Managing Multiple Forces Of Change

John used to be a bright department head, but recently he has developed a glassy eyed gaze.  He seems almost numb.  The executives in his company say that they want their people to take initiative, be proactive, and show that they care.  Yet, anytime John speaks up, makes a suggestion or asks a question, the powers that be put him down, tell him to be patient, or question his motives.  He’s getting nervous that he’ll be on the next list of scheduled layoffs.

Even though she is a manager with another corporation, Cynthia can identify with John.  One minute she apparently is supposed to “shut up and blindly follow.”  The next minute she is supposed to hit deadlines, provide clear, concise direction, and measure minute detail, and still the next minute, her role as manager is supposed to be that of a coach–and a laid-back one at that–going with the flow and facilitating subtle learning across a diverse workforce.  (“Yeah, right!”)

Sound familiar?  How/why does this happen?  How do today’s corporations turn otherwise bright, previously dedicated hard-working managers into the personification of inertia, and what can be done about it?

In many of today’s corporations, there are multiple, and sometimes conflicting, strategic changes taking place simultaneously.  It can become very confusing.  Each force of change places demands on individuals especially managers.  Some strategic changes require aggressive leadership on the part of managers in order for the change to be successfully executed.  Other strategic changes call for patience, open-mindedness, and a go-with-the-flow attitude.

If no one stops to analyze or diagram which change force is involved at any given moment, it becomes very difficult for people who are caught in the middle to know what to do/how to behave.

Dividing strategic change into three (3) distinct categories can help today’s manager.

The first category is DEVELOPMENTAL CHANGE.  Like the role of the parents, siblings and/or babysitters who take care of a toddler who is learning to walk, the manager’s primary contributions to developmental change includes:

  • Acting as coach, guide, mentor, facilitator
  • Providing a safe space for the doing, learning, and trying
  • Recognizing and acknowledging incremental successes along the way (cheerleader/fan)
  • Not overreacting to minor setbacks along the way
  • Sharing techniques with the other coaches who interact with the learner to improve one’s ability to encourage/motivate
  • Exposing the learner to the possibilities
  • Conveying the benefits related to the learner trying

It’s usually not very useful to set an arbitrary, rigid deadline by which a toddler must learn to walk.  Nor is it helpful for a manager to nag employees who are trying to learn a new function.  Sometimes, pressure to learn by a specified date actually inhibits learning.

Other examples of developmental changes in our personal lives include friendships, advancing through grades in school, and becoming an experienced traveler.

Coaches and mentors are helpful as we live through these developmental changes, but the bottom line is that we need to experience things ourselves to develop, to grow, to change.

There are a number of developmental changes taking place in companies today, and the role of the manager is not that different from that of the parents, babysitters, and siblings who interact with the toddler who is learning to walk.  Examples of developmental changes within today’s companies included achieving company-wide computer literacy, product updates, improving productivity on an assembly line, and merchandising.

Business settings also present opportunities for managers to handle TRANSITIONAL CHANGE.  Transitions in our personal lives include graduation, relocation and promotions.  Examples of transitions in companies include computer system upgrades, new product introductions and expansion.

Transitions have beginnings and endings, although sometimes it is difficult to set a precise deadline for completion of a transition.  Transitions have steps or phases:

  • Problem/opportunity identification
  • Research
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

Transitions are often triggered by a significant event.

When it is clear that change is needed, people enter a research stage.  As young adults graduate from college, they look for job openings, check out their options and reflect on their goals.  This is all a part of research.  They design their resumes and their approach to interviews.  After a pre-specified period of time, implementing their approach, the new college graduate evaluates the results of his/her action plan measured against their previous expectations including salary.

Some men who experience “mid-life” crises are having difficulty managing the transition from being a “young man” to becoming a “middle-aged man.”  If their “research” continues over a period of several months, their friends may become convinced that they are fighting the transition rather than trying to manage it.

In business, managers usually lead transitional change.  Inter-functional task forces and/or steering committees often are created to add objectivity to their research.  For example, a steering committee may research new product opportunities and propose a possible approach (design).  Later, the steering committee oversees production (implementation) and evaluates results.  In transitional change, it is important to have continuity, clear steps, specified deadlines, concrete measurements, open communication, and problem solving along the way.  It is important for team members to remember that they are managing the transition, not just monitoring it.

