Sally left the team meeting and went back to her cubicle. She sat at her desk, thinking about quitting. Another meeting with more work put on her plate. No recognition for all she had done. “It was time,” she thought. She’d had enugh of her boss, and the company. Too many projects, unreasonable deadlines, lack of resources, and so-called teammates who weren’t carrying their load had taken their toll. Things had to be better elsewhere. She went home that night and started looking for a new job.
Sound familiar? According to an article by Alison Doyle (How Often Do People Change Jobs, the balance, May 1, 2017, https://www.thebalance.com/how-often-do-people-change-jobs-2060467), between 69% and 87% of people between the ages of 25 and 48 have an average length of employment of fewer than five years.
Tom Gimbel, writing in Fortune magazine (http://fortune.com/2015/10/11/common-reasons-for-quitting-job/) says that people leave their companies for three primary reasons, their boss, more money, or they don’t enjoy their work. Most of us have experienced an over-bearing boss, a stifling environment, or a job that is less than fulfilling. For many, there’s a feeling of helplessness in such situations. However, there are some people whose profession it is to “fix” these conditions. They are change agents. The work they do is organization development (OD).
This article is for OD consultants, the people who try to make things better in organizations. It covers the knowledge, skills and expertise necessary to become a change agent and a bit about how one acquires that expertise. The central piece is a 7-phase consulting process and the issues involved in each phase. The article discusses consultant roles, establishing planning and implementation teams, guidelines for establishing project goals and planning interventions to achieve those goals. A substantial section is devoted to communication and reporting. The final section is a case study involving CylenBrakes (fictitious name) demonstrating how the seven phases are applied in an actual intervention.
The question one should consider when deciding to become change agents is: “What qualifies you to lead change in an organization?” There are so many moving parts in an organization that to be skilled and knowledgeable enough to unfix it from its current situation, guide it through a transformation and refix it to a new and better state, is an incredibly daunting task. Organization Development Network identifies 141 competencies required of a change agent. That is a lot of requisite knowledge. Even so, some knowledge and skills are seldom considered.
The following list includes essential competencies vital to the success of change agents and the organizations that engage them.
So how does one acquire such expertise? Think of the ability to lead organizational change as a craft, a skill that takes practice to guidance master. Fresh out of college, I went to work for the OD and Training Department of the City of San Diego. The next 12 months were spent observing, taking notes, asking questions, and doing the administrative work associated with change interventions. The next ten years were spent moving up the management ranks and learning about politics, personalities, leadership, and organizations. After eleven years, I was hired by an OD consulting firm as a junior consultant. The next two years were spent as an apprentice to William J. Pfeiffer, who taught me how to plan and lead interventions and Larry Porter who taught me about groups and organization cultures. Only after thirteen years in business and management was I able to undertake a change intervention on my own.
It may be unrealistic to expect someone new to the profession in today’s business environment to wait that long for a similar opportunity, but I learned the profession of leading change, what it took, and how to do it. One of the key lessons learned was that change is unpredictable. Things happen, anticipated and unanticipated. The best way to prepare for that was to have a time-tested and proven process and to trust it.
Many new consultants don’t have a process for going about their work. They may not progress in a logical or practical sequence to increase the likelihood of their intervention’s success. They may not understand potential problems or roadblocks that impede their progress and hinder successful completion.
After 40 years of consulting to organizations of all sizes and in a myriad of industries, at home and abroad, FirstStep OD & Training offers this 7-phased process to help new consultants proceed in a proven and logic manner. It is intended for consultants who lead large-scale change projects, but can also be effective for smaller change efforts.
Intervention Issue: Establishing Expertise
A comprehensive consulting model follows.
Few consulting contracts start with an interaction with the CEO or President of a company. It does happen, but it’s rare. More commonly, the initial contact with a company is at a much lower level, typically by someone who has read a book, listened to a presentation, watched a video, or attended a training session. Sometimes consultant contracts result from referrals. But even those, for the most part, are below the CEO or President levels.
The Contact Person: The person who brings you into the organization is your primary contact person, regardless of their level. Most consultants seek to speak with “the decision-maker.” Remember this, the person inviting you into the organization IS the decision-maker. He or she is the person who decided to recommend you and defend you. It is very unwise, unprofessional, and unethical to minimize this person’s role and importance.
