Domesticating the change beast

Domesticating the change beast

Starting change is pretty easy. If you’re the new exec, people practically expect changes in the organization chart, the vendor list, or in some “key business process.” If you’re a technologist or a specialist, you don’t have to wait too long before there’s an upgrade, a new product or some other disruptive event, and the change beast is off rummaging through the underbrush of your organization.
In any event, the clamor begins with the focus groups and Post-It-note exercises, re-organizations and best-practice process improvements, and all the other weapons of a modern change safari. Some tiger-team may actually go thundering off into the bush of daily operations—usually never to be heard from again. For all the regularity of the clamor and alarm, we seem to have very few truly successful changes or at even something contained, just pacing up and down inside its cage.
Most of the levers used to start change are in the formal part of your organization: the reporting structure and staffing, the architectures and the business processes, the compensation practices and performance management tools. While necessary, these formal structures are usually not sufficient for any enduring difference. On the hunt for sustainable change, you’ll have to venture into the informal part of your organization: the relationships and hallway chatter; the pragmatic expediencies and exceptions to any rule; and the ever popular “way things are done around here.” You can pull all the formal levers you want, but until you have an impact on the informal workings of your organization, you’ll just irritate the change beast, not subdue it.
Giving rules or even guidelines for making informal change is more than a little bit of an oxymoron. You don’t “make” informal change. You may influence it, you may coax it, plead for it or even chum for it, but you can’t command it. To capture change, to domesticate it, there are some tactics you might use to tap into all that energy swirling around in your informal culture.

Drown the rumor mill

Information abhors a vacuum, and people will invent meaning in the absence of any hard information. If you don’t know, say so. If you’ve got questions, talk about them. I’m not suggesting that you start out saying everything you know. Sometimes that’s not useful or even legal. And in any case, if your organization isn’t use to that kind of dialog, it will definitely irritate the change beast. But over time, you and your organization will get better at more open dialogs and be able to handle the bad news as well as the good.

Open the candy store

Figure out what energizes your folks and do it. Don’t assume it’s all about money. Being cheap will definitely turn people off, but throwing money around may not have any lasting affect and you can’t keep doing that forever. We’re hearing more and more that time and attention are as important to people as money, if basic financial needs are taken care of. The reward may be a challenging assignment, professional development, or shutting down the office for an afternoon once in a while to go bowling or play putt-putt golf. I had one engineering team that finally came together over regular Friday afternoon brewery tours (not that I’m suggesting doping or stimulants as a business practice).

Round up the ring leaders

Hopefully some of these folks are in your management team, but I’ll guarantee not all of them are. Some of the most influential ring leaders got that way because of their refusal to go over to the management side. If you can make friends with these folks, they’ll help you subdue the change beast. Alienate or marginalize them, and you’ll find them standing squarely between you and any hope of domesticating change.
The formal part of every organization is pretty much the same. It’s the undocumented, sometimes nearly invisible, workings of an organization that makes it unique. The suggestions above are really just a way for you to begin seeing those informal mechanics. Stupid Microsoft office-work-as-sporting-event commercials not withstanding, the informal part of your organization isn’t always silly or awkward and almost never obvious. It will take time and patience to spot it and follow it’s trail to real change.
Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and program development consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via e-mail at or via telephone at 608/345-3958.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.