Thoughts on the dynamics of successful organizational change

This week a few light bulbs went off over my head. Unfortunately, I was kept too busy to have time to document them until now (hence the dearth of blog entries). What follows are some insights into how large organizations effect large changes.

Organizations of sufficient age will naturally resist change. They are typically optimized to solve known problems. This has the consequence of meaning that they are not well positioned to retrofit to solve new ones. Change is usually painful and the larger the change the more painful it is. Yet change is inevitable. While change is usually painful, change can also bring new rewards and new opportunities. Large government bureaucracies, such as the one I work in, are especially resistant to change. It is one thing for the senior leadership of an organization to make a decision. It is quite another thing to implement effectively their decision, particularly when the organization is distributed, the change is very large, the teams are highly matrixed and multiple managers have competing interests and goals.

Adroitly managing change is perhaps an organization’s toughest challenge. In the private sector, this ability translates into a company’s survivability and profitability. Which is why it is so interesting to observe how major changes happen successfully. I have discovered that inside my organization is a hidden group of change artists who have no name or formal affiliation.

I should point out that the movers and shakers are not necessarily its management. Senior leadership consists of people who are essentially directors. They tell people what to do in visionary terms. To be effective, successful senior leaders need to acquire two critical skills. First, they must develop an instinct of who to hire, since they must trust and delegate most of their work to them. Second, they must be excellent listeners. They need to be able to slip through organizational boundaries and listen to those in the organization’s middle and lower ranks. In particular, since change is inevitable they need to listen closely to those who have a proven record of accomplishment implementing change.

Managers are not necessarily movers and shakers either, although they can be and arguably should be. Managers come in all flavors too, from the dysfunctional pointy-haired boss to the exceptionally competent. Managers generally decide at a high level what things should be done and who should do them. However, their control is limited to those they supervise or direct. They may be brilliant managers of their own domains, but exceptionally poor at working relationships between other managers. If they possess both then they can be movers and shakers. Otherwise, they are just managers.

Organizational change is multidirectional. It flows down through the management chain in the form of decisions. It also should flow up, as expressed in the ideas, passions and implemented practices of those at the lower and middle levels. Change also operates laterally across groups of people engaged in similar missions. The ability of an organization to effect lateral change is critical to making large changes happen. It depends largely on the social networking skills and passions of people generally at and near or just below the management layer. In particular, it depends on the social networking skills of those people who need to work across organizational boundaries. If they have these skills, organizational change is more likely to succeed.

Organizational changes happen most rapidly and efficiently in organizations where every employee is empowered to the maximum extent possible. This is because the more an employee can infuse a job with his own skills and passion the happier he is likely to be in his job. Consequently, it is more likely that he will provide his best effort. When an employee is empowered, he becomes vested in the outcome of the change.

Who are the movers and shakers in your organization? Look for those with a passion for excellence and the internal wherewithal to focus like a laser beam on a successful outcome. Even when they have other problems that must be managed, they will be tenacious and continually work on implementing change even while they do their normal business. They tend to be determined people, skilled in the culture of the organization and relentlessly focused on the success of a particular endeavor.

I like to think of myself as one of the movers and shakers where I work, but I am not sure I am there yet. For one thing, I have been with my current organization only four years, which means I am still an apprentice when it comes to working the institutional kudzu. I do not always have the 24×7 passion of the best movers and shakers. However, I have been successful in promoting some my ideas for major changes. I noticed that the more passionate I felt about an idea, the more likely it was to see be realized. It occurred sometimes to the chagrin of my chain of command. They resist in part because they feel overwhelmed with change and do not want to foster any more of it. Were I more socially adroit, I perhaps could have sold these changes with less friction. Nonetheless, my passion for them kept me motivated and eventually persuaded those who could effect change to agree with me.

These movers and shakers though rarely are rewarded commensurate with the skill and passion they bring to their jobs. Yet they are invaluable. Without them, the organization would either cease to exist or devolve toward inertia.

I feel like I have one foot in their domain and the other foot in the past. As I absorb their lessons, I have a goal for myself to assume the rank of a full-fledged mover and shaker too.

Empowered and traveling

One of the weird but nice things about my current job is that I am empowered. In all my other jobs, I was what amounted to a flunky. I was often a well-paid flunky, but a flunky nonetheless. While I had influence over decisions, I had no actual control over them. In fact, more often than not my suggestions were given short shrift. I usually did not usually have the inner ear of the decision maker.

In my current job, I am empowered. Of course, I too have a boss. Sometimes she will put the kibosh on my suggestions. However, increasingly (particularly when there is money available) she will flash green lights. She has chosen to delegate real authority to me. While she controls the overall budget and makes key financial decisions, she largely leaves me and the other managers alone. She does her best to give me the tools (time, money, executive sponsorship) so that I am my team can soar. Even when she is very busy, she will take the time to listen to me.

