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Change Management – Chaos vs. Stagnation

Stagnation is bad – so is chaos.  Both extremes of the change spectrum are not desirable.  No change leads to falling behind and loss of competitive advantage, while constant out of control change leads to dysfunctional and inefficient behavior.

In extreme cases both of these scenarios can be fatal.  Thus if both extremes are bad, which point along the spectrum is ideal?

Evolutionary biologists refer to the “edge of chaos” as the point where life is most vibrant; constantly and rapidly changing and adapting – but still in control.  This same phrase could be applied to the ideal behavior for organizations to survive in a competitive and evolving marketplace. One of the dangers of success is that it can breed complacency.  It is nice to be able to relax and reap the rewards of a successful endeavor – but for how long?  One of the hardest things to do is to challenge the things that drove the current measure of success – but to not do so can lead to stagnation.  We must therefore drive change – constantly.

Change is difficult and brings along risks so we must be careful to manage the tug-of-war between driving change rapidly and slowing it down.  To facilitate this apparent paradox, a range of change leaders is required including change agents, early adopters, late adopters and change resistors.  An organization needs all types; change resistors ask the tough questions and put up roadblocks to ensure that change doesn’t happen to fast; late adopters are the pragmatists that ensure that all the details of a new initiative are worked out in detail; early adopters are the experimenters that fine-tune new ideas to fit the organizational dynamics; and change agents are the explorers with innovative ideas.

The appropriate diversity of change leaders is critical.  Too many change resistors can lead to stagnation.  Too many change agents can lead to chaos.  In order to operate at the edge of chaos, more change agents are needed than change resistors.  But what exactly is a change agent?  A Change Agent:

  • Is a voracious learner
  • Does not wait for orders to take action on new ideas
  • Expresses excitement freely concerning new ideas and change
  • Demonstrates a sense of urgency to capitalize on innovations and opportunities
  • Challenges the status quo
  • Transcends silos to achieve enterprise results
  • Skillfully influences peers and colleagues to promote and sell ideas
  • Displays personal courage by taking a stand on controversial and challenging changes

A successful integration team is also a successful change management team. It would be a mistake to underestimate the difficulty in leading change in a large enterprise. Some of the really difficult challenges include:

  • The “not invented here” syndrome and other similar behaviors;
  • Project funding by fine-grained silos that don’t have the money for and aren’t motivated to solve the “big picture”;
  • Tactical short-term investment emphasis that doesn’t appear to leave any room for strategic infrastructure investments;
  • Concessions and trade-offs needed by tactical pressures that get in the way of “the right thing” in the long term;
  • Autonomous operating groups in distributed geographies that will not accept guidance from a central group; and
  • Fear of change and vested interests in the status quo that come across as having no compelling reason to change.

The term “challenges” may be too polite when referring to the above list; these seem a lot more like immovable barriers. As insurmountable as these hurdles may appear to be, they are not unique to an integration team and have been conquered in the past. While there is no simple “silver bullet” solution, there are a number of key concepts which have been proven over and over to be effective. Here are seven of the best:

  1. Think strategically – Act tactically: Have a clear vision of the future, but be prepared to get there one step at a time. It is good to keep in mind that there is no end-state. In other words, something is always changing so if you miss a window of opportunity to establish say a new architectural standard on the latest project, don’t worry. Another project will come along. If you are in it for the long run, individual projects, even big ones, are just blips on the radar screen.
  2. Credibility through delivery: In order to be perceived as a leader by others in the enterprise, you need their trust and respect. It’s not just about being open, honest and trustworthy; but do people trust that you will actually get the job done? In the final analysis it comes down to your ability to execute. To organize your work, set appropriate priorities, assign the appropriate resources to the task and maintain good communications with your customers. Above all, keep your promises.
  3. Sidestep resource issues: In this global economy of outsourcing, off-shoring and contracting, there should never be a reason to not find the resources to get a particular job done. If you want to create a reputation as a “can do” customer service oriented team, there should never be a time when you need to say No to a service request due to lack of resources (there may be other reasons to say No).
  4. Choose your battles: Whenever you have the choice between a carrot and stick approach, always use the carrot. You can, and should, carry a stick in terms of having the support of senior executives for any mandated processes or standards, but you should use the power as infrequently as possible. Sometimes this might even mean deviating from enterprise standards. One way to help you choose your battles is try this exercise. Write down your integration principles on a piece of paper and stroke out one at a time starting with the ones that you would be willing to compromise on if pushed into a corner until you only have one left. That is the principle that you should use your stick for.
  5. Take out the garbage: Accept responsibility for work that no-one else wants. An interesting lesson learned is that many of the jobs that no-one really wants are those that don’t serve a specific function but end up being ideal integration initiatives. Sometimes these also end up being really difficult challenges, but generally they are recognized by management as such which opens the door to asking for top-level support when needed.
  6. Leverage knowledge: There is a well-known truism that states that “knowledge is power”. In an integration team you are ideally positioned to talk with just about anyone in the organization. By asking a lot of questions and being a good listener, you can gain a lot of knowledge about the organization that narrowly focused project teams or groups don’t have. This knowledge can come in very handy in terms of which projects are getting approved and where you shouldn’t spend your time, where next year’s budget will land, which groups are hiring and which aren’t, etc.
  7. Take it outside: Another aspect of leadership is active participation in the broader community; specifically, participation in standards bodies or professional organizations. The external activities can be useful for both getting new ideas and insights and for polishing your own ideas though discussion and debate with others. In the end, these activities can make you stronger at an individual level which can only help you play a leadership role inside your enterprise.