Job Aid: Consultant-Client Compatibility
There is a lot written about selecting a consultant, but little on how to select a client. Not every organization is a good match for a consultant. Here are ten questions to help you decide if the client is a good match for you.
|Is there a personality and leadership style match between you and the people with whom you will be working||It’s difficult to work with people whose personalities or leadership style clash with yours.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Is this an industry or organization in which you have substantial experience||Speaking jargon and citing examples from similar organizations attests to your expertise and credibility.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Have you worked with clients on the scale that this project is projected to encompass||Problems can occur if the client is bigger or more geographically dispersed than your experience has encompassed.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Do you have associates who possess expertise you do not||It may be necessary to get outside help. Having working relationships with other consultants is beneficial.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Is the project a strategic initiative or a priority||Significant projects are more likely to get the support and resources needed to succeed.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Is the organization willing to devote time and resources to its successful completion||The organization must be able and willing to allow people time for meetings and project work.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Is the client willing to go with your processes and allow you to do what is necessary or will the client tightly control the project||It’s essential that the client give you the freedom to do what is needed after you explain what you intend to do and how you intend to do it.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Will you have access to key decision-makers and executives with power and influence to provide the support you need||Your project must have the support of key players. They need to make your project a top priority among their many others.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Are you comfortable in the organization’s work environment||You will spend many hours walking around inside the organization. Do you feel safe? Are there signs of harassment? Are people friendly?|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Is the client readily accessible||It is likely you will have to spend time onsite. Consider the feasibility of completing the project remotely.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Do you have the technology you need?||You will need technology to work remotely. Consider your technology capabilities and those of your client.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
|Do you truly think you can make a positive difference?||It’s not wise to do something you’ve never done before. Clients don’t like it when consultants learn on their dime.|| Yes Somewhat Little No|
Contracting: Clients want to know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, how long it will take, and how much it will cost. Once you know how long it takes to do things like conduct an initial assessment, analyze and report assessment data, establish an implementation plan, identify key performance metrics, complete the project, and write a final report it is easy to write a contract. The diagram below shows one way to present an overview of what the project involves (phases and actions), how long it will take, and how much it will cost.
This table is an example, your consulting project may not fit into the five phases shown. The “Actions” are the things you will do to complete the various phases.
Setting Expectations: It is imperative that the client understands how you do things, the process you will follow; what to expect from beginning to end. An experienced consultant has a plan or process based on experience. A good plan allows for the unexpected. The more accurate you are in clarifying what will happen, the more support you generate from those who hire you. Clients aren’t upset by deviations and are pleased when reaching milestones. A clearly articulated plan of what you do and descriptions for each phase that describes roles, responsibilities, deliverables, and fees is essential.
Clarifying Roles: In many instances, consultants are “content experts” who provide specific direction and instructions. The client seeks their assistance because they do not have the consultant’s expertise inside the organization. For example, a client may retain the services of videographer to direct and produce video-based training programs.
In other, situations, the consultants’ role may be that of a “process expert.” For example, OD consultants assume the role of process expert. Their primary function is to keep the project moving and on track through dialogue and observation. When a consultant is a process expert, the role of the content expert is shifted to someone within the organization. The consultant must be very clear in identifying which role he or she assumes.
A seasoned process consultant builds and advises an internal support team and transfers ownership of the project to that team. The team is responsible for decision-making, planning, implementation, evaluation, and adjusting the plans. The consultant’s role is that of an advisor and facilitator of team’s processes. When this team functions properly, the consultant’s knowledge and skills are transferred to the client.
Who Is the Client? The term “client” has multiple interpretations. Edgar Schein identified six different types of clients within the organization to which you are contracting. These include; 1) the initial contact – the person from the organization that initiated contact with you, 2) intermediate clients – those people who attend meetings and from whom you seek information, 3) primary client – the person(s) who have responsibility for the problem or situation you are working, 4) unwitting clients – those who are affected by the intervention but may not be aware of it, 5) indirect clients – stakeholders who are not known by the consultant, 6) ultimate client – the larger system or organization as a whole.
It is likely that each different type of client has different needs and expectations. A consultant should be aware of these different types and seek them out, if possible.
