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States of change

Written by Martin Reed on Tuesday, 04 June 2013. Posted in Engagement, People

A recent survey showed when businesses try to implement company-wide adjustments, more than a third of them fail. But, says Martin Reed, there is a way to make change a success

States of change

I heard it said the other day that  change is the biggest challenge  facing every business today. I believe  it will also be the biggest challenge  you face next year, the year after that… and the year after that. For any business owner, ‘change’ has become the hottest buzzword  of late and justifiably so. 

All businesses, whether they realise it or  not, are in a constant state of change, continually making adjustments to refine products or services in response to market changes, trading conditions, customer pressure and economic downturns. As the wisdom goes, nothing endures but change. However, bigger changes can be problematic. When a business needs to make a conscious change to its company culture – perhaps  with the realisation that it needs to become more responsive to shifting markets; a growing awareness that it’s essential for the company to work more cohesively as a team  or a desire to become more customer focused as a result of feedback or falling sales  – most attempts at change fail. A CIPD  survey shows that more than 40% of  attempts at implementing change failed  to meet their objectives or improve the company’s bottom line. Failure to change  the culture of a business isn’t just disappointing because objectives aren’t met, but also because the process of trying and failing can have some serious, negative side effects from loss of credibility and damage to the brand, to reduced employee commitment.  

Managing the change process, then, is clearly a high risk task, so how do you  ensure you get it right? From our experience  of helping companies through the metamorphosis of cultural change, the key problem we see is that very few companies take the time to clearly define what they  mean by ‘company culture’. Forbes defines culture as “a group of norms of behaviour  and the underlying shared values that keep those norms in place”. In other words, how your employees behave and the principles  that guide that behaviour. 

Cultural changes, then, need to be reflected in the behaviours of the employees and for that to happen managers need to be clear about what competencies they are expecting from their teams and then communicate  those expectations in a clear and quantifiable way. Most people resist change because of uncertainty, a loss of control and a lack of understanding about why change is required, so to help employees embrace the change in company culture, managers need to make sure that employees know what they, as individuals, are supposed to be doing and what the business as a whole is aiming to achieve.  

While creating a mission statement to encapsulate what a company is trying to achieve is certainly a step in the right direction, inspiring words to rally the troops are only half the picture – pontificating about the ‘shared values’ without digging deeper to change the ‘norms of behaviour’ that  really make up a company culture doesn’t address the root of the issue. The best way to rejuvenate or change a company culture is to give employees a set of driving principles they can embrace, and a substantial, quantifiable way for them to engage with them. To inspire employees to change, what is expected of them needs to be clearly articulated.  

Companies we’ve worked with have found assessment tools to be invaluable in helping  to add structure to the nebulous process of cultural change. In what can be a confusing and overwhelming process, using a structured method helps you to focus on what it is you’re trying to achieve. It also gives you an objective way to see where the gaps lie between the company’s ideals and an employee’s behaviour. With our 360 assessment you select a set of competencies designed to reflect the change you want to manifest – for example, if you’re embarking on a period of growth, competencies you may need could include decision-making, innovation, drive for sales and collaborative team working – and then measure to what degree each employee is fulfilling these criteria by taking feedback from the people they work with. Employees with lower scores in particular competencies will appreciate having a goal to work towards that feels constructive and achievable; it helps focus training and development initiatives and their progress can be measured as they develop – a far more constructive approach than simply telling them that they don’t measure up to the new company culture.  

In fact, any method of putting guidelines and goalposts into the change process will result in less employee disenchantment, reduce resistance and will negate the loss of control many will feel at the changes. Instead, it will give your teams a feeling that the whole company is moving in the same direction together – the crux of  any successful cultural change.  

Employee behaviour is the key to successfully changing a company’s culture. By pinpointing exactly how you need their behaviour to change, communicating your expectations effectively, giving staff concrete and achievable goals to work towards and  measuring their progress as they develop, you’ll give your business the very best chance of successfully changing, helping you achieve more efficient practices, improved margins, a great reputation, a happy and productive workforce and, ultimately, what we all want – an improved bottom line. 

About the Author

Martin Reed

Reed has been at the helm of psychometric testing company Thomas International since 2007, after being appointed as chairman two years earlier. As well as penning this regular column for Elite Business he is also a founding member of the Bucks Business First and a fellow of the Institute of Directors.

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