Transitions can be led by an individual manager or a team of people.  Complex transitions, like mergers, typically require a “transition team” and the composition of such a transition team need not be exclusively management level people.  Major transitions require disciplined effort over a period of several months, but when the work is done, everyone knows it’s over.  It is usually important to celebrate a successful transition once the work is complete via ribbon cuttings, plant openings, or open houses.

Today’s company is also experiencing TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE.  For many people, becoming a parent for the first time is a transformation for them.  Having their second child is a transition and the birth of the third child is well within the realm of developmental change in their lives.

Other personal transformations can include first marriages, changing careers, becoming a widow/widower and/or retirement.

Examples of transformational change in business life can include going global, introducing total quality management (TQM), and/or succession of authority to heirs in a family-owned business.

Transformational change is most often measured in years rather than months and typically requires the joint effort of several interested parties working cooperatively to achieve the change.  Transformation is so all-consuming that no one person can see every aspect of the change involved.  Just as a person changing careers in his/her 40s may need outside counseling to retain perspective, companies in transformation also need outside input to prevent missed steps or inconsistent decisions.

More than one person going through transformational life events (such as divorce, loss of a child or major career change) has needed outside assistance and the support of others.  Corporations facing major transformation often need the input of process experts who have experienced similar transformations before.

They also need input from technical experts.  After all, the proposed change(s) would not feel transformational to the corporation if everyone in the organization had experience facing these same challenges before.

In addition to needing temporary outside assistance with the analysis of the complex factors involved with transformation, the leaders of transformational change need the involvement, commitment and focused energy of employees, vendors, customers and strategic partners to ensure success.  Transformational change, like becoming competitive within a global economy, often requires resources that are not available to one company acting alone.  With this in mind, it should not be surprising that major corporations today are entering into more and more “teaming” relationships.

Even more than transition change, successful transformation required consistency of purpose and direction.  Although steering committees are also helpful in the management of the logistics involved in transformational change, a company truly benefits from the existence of a clear visionary leader who is driving the transformational change.

People may debate the pros and cons of specific actions taken by Lee Iacocca over the past several years, but it’s been abundantly clear that he was leading Chrysler’s transformation.  Mary Kay Ashe transformed home cosmetic sales, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Therefore, often the manager’s role during transformational change is to understand and internalize the vision so that he/she can help translate it into day-to-day procedures as the transformation develops momentum.

Transformational change implies that the individual or company involved is essentially different as a result.  You reading your one-hundredth novel may not be a significant experience to you, but an adult who is learning to read for the first time may view the completion of a book as a major landmark/life-altering (transforming) event for them.

One person’s/company’s transformation is another’s transition.  This makes the management of simultaneous change forces even more challenging, because various people affected by the changes will have markedly different viewpoints.  It’s usually a good idea for executives who wish to initiate transformational change to learn how everyone else involved views the change.

Some companies struggle with their quality improvement programs because they have tried to save money and have approached total quality management (TQM) as a transitional change when in most companies it clearly is transformational.  Expecting all employees to understand the production process, be proactive in preventing errors and objectively measuring minute variables along the way is transformational to most corporations.

With all of the developmental, transitional and transformational changes taking place simultaneously within corporations today, it should be no surprise that managers get confused about how to behave at any given moment.  One minute they are supposed to be laid back coaches who cheer little successes in an open-minded improvement process.  The next minute they are expected to lead programs with defined steps, firm deadlines, and concrete measurement, and then they are the “eyes and ears” for vague, conceptual changes faithfully trying to translate the themes of an evolving vision into day-to-day operation hoping to build others’ enthusiasm and confidence in the vision and in the visionary leader.

One cannot help but have particular compassion for middle managers of corporations in which a future oriented transformational change (such as TQM) is underway while a backwards-feeling change such as downsizing is also taking place.  It is difficult for the middle managers in these corporations to know on a daily basis if they are coming or going.

Middle managers in today’s corporations can do themselves and those around them a great service by summarizing the multiple changes taking place within their company.  Skilled managers can even learn to link performance-appraisal criteria to appropriate individual contributions to each change effort.  A chart or diagram can help each individual know when she/he is supposed to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Growth Strategy Tip


Aldonna is very perceptive. It's amazing how quickly she grasps the unique strengths and weaknesses in a company. Her assessments and recommendations about local entities served as an important spring board for my work with local presidents within the region. She has worked with bright executives, appreciates the complexity and is constructive in her advice.

Fred Pike
Formerly of Ricoh/IKON Office Solutions

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