According to a 2013 survey by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), only one in three executives believes his or her current leadership team is capable of achieving business results in the current environment. Leaders know they must build cultures of adaptability that motivate employees to meet new challenges. They recognize that they must reduce complexity so that processes and strategy stay in front of the market. But how?

The answer lies in applying the principles of change management to ongoing change rather than a single change event. By doing so, executives can help their companies become more attuned to the marketplace and nimble enough to capitalize on disruptions rather than being overwhelmed by them. Here's how.

Make peace with uncertainty

"Leaders cannot really help their organizations become comfortable with change until they themselves learn to adapt to uncertainty," says Paul Barber, an executive consultant and coach at Leadership Excellence in Greenville, South Carolina. To explain, Barber references the Transition Model first put forth by William Bridges in his 1991 book Managing Transitions.

Bridges' model includes three phases of change. The first is "ending," or saying goodbye to the old way of doing things. "It's not unlike the phases of grief," Barber says. "And like grief it can be crippling if it lasts too long." This is followed by a "neutral" period during which the organization searches for a new direction. "This can be unsettling, because you don't know exactly what the future holds," Barber says, "but it can also be creative and innovative as you work toward a solution." Finally, there is the new beginning, when the company emerges from uncertainty with a new direction. "At that point, you should be energized, engaged, and open to learning," Barber notes.

Model openness

Part of embracing uncertainty means admitting to yourself and others that you don't have all the answers. "The first step is to allow yourself to be a little vulnerable with your team," says Michele Reeves, a consultant with Grow By Design Coaching and Consulting in North Carolina who also manages organizational development at a prominent software company. "Even a small amount of vulnerability can be very effective in helping you break down the barriers and improve the trust level within your organization," she adds. "You earn trust with small wins, keeping your promises, and showing you mean what you say and say what you mean."

Balance autonomy and collaboration

The key to innovation and adaptability is collaboration, these and other consultants argue. The more collaborative the culture, the less autocratic and more nimble it is. That doesn't mean that there's no role for leadership. Far from it. "There's an old saying: 'If you help plan the battle, you won't battle the plan,'"Barber says. "Problems arise when leaders get too far out ahead and forget to include others in implementing change. They're thinking Big Picture, and they've already envisioned the future." But these executives know far less about how strategy would actually be implemented, which is why they must make certain that leaders at every level understand and embrace change. Once that happens, those closest to the action can make informed decisions about how to implement the change.

Bring everyone else along for the ride

In order to guide his clients through the change process, Tom Schafer, CEO and founder of the Southlake, Texas-based Schafer Consulting Network, built a tool based on a progression of stages originally proposed by author Daryl Conner in his 1993 book, Managing at the Speed of Change. "Change can only succeed when a critical mass of executives, managers, and employees embrace it," Schafer explains. Conner's stages of change begin with awareness and proceed through understanding and acceptance and on to commitment. But they don't stop there. Even after people are committed to change, there are two more levels: institutionalization, in which people take action to make the idea a reality, and internalization, the final stage, in which change has become part of the company's culture. "At this stage, what was once a new idea is now simply 'the way we do things around here,'" Schafer explains.

Schafer has created a matrix consisting of rows representing Conner's stages, and a column for each level of the organization, from the C-suite to front-line employees. "Leaders can move through this process first, and then, using the matrix, ask themselves, 'how do I get the rest of the organization progressing through the necessary levels?'" he says. "The answer is that you lead, encourage, and help people through the same journey, from awareness upward."

Ultimately, a nimble organization may be more flat and less process-based than was previously common, but what really differentiates it will be its culture: it will be open, collaborative, and responsive to the innovative capacity of all its stakeholders.


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