Three Keys to Organizational Change

My friend and colleague Dan Tobin, author of such books as Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline, is in the process of writing his next book, to be called “What Did You Learn at Work Today?” Dan says the book will provide guidance to employees at all levels on how they should be learning at work every day in order to improve their job performance and build their careers.

A major feature of the book, Dan says, is going to be many personal stories of ways that people have learned valuable lessons at work (other than by attending a training program or taking an e-learning course).

Here’s a story that I submitted to Dan for his consideration. It’s a story about organizational change.

I was the Training Manager supporting the R&D unit in NJ of a global pharma-chemicals company based in Germany. The business unit head from Frankfurt had flown to NJ for a management meeting and, to my great surprise, asked to see me.

In a meeting that lasted only a few seconds, he shook my hand and said, “Please help them to change.”

He was talking about my client group, a community of research scientists and technicians. The change he was referring to was the need to become more customer focused. The customers, the business units in North Carolina and Texas, had grown fed up with the lack of commercially viable new product ideas from the NJ R&D unit.

Over a number of years, the perception had formed that the R&D unit in NJ was an out-of-touch ivory tower, disconnected from the real needs of the revenue generating business units. The truth is, the R&D community had stopped engaging with their customers, had stopped listening to them.

The moment of truth came at a town hall meeting. The head of the R&D unit put it plainly: Unless we start generating commercially viable new product ideas that the business units want, this R&D location will be closed.

What did we do? Working in concert with R&D management, HR, and Quality, I developed several initiatives, including an intra-preneuring course that showed the scientists how to frame their new ideas as business proposals. An important feature of this program was the new product idea presentation where the research teams presented their pitch to management (including business unit managers) and got direct and unvarnished feedback. Some ideas were killed on the spot, while others were sent back to the drawing board for more work. From this iterative process, the strongest ideas were given the green light for further development.

As well received as this training program was, the real breakthrough was a series of new idea brainstorming sessions, comprised of max-mix groups where researchers met with reps from the business units. Conceived by one of my clients, a young researcher, these brainstorming meetings produced many innovative ideas that excited the business units, and helped shift their perception of the NJ R&D unit. As the meeting facilitator, I had the thrilling opportunity to see a bunch of great minds interacting and coming up with so many possibilities.

Through this experience, I learned some important lessons about changing an organization:

It takes a team: No one person could have done this alone. But as Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It takes engagement: To shift such deeply entrenched negative perceptions, the parties have to re-engage, start interacting again, start listening again, and start trusting again.

It takes vision: What one thing will turn around an organization that was headed for the chopping block? A very clear, unambiguous view of what John Kotter termed “the burning platform.” And a clear alternative vision of a brighter future.

Oh! And one more…
It takes acceptance: For an organization to change, the members must accept it. If they understand the need, they are more likely to embrace the change. And in accepting it, they will be open to learning (about themselves, about others), open to influence, and open to growth.

Yes, there will be some loss and pain associated with organizational change. But, as the old saying “No pain, no gain” points out, there will be a new beginning.

Posted by Terrence Seamon on April 6, 2011. For more ideas on leadership development, change management, and storytelling, invite Terry to your organization.

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