If you’ve read this far, then presumably the topic is of high interest. In which case, you may want to check out an award-winning paper on the topic of change management that will be presented at the Global Integration Summit.  The presentation title is An Inconvenient Change: Transforming chaotic change into a manageable process with the Organizational Loss of Effectiveness (LOE) Model. Visit the event website www.globalintegrationsummit.com for a more detailed abstract.

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5 Responses to Change Management – Chaos vs. Stagnation

  1. Helly says:

    Change management does carry a lot of risks but some of these risks can be worth taking if the change is handled correctly and it can mean that the organization needs to have a change agent. Not long ago I viewed a presentation from Med Yones, management expert. It was a best practices case study of Nissan and how they managed the changes they were facing. The presentation also included a change management framework developed by IIM. For further information see
    http://www.ceocoach.us/ceoseminars/ceoseminars_ceogloballeadershipceobestpractices.pdf

  2. John Schmidt says:

    Helly, thanks for passing along the link to the Nissan case study. Most changes do in fact fail – for evidence, just count the number of failed start-up companies vs. those that succeed. And to drive changes in an established organization like Nissan can be even more challenging because of cultural momentum. So this does indeed make for a very interesting case study that we can learn from.

  3. James Schumann says:

    It is really about the balance between change and stability. The 3 questions every manager should ask,
    1. do we need the change now
    2. how much change is needed
    3. how best to implement the change.

    I read the comment by Helly her link to Med Yones ‘ presentation. It is really a huge challenge how Nissan’s CEO succeeded in changing such a large organization. I think this is exceptional success story. We have a much smaller organization and we find it so difficult to adapt to the changes in the market and the economy. You hear in the news the outcry about the compensation and bonuses of the CEOs. It is CEOs like Carlos Ghoson that should be paid the highest. The success of any company or CEO boils down to their ability to mange Change. – I think

  4. John,

    Article is quite extensive. I’m sure you are thinkning a lot. Enjoyed reading the thought process. I was trying to figure out is there is any difference in thinkning on what I was working on and what I read here. Conceptually probably not but definitely one point that I need to say. In terms of evolution of capabilities and leading it to next-generation leap for a discipline like change management, it has to go above the level of principles and best practices. It need to go to a level where change is no more to be managed but only ‘exploited’. Which means systems, processes, methods and all other components of any eco-system need to enable it in a way that change just happens without needing to think too much about it. Otherwise it can’t possibly ever get into revolution category. My favorite example is digitization of songs. There was a time when we had physical media for songs. If you have to change the song, you got to take off old record, load the new one and then play it. Lot of change management involved. Advent of digital technology has now changed the paradigm of change for it. If you were to change a song today in fully digitized multi-media system, all it needs is just a click (and possibly in voice activated system, it will be just a word) and it happens. That’s what I’m talking about in terms of enabling the change. Level of advancement that can transform the theory of ‘change management’ and invite the change as opportunity and not as a threat.

  5. John Schmidt says:

    Rakesh, the example you gave is a good one for highlighting the change in business processes which are facilitated by technology. It is certainly true that technology improvements have created tremendous advances in productivity and ultimately everyone’s standard of living. The challenge is that while change provides opportunity at the macro level, it often is viewed as a threat at the individual level.

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