Ability to adapt to change is key to success


December 23, 1991|By Gerald Graham | Gerald Graham,Knight-Ridder

"During the past two years, we have restructured, installed a new data processing system, altered our policies and changed personnel in several key positions," lamented a middle manager. "I'll be so glad when things get back to normal."

But, the reality is, this manager's circumstance is normal. Future success, even more so than in the past, will depend on the ability to adapt to rapid and continuing change.

More than 50 years of research suggests that the way to get people to accept change is to ask them to participate in designing the change. Yet, many managers are asked to implement changes in their departments with little or no participation in designing the change.

William (not his real name), a departmental manager, believed he was caught in the middle. Higher management made the decision to make changes in the way William's department kept track of costs, inventory and completed tasks.

William's employees quickly complained about the new system. "It is awkward." "It takes too long." "It does not accurately reflect our true costs." "It does not provide some of the information we need."

When William reported these complaints to the people who designed the system, the response was, "Yes, we can make modifications, but it will take a long time." A member of the design team also suggested that some of William's people might be dragging their feet because they were inconvenienced by these new ways.

William understood the need for the new system, but he also agreed that some of the complaints probably were justified. William knew that management wanted the system fully operational within six months.

After much thought, William evolved the following strategies. "First," he explained, "I will continue helping my people but let them know that I expect to meet the deadline." If he could not meet the deadline, William was then going to ask for an extension. If an extension was not granted, he would try to convince management that it could not implement the system until design changes were made. "If none of this works," William concluded, "I hope that management will see that their expectations were unrealistic."

In short, even when your people tend to resist changes, a combination of firm expectations with a helping hand are probably the best strategies.

(Gerald Graham is a professor at Wichita State University and a management consultant. Send questions to the Wichita Eagle, P.O. Box 820, Wichita, Kan. 67201. He will answer representative questions in the newspaper but cannot respond to every request.)

Selling change

Suppose that you were asked to implement changes that neither you nor your people had input into, and your people were resisting the changes. Rank the following in sequence (one through five) of how you would lead the group. That is: What would you do first? If that did not work: What would you do next?

A. Try to keep morale up and ask employees to do the best they can.

B. Try to get the deadlines extended.

C. Enforce the deadline while offering help to your people.

D. Just hold on. There is a good chance problems will work themselves out.

E. Ask higher management to consider altering the proposals to account for your employees' concerns.

Although not all experts would agree, a recommended sequence is: first, try C. If that does not work, consider B, then E, A and D in that order.

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