Positioning: Once you have a contract, the next step is “entering” the organization. Think carefully about how to do this. Your entry creates a first impression. You want it to be positive. Consider your positioning. Are you an outside expert? Are you an industry expert, a subject matter expert, a seasoned professional with many years of global experience? Who will introduce you? How is that person perceived? What’s his or her role? Are you going to be available to people? If so, how and when?
Champions: There is a reason you are working with a client. Someone thinks you can help them. That person may be your initial contact and the person who promotes and supports your within the organization. That person can be considered as your “Personal Champion,” but he or she may not be your “Change or Project Champion.” The difference is that your “Change/Project Champion” must have the political or positional power to: provide the resources you need, overcome the resistance you may face, or issue the finances you need to be successful. Having both champions on your side is beneficial.
The first step in any intervention is to determine what the situation is. There are many ways to that. Surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, observation, reviewing performance data, and dialogue are just a few. Most consultants incorporate several data gathering methods to gain a more thorough understanding of the situation is and for clues as to what actions to take. The more you know, the better you can determine what to do. The fewer methods used, the less reliable the data.
Understand four things about employee feedback.
Here are some things to know about management feedback.
If something seems to be trending in one direction, positive or negative, seek contrary evidence. If there is none, you can assume the feedback is accurate.
Preliminary Report of Findings. This report includes all information good or bad, uncovered in the assessment. It is uncensored. Access to this document is limited to the HR Director and perhaps one or two other PIT members due to its sensitive nature. For example, the preliminary report may include information about sexual misconduct or criminal activity. In either case, senior management may not be willing to share that information. The people having access to the preliminary report decide what to include and exclude. The HR Director and others decided what actions to take based on information presented.
Final Report of Findings. The final report is the edited version of the assessment results, suitable for general distribution. It is the document with which the PIT works.
The most important thing to remember about planning and goal setting is that the best results occur when the organization does it, not the consultant. Whenever possible, try to establish your role as a process consultant who leads a team of people from various parts of the organization through the goal setting and planning process. The team is primarily a decision-making body and must have the authority to make organizational decisions and carry out the changes suggested. The team is called a Planning and Implementation Team (PIT).
Planning and Implementation Teams need not be large, preferably seven to eight people, but its scope must span several specialties. At a minimum, a PIT should include members with expertise in the following HR, Training, Communications, Finance, Operations, and carry out the implementation strategies developed by the PIT.
For example, if you are asked to improve performance in a given department, you may want to determine the essential competencies of employees within the unit. HR can provide job descriptions which have competencies or from which competencies can be extrapolated. It is likely that some training may be needed to teach new competencies or improve the execution of existing ones. Involving trainers early in the process makes that task easier. Finance’s support helps control costs and track ROI.
Provide an overview of what a PIT does, how it does it, a subcommittee structure, and the roles of PIT members. Introduce decision-making processes, methods of resolving conflict, and rules for confronting and dealing with differences of opinion.
Consultant’s Expert Role: A consultant typically assumes two roles: process facilitator and content expert. By far, the most common role a consultant takes is that of an expert. He or she assesses the problem and suggests what to do. To do well in this role, the consultant must be highly knowledgeable of the organization itself, the industry in which it competes, and have many years of experience in the organization and industry. A good example of someone qualified to succeed as a content expert is a former manager or employee who is asked back because of his or her expertise or experience.
The major drawback to being a content expert is that ownership of the solution rests solely on the shoulders of the expert. Remember that between 30% and 50% of change efforts fail to achieve desired outcomes. If your project should be one of the unfortunate failures, regardless of what happened beyond your control, the failure is yours to own. The client washes their hands of fault and casts blame on to you.
Process Consulting: As a process consultant, you rely on the expertise within the organization to determine what to do based on the assessment results. They know the organization, its culture, the people within it, its history, strengths, etc. far better than you. Your first step as a process consultant is to help the client understand the phases and actions the project involves. It is also essential that the client own the assessment results. You should not proceed unless the client has a thorough understanding of the situation, both the good and the bad. Agreement puts you both on the same page at the beginning.
The second step in process consulting is determining what to do. The process consultant’s job is to help the PIT surface possible actions, evaluate the pros and cons of each option, consider possible unintended outcomes or consequences of their choices, and help them through the process of making group decisions.
