Preparing for Change

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People need to know why they are being asked to change, and the earlier they understand the reason, the more time they have to get prepared. In most organizations we “Braille the culture, " as one professional trend spotter, Faith Popcorn, put it. We run our fingertips along trend bumps as they speed by and try to “read" where we’re going. One of the most vital roles of leadership is to anticipate the corporation’s future and its place in the global arena, and then to formulate strategies for surmounting challenges that have not yet manifested.

But leaders can’t succeed alone. Employees, too, should be scanning the business environment. Everyone in the organization should have a realistic appreciation of the precursors of organizational transformation – the impact of globalization, market fluctuations, technological innovations, societal and demographic changes in the customer base, new offerings by competitors, new government and regulatory decisions.

Here are some ways that organizations are “setting the stage" for change:

1) Direct experience More and more leaders are recognizing the need to design a workplace event that enables people to experience for themselves the need for change. When Rubbermaid held a product fair in its headquarters town, it displayed storage bins, kitchen items and other plastic housewares, each with a label that detailed what it cost to make and what it sold for. Sounds like a run-of-the-mill corporate event except for two things: the fair was open only to Rubbermaid employees and the products were not Rubbermaid’s, but its competitors’. Rubbermaid wanted its workers to see for themselves what they were competing against.

2) Outside expertise The commercial organizations of Bayer used an “IMS year in review" presentation to in order to show Bayer’s position/wins/challenges in perspective with the industry. (IMS is a company that tracks information on the Pharmaceutical industry and then sells it back to companies. ) This gave employees an opportunity to see how they stacked up against the competition – and to ask questions from an unbiased external source.

3) Business literacy

When Jack Stack arrived at International Harvester’s factory in Springfield, Missouri, the engine remanufacturing plant was losing $2 million dollars a year on revenues of $26 million. Stack and the 119 employees of the now independent Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation initiated an amazing turnaround. Ten years after he bought the company, SRC had sales of $73 million and the firm hired almost 600 additional workers. How did he do that? By increasing all employees’ business literacy. Stack created a system called “The Great Game of Business, " which was designed to teach every employee about the entire business - including the finances of the company. From the “Root Learning Maps" used by Sears and Pepsi, etc. to courses offered by financial services consultants, business literacy is a tool many organizations use to prepare people for change.

4) Customer feedback

Few strategies are as valid a stimulus for change as responding to customer feedback. At Ritz-Carlton Hotels, employees continually create change in order to solve customers’ problems. Here’s how it works: if a particular hotel has, as its primary customer complaint, a problem with room service taking too long, the manager would inform employees in that department and ask for volunteers to form a committee to find the root of the problem in the room service system and to change or create a different process that solves the problem. By the same token, if two different departments have a conflict - say waiters are dissatisfied with dishwashers because the banquet service isn’t ready on time - then members of both departments form a cross-functional team (as internal customer and supplier) to find the process problem and solve it.

5) Shared background information

To prepare the organization to position itself for the future, Planned Parenthood started out by commissioning a research project. Consultants interviewed experts in all of the different fields that PP had an interest in - everything from reproductive healthcare to gender and population issues to politics. And they used this research to provide background information for everybody throughout the organization who requested it. In this way, participants were prepared by the time they got together for their first big meeting to discuss the need for a new vision.

6) Future scenario planning Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders need to expose workers to the complaints and changing needs of customers, the new products of international competitors, and the financial reality of costs and profits. Instead of stifling conflicting opinions, leaders must encourage employees to join a constant questioning of the prevailing business assumptions - and to be ready to act upon new opportunities early in the game to maintain a competitive advantage. A few questions to get you started:

  • What would happen if our current forms of distribution were inaccessible to us?
  • What government regulations could “change the rules" of the industry?
  • What new demands/needs could cause our customers to stop buying our product or service?
  • What kinds of technological innovation would most drastically affect our product or service?
  • What changes (in pricing, services, process, etc. ) could the competition introduce that would cause us to rethink the way we do business?
  • What companies that aren’t our competitors now could become competitors in the future?
  • What current competitors could become partners in the future?
  • What are the global trends that could most affect our market – both positively and negatively?
  • What changes would we have to make to take advantage of these possible challenges?

    This article excerpted from “THIS ISN’T THE COMPANY I JOINED" - How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph. D. (KCS Publishing, 2004). Carol coaches executives, facilitates management retreats, helps change teams develop strategies, and delivers keynote speeches and seminars to association and business audiences around the world. She can be reached by phone: 510-526 -1727, email:, or through her website:

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