After eighteen months or so on the job, I still find this exhilarating. I wonder why there is not more empowerment in government and industry. Why are so many managers micromanaging? Why are they not instead putting trust in their employees? I too am learning to empower my employees. I find that empowerment is not always easy for me. It turns out that I am a bit of a control freak. However, I am unlearning my “trust no one” habits. You do not always have to watch behind your back.

For example, I have a team leader. I do my best not to interfere with the way he does his job. I see my role as more of a coach than a boss. As my boss does for me, if he wants something, I do my best to get it for him. I try to use this same strategy on all my employees. I try to let them feel like they have a sense of ownership for their areas of responsibility. I let them know what I expect from them but try not to worry them about how they accomplish it. “Holler if you want an opinion,” is what I tell them. I already have more than enough on my plate with routine work. I cannot worry about their work too. I have to let it go.

My employees do not always want to be empowered. They often want me to make the decisions for them. Why is this? Perhaps not everyone is comfortable with empowerment. Perhaps they want to disclaim responsibility if something goes wrong. I am not always comfortable making these micro decisions. Typically, my employee has a far better understanding of the problem and the solution than I do. Unless I have a strong reason to do otherwise, I will ask for their recommendation and implement that. As much as possible I will ask them to manage it too.

Sometimes I am dinged for actions. Being empowered apparently does not mean not being insensitive to my boss’s needs and concerns. While she wants to be hands off, she needs to be very hands on in a few areas. In those areas, she is not afraid to micromanage. She is legally accountable for how our money is used. As a result, she is aware of subtleties that I am not, such as what the Inspector General might be looking for in an audit. Consequently, she is quite concerned about how and where money is spent. She insists on personally approving every financial transaction. She wants to know down to the penny (if possible) how much money is obligated, whom it is obligated to, and what the obligation means for the future. This becomes an obsession at the end of the fiscal year.

She is also concerned about the image of our department. She does not like mixed messages presented to her management. I have learned that even in innocent emails to her boss it is a good idea to CC her. It is usually better to forward a draft to her first, let her weigh the political aspects, and let her present the situation to her management.

I have also learned through a number of painful lessons to stay on my own turf. I interact with a couple peers who run their own units. Of course, our employees work intimately with one another on a daily basis. It is easy to forget to make their boss aware of these discussions. I have been known to task employees outside my unit from time to time. Tsk, tsk. Apparently my empowerment has limits. After all, I don’t want my employees doing tasks for others if it might impact our commitments.

Last fiscal year our budget was quite tight. My boss was always looking for corners to cut. One consequence of her concern was that travel became less frequent. We held planning meetings via teleconference rather than in person. The result was probably not quite as good as if we had done it in person. As a new fiscal year dawns we find ourselves in a fortunate position. Congress, for the first time in many years, has actually passed our appropriation bill. In addition, the president signed it into law before the start of the fiscal year. Amazingly, there is some, but not a whole lot more money to spend beyond cost of living raises. We frankly did not see this coming. We are now putting our brains together to figure out how to best use the money over the coming year.

With money flowing a bit freer than before, I am finding it easier to get travel approved. This puts me into a small dilemma: do I travel or not? I do not mind a couple business trips a year, but lately my business trips have been nightmares. This is perhaps symptomatic of the stress our airlines are under these days. However, it is also not hard to make a business case that I need to do a lot more traveling than I do.

So more and more I have to decide whether I need to travel on business or not. Tonight I find myself in Cupertino, California. I was invited to attend a customer advisory board meeting for a database that we use. It would have been easy to say no thanks. The conference after all is in California and I am on the East Coast. The conference lasts a day but by the time I travel there and back, it will consume three days out of my week. Cons: a lot of time in airplanes and the usual three-hour jetlag hangover. Pros: having significant influence in setting the future direction of this product we use extensively. Deciding factor: money. Since we have more of it this year, I decided to go to the meeting. It may be a waste of my time, or it may be the start of a closer relationship. It may allow us to get our needs addressed more quickly.

This too still seems strange. I can elect to travel anywhere I want for business, providing there is money to do so. I realize I am fortunate to have such freedom in my job. However, particularly when the travel seems to go back-to-back, or when the airline gods have been especially nasty, I wish I was unempowered again. Eventually the feeling passes.

I am going trying to look on business travel as a perquisite rather than a pain. I am going to try to tell myself that it is okay to empower myself by sending myself across the country to follow a hunch. When I can afford to do so, if the destination has amenities, then I will try to arrive a day early to see a few sites or to do some local hiking.

Alas, it will not happen on the Cupertino trip. It seems I have meetings to run when I get back to the East Coast, and my To Do list will doubtlessly grow longer in my absence.