Process consulting requires a particular set of skills. These include a variety of methods for processing group decision-making, resolving conflicts, achieving consensus, action planning, project management, processing workflow, managing parallel processes, and more.
The advantage of process consulting is that the PIT owns the solutions since it is their ideas and actions they implementing. The benefit of this method is that the organization learns the skills for resolving future problems. They are likely to ask you back a second time to help lead the process. If they ask you back a third time, you have not done your job of transferring knowledge and skills to the organization.
There is far too much to know about change and organizations to present in this document. Even so, it is vital that the consultant whether in an expert role or a process consulting role understands the complexities and intricacies of change at the organization, department, team, and individual levels. One should observe and help with several change interventions before attempting it by oneself. Trying to make changes without knowing how to do it creates more problems than solutions.
At this point, you should have achieved consensus regarding what you and the organization are going to do, a set of realistic goals, a plan for achieving the goals, key performance indicators to track progress and results, and a PIT to oversee implementation.
Communication Plan: Organizations are like spider webs. They are connected. If you plunk one part of the web, the whole thing shakes. It shakes most violently at the “plunk-point” and vibrations lessen the further one is from that point. The thing to remember is that the whole organization is affected even when a small change occurs.
A good communication plan helps prevent confusion and disruption. The PIT must inform the organization of its project, the reason for doing it, its expected outcomes, and how it impacts the different units and departments. Communication needs to be customized depending upon how distant people are from the unit where the change will occur. Those units far from the “plunk point” may only need to a memo informing them of the actions. Those directly affected need to be briefed in person and have opportunities to ask questions and get answers that address their individual and personal concerns.
Making changes without telling people leads to frustration, confusion, and ultimately anger.
Feedback: People want to know about results. The closer to the “plunk point” someone is, the more they want to know. The PIT has to decide how to communicate results. Again, those far away from the change may only need a memo. Those directly impacted are best served by face-to-face meetings.
There is another side to feedback, and that is input from the organization to the PIT. The PIT must establish a process for people to communicate with them, either in confidence or openly. This type of feedback is vital to the success of the project. The people who know the most about how things are working are those who are doing the work. These people need to be able to express their feelings and concerns without fear of condemnation, chastisement, or retaliation.
A well-known consultant once said that “cynics are my best friends.” By that he meant, the people who are the most upset provide the best information about what is wrong and what to fix. Of course, the source of negative or highly critical feedback needs to be considered. Even if the feedback comes from someone dead-set against the change, do not ignore it. There probably is some truth to it. It just needs to be uncovered.
Summary Report: In addition to periodic feedback on the progress of the intervention, organizations want a final report regarding the project and its outcomes. The consultant may write the report and have the PIT edit it. In some cases, the planning team may write the report and have it reviewed by the consultant. Regardless of who writes it, it is recommended that the report is submitted by the PIT and consultant together.
Hopefully, your project is one of the 50% that succeeds. If so, your client will be happy, and you may be considered for future work. Transfering your knowledge and skills to the PIT, so the organization becomes smarter is more important than any additional work you might receive.
New Work with the Client: You become close to PIT members as you work through the project. Connect with them periodically to see how things are going. Don’t call asking for more work. If they need your help, they will ask. Instead, just be friends and catch up on things. Do this consistently. Don’t let the relationships you built dissipate.
CylenBrakes (CB) is a manufacturer of antilock brakes which are supplied to auto makers in Michigan and Tennessee. They have a small production facility in Dayton, OH with about 300 employees. A few years ago, they separated from a large automaker to become independent. One of the reasons for the split was the desire of CB’s management to switch from a command-and-control type organization to one of self-direction and empowerment.
Two members of the management team attended an executive workshop I did on creating a self-directed organization hosted by a local university. After the shop, they invited me to talk with the entire leadership team of 10 managers.
Entry. A 2-hour meeting was setup early one morning. At the meeting, I discussed the pros and cons of empowerment and self-direction, the problems with making the switch from a traditional work environment, and a process for making the transition. The entire leadership team attended this overview meeting and they asked many questions.
CylenBrakes is a union shop. All the salaried employees, 290 of them, were members of the UAW. No one from the union was represented at the initial overview. I told the managers that this transition would not succeed without the overt support and participation of the union, especially its leadership.
