Sunday, 10 April 2011

How to assess change feasibility

Whether a truly and genuine need for change, aiming at better meeting customers’ needs and expectations, clearly emerges and objective evidence supporting the existence of this need, namely a gap between the requisites dictated by the exogenous environment and the internal structure and system, have been gathered, this unquestionably means that time has come for the business leaders concerned to develop the plan of action necessary to introduce and implement change.

When performing this delicate and significant activity, employers should neither neglect nor underestimate the effects habitually associated with change and the likely employee adverse reaction and angry response. More often than not in fact individuals offer a sharp resistance to any change initiative fostered by employers.

Mayo (2002) avers that the main reason for individuals being sceptical about change is usually due to the circumstance that “organisations are littered with the debris … of yesterday’s (change) initiatives.” According to Mayo, people have learned through their experience that change attempts are essentially all too often associated with failure and deterioration, rather than success and improvement. This would indeed explain why the first individual reaction to change is suspicion, incertitude and mistrust.

Inasmuch as the main cause for individuals being habitually wary about change depends on their awful experience from the past, individuals actually resist change only whether they perceive it as being in some ways detrimental to them. Cunningham (2005) suggests that it is not true that people resist change at large, individuals rather “resist some change”: that change that they fear could undermine their status, position and stability. Individuals oppose therefore change which they perceive and fear could cause a deterioration of the status quo, whereas they would clearly “welcome change that makes things better”, that is, change which they perceive is intended to improve their status, working conditions and wellbeing at large.

One of the most, arguably the most, interesting and valuable approach aiming at thoroughly investigating and analysing the advantages and disadvantages of change is definitely represented by the Force Field Analysis (Lewin, 1947), which for simple it may deemed to be certainly still represents an incredibly useful model.

This approach is underpinned by the basic assumption that change is subject to both driving and restraining forces. As long as these opposite sets of forces are counterbalancing one another, or even worse restraining forces are prevailing over the driving ones, it will be virtually impossible for an organisation’s business leaders to successfully introduce and implement any type of change. In this case, still considering the issue from the change management perspective, a static situation of equilibrium will thus dominate.

Only when the driving forces prevail over the restraining forces it is indeed possible for an employer to start planning, designing and implementing change.

This analysis is of remarkable importance in that it enables organisations to find out whether their projects are viable as they stand or whether these need to be adjusted or improved before being implemented. Helping organisations to assess the likely impact on their projects of all of the possible “forces” emerging during the plan implementation, the force field analysis can also effectually contribute to determine whether the project is worth the efforts and resources it requires.

In order to better assess a project viability a score system (taking into consideration, for instance, a scale from one to five) could be put in place to associate with each force identified during the analysis, hence to both those in favour and against change, a specific score. A number of points can indeed also be allocated to each of the activities considered as beneficial to increase the chances of the successful plan implementation. Amongst the benefits provided by this approach, it should not be overlooked the support it offers employers to better measure and assess the cost/benefit ratio.

Whether from this analysis should emerge the need for some improvements, the areas of improvement should be promptly identified and reviewed accordingly. A plan of action enabling the employer to promptly counterbalance the restraining forces eventually triggered by the identified pressure points should be clearly also prepared.

A new plan may be for instance resisted by employees by reason of it requiring the introduction of a new technology. In this case, informing people well in advance that training sessions will be timely provided to enable all of them to acquaint themselves with the new technology, would surely contribute to eliminate or reduce the impact produced by this undesirable restraining force. In terms of points, the training programme may, for instance, imply a cost increase of 1/2 unit(s) according to the score system set up, whereas as a result of its provision the negative impact caused by the introduction of the new technology might possibly decrease by 2/3 units. Effectively communicating staff that the introduction of the new technology is of paramount importance for the organisation continuing to be competitive, and ultimately continuing to stay, in the market might help to increase of an additional 2/3 points the score in favour of change. Yet, making employees understand that the new technology the employer is planning to introduce can practically help them to carry out their daily tasks in a more straightforward and effectual way could help to provide additional 2 points to the total score in favour of change.

Comparing advantages and disadvantages does not clearly represent a mere theoretical, abstract exercise in that it effectively and realistically contributes to make the case for or eventually against change.

Whether employers, according to the suggestions provided by the force field analysis, should decide to encourage a particular behaviour, rather than impose or force staff towards a specific direction, it is obvious that this would definitely produce beneficial effects on the change implementation process.

Lewin’s force field analysis can reveal thus to be particularly useful to both analyse the different forces coming to play during a change development and execution process and to assess the positive and negative influence which each of these forces may play. The effectiveness and contribution of this approach, however, is not limited to this aspect; in fact, the force field analysis can be also effectively used to identify the key stakeholders involved in the process in order to acquire their full and genuine support and contribution and try to take advantage as far as possible of the influence these can exert on individuals.
The analysis is also useful to identify the opponents and supporters of the project at large in order to try and obtain their support and find suitable ways of offsetting the likely reasons for resistance. In unionised organisations, for instance, trying to implement change procedures without the support or at worst the lack of opposition of unions is virtually impossible.
Timely identifying supporters and opponents to change can clearly enable employers to determine the most suitable way of influencing them and getting their support. In any case, employers should invariably do whatever they can in order to avert having to face the explicit disapproval of any of the stakeholders and groups concerned.
Business leaders should also strive to identify the most effective ways of influencing the individuals directly concerned by the change implementation process, that is to say the target groups. Whether these consent to change, the resistance eventually offered from the individuals of different not directly involved areas of the business would clearly deflate and would thus be easier to overcome. Although having the full support of all of the organisation staff is of paramount importance for the successful implementation of any change plan, what matters the most, at least in the first instance, is to get the support and commitment of the individuals directly concerned. Notwithstanding, employers should not neglect that this could possibly not suffice, every change process, albeit intended to involve just a particular function, line or office of the firm, is likely to involve other areas at large, whether not all the different areas of an organisation.