It was 1:00pm, when I received the leadership teams okay to talk with the union. CB’s President and two others went with me. The President explained what he wanted to do, why, and how he saw it benefitting salaried, union workers. The union bosses were skeptical. I ended up doing a shorter version of the presentation I did earlier.
That evening CB’s President, the Union’s President and I met privately. We talked for about three hours. Eventually, the union president agreed to try it, but since employees would be making decisions that were well within the domain of management, according to the charter between the UAW and CylenBrakes, an exception to that charter was necessary. Getting that exception took several months of discussions. Finally, the union agreed to test empowerment and self-direction at CB’s plant.
After this negotiation, it became apparent that there were several clients: CB’s President, the Local Union’s President, CB’s leadership and the union’s leadership teams, and workers. Suppliers and customers would also be affected by the transition, and thus they too were clients, of a sort.
Contracting. As you might expect, contracting was difficult since everything had to be approved by two constituents, the union and the company. I began by creating a Planning and Implementation Team (PTI) comprised of both union and company leaders as well as union reps and employees. Once the PIT was formed we started the process of establishing behavior norms, team member expectations, and the value of “one’s word.” Every member of the PIT swore to keep his or her word and abide the norms the PIT established. Several days were spent achieving consensus before each member of the PIT swore to abide by the PIT’s rules in front of everyone and aloud.
After establishing basic ground rules, we had to decide what our goals were. Becoming empowered and self-directed was too broad. The PIT spent hours establish goals and the key performance measures that would indicate progress and eventual success.
Once we knew what we were going to do, it was necessary to determine how we would do that. I presented transitional process model that included: role clarity and expectations of self-direction, definitions of empowerment, team processes (decision-making, problem-solving, confrontations, etc.), workflow, performance management, and many other issues involved in the change from a traditional management system to one of self-direction.
Assessment. Since all the employees and managers of CB were new to self-direction the PIT decided that the best way to proceed was to conduct sensing interviews, develop a questionnaire, and hold informal chat sessions where employees could freely express their opinions.
The data was gathered and a preliminary report of findings was written. Aside from a few employees who did not want the responsibility of self-direction, there was nothing that could not be presented in a final report of findings.
Basically, it was determined that the employees knew how to do their jobs at high levels of quality, productivity, and efficiency. What was needed was training and experience in becoming self-directed. Most of the training involved changing attitudes.
Implementation. I developed an implementation plan which was submitted to the PIT for revision and approval. Much of the plan consisted of team training in the areas such as: group decision making, conflict resolution, problem solving, quality management, HR policies and practices (360o peer reviews were implemented), etc. Significant time was spent on establishing a shared vocabulary that reflected the processes installed and the goals the organization sought to achieve. Once approved, the plan was carried out by leadership of both the union and CB as well as contracted trainers. The transition to a well-functioning empowered and self-directed organization took about ten months to implement.
Evaluation. The original assessment process was repeated annually for two years. Each year the results on key success measures improved or remained satisfactory. Other issues surfaced, but the PIT was able to identify the sources of the problems and adequately resolve them.
The plant manager was extremely happy with the results. He was promoted to another facility and asked to repeat the process. He asked if I would help and agreed. Members of the PIT became strong advocates of empowerment. Several went on to new positions of increased responsibility.
Leading a change intervention, a process improvement intervention or any kind of intervention, for that matter is difficult. Most people don’t like to change. They’ve learned to work with things the way they are, and change brings with it the unknown. People wonder if they’ll succeed in a new environment or doing things differently. Other people are unhappy and welcome changes that may make things better. But even they, may not be sure about an adjusted future.
Let’s be honest, it takes a lot of moxie to believe that you can enter a dysfunctional workplace and make it better. Most people don’t have that kind of confidence or chutzpa. Experienced change agents enter organizations with a belief in a process. They trust it because they’ve seen it work. They know they can’t change anything about an organization without the support and cooperation of others. Over the years, they honed their skills, refined their processes, learned how to deal with naysayers, and engender support from throughout the organization. It’s not easy and doesn’t happen quickly.
There is so much more one must know to lead change, so much more that can be written on the topics covered. Hopefully, the information herein serves as stimulus to help you learn more. Hopefully, it provides insights that can help you make a difference in organizations and the lives of people who work in them.