It clearly appears that in order to successfully managing change what matters the most is being able to win the restraining forces arising before and during the change process. A great number of resistance factors have been identified over the years and it is crucial for employers to know what types of resistance these have to be ready to face in order to being eventually able to properly and effectively deal with them.

Resistance to change can be defined as “an individual or group engaging in acts to block or disrupt an attempt to introduce change” (CIPD, 2010). Employers should be aware that resistance to change can arise both from individuals and groups and that whilst resistance opposed by groups, although politically stronger, is easier to identify and very often openly declared, the resistance opposed by isolated individuals (that is, that coming from individuals not necessarily in agreed, declared conjunction one another), although politically potentially less dangerous, could cause even more practical disruptive effects in that it could be harder to identify, understand, assess and, consequently, to offset.

In actual fact, resistance to change can take a whole range of forms. Example of evident/declared forms may include industrial actions (strike) and information withholding. Less evident and trickier to understand and identify forms of resistance are typically represented by the diffusion of deliberately incorrect and inaccurate information and by the spread of alarmist and catastrophic rumours about the inevitable aftermath caused by the implementation of change.

The CIPD (2010) also stresses the importance of two different broad types of resistance associated to the substance and to the implementation of change, namely the resistance to the content, which refers to the object, aim and reasons for change and the resistance to the process of change, which essentially refers to the way change is introduced and implemented.

Employers should take extra care of the way they implement and introduce change, because whether it is clearly harder to contrast the resistance to change due to its content in that it is likely to be caused by different point of views on the reasons behind change; by contrast, employers are in the position to better and more speedily implement and introduce change when its reasons are largely supported by people. Businesses should hence avert to risk jeopardising the successful implementation of the plan for not having agreed with the relevant stakeholders and target groups concerned the way of introducing change.

Knowing the real reasons underpinning resistance is arguably the sole way of successfully overcoming the restraining forces to change. Only knowing the reasons behind it employers can try to come up with the most suitable and appropriate solutions to tackle and solve the problem. To this extent, it can surely be helpful summarizing the most recurring causes of individual resistance to change (Bedian, 1980; Nadler, 1983; Kotter et al, 1986; Recardo, 1991; CIPD, 2010): self-interest, lack of trust, differing viewpoints, coping, uncertainty, loss of control, threat to status, social considerations, tolerance, misunderstanding, shock of the new, economic reasons, inconvenience, interpersonal relationships, lack of respect, lack of consultation, poor communication, competence fears.

Individual and group resistance nonetheless are not the only causes potentially harming the successful implementation of change initiatives, also organisational issues can indeed have a remarkable impact on the expected outcome produced by the implementation of change management plans.

A typical example of that is when a change process, intended to involve just part of the organisation, is not planned and undertook duly considering the impact this is likely to make on the entire organisation or on the organisation considered as a whole. Without a doubt, the likeliness of achieving appreciable results reveals to be even more in jeopardy when change plans do not align with the organisation overall strategy, structure and systems and overlook the linkages with the issues associated with these organisational elements (CIPD, 2010).

A change plan aiming, for instance, at introducing a new structure, which defines this but does not consider and stress the importance of simultaneously introducing new systems coherent and consistent with the intended new structure, able to support it, is clearly inevitably destined to failure.

It can be concluded that whether change management is traditionally negatively perceived by individuals, in most cases, it depends on an organisation ability to effectively plan and implement it. Prior to undertake any change programme, businesses should invariably strive to carry out thorough and detailed analysis, involve and receive support from all of the target groups concerned and possibly from all the individuals within the organisation.

A careful analysis and assessment of the original plan enable employers to:

- Identify the potential driving and restraining forces,

- Timely amend plans accordingly, whether appropriate,

- Assess the strength of the identified forces,

- Develop and implement an appropriate plan of action to either curb and reduce the power of the restraining forces or emphasise and give strength to the driving ones or carry out a series of activities and actions aiming at achieving both of these results.

When change is perceived by people as a process which can actually contribute to improve their working conditions and life within the organisational settings, it is very unlikely that organisations may ever be prompted to face strong restraining forces. Openly and clearly explaining individuals that change is aiming at a general improvement, rather than deterioration habitually suffices to gain their genuine support.

As a general rule, change has to be hence invariably justified and the reasons behind it properly and openly communicated. Under these circumstances and whether individuals would not suffer any prejudice by reason of the change implementation, these are likely to accept it; whether, by contrast, change is intended to force individuals to undergo and experience worsening conditions, the strength of the restraining forces might reveal so powerful as to force employers to abruptly change their plans.

Longo, R., (2011), How to assess change feasibility; HR Professionals, [online].