Where Change Goes to Die

“We’re about as fast, flexible, and customer focused as General Motors in the 1950’s.”

Those were the jarring – but accurate – words from Steve, a new CEO, to the organization’s top 75 managers. After three months of observing the day-to-day operations of the business, he knew things had to change.

What followed was text book change management.

  • Senior leaders met in an off-site to craft a new vision.
  • The organization’s structure was re-aligned for the purpose of streamlining reporting relationships and breaking down the silos.
  • Communication and education sessions were held with every employee, but mostly focused on the front-line staff that was perceived to be the root of the problem.

Meanwhile, the division and department heads in the middle of the organization dug their collective heels into the ground and continued to do business the way it had always been done.

Sound familiar?

Depending on the study and source, somewhere between 50 to more than 70 percent of change efforts fail to achieve their desired result. Even if those numbers are wrong, the impact of failed change efforts is staggering.

The usual suspects for failed change are familiar: lack of senior leadership support, inadequate resources, poor planning, and resistance are often at the top of the list.

There is another – often overlooked – culprit in failed change efforts. The middle of organizations is where change goes to die.

Why Change Dies in the Middle

Middle managers can easily derail both the initial implementation and sustainability phases of change. When you view the world from their perspective, it is easy to understand why.

  1. They arrived where they are in the organization by mastering a game that is now being changed. While we hope that middle managers readily see the reasons for change, they have the same fears about how change will affect them as any other person in the organization. Most important, middle managers are often placed in the role of having to support change with which they don’t agree or fully understand.
  2. They are often the least involved in change. People support what they help create, and yet many change efforts are so concerned about front-line support that the middle of the organization is largely ignored.
  3. Experience says that your change – like the dozens of others seen by middle managers – will go away. Why should they invest extra energy and effort to make change work while also continuing to produce results? Middle managers are often the group charged with changing the tires on the car while it is driving 70 mile per hour. That’s a lot of extra effort for a change that might not work or could be abandoned when you change your focus or leave.

Creating Allies in the Middle

The first step in engaging your middle managers to make change work is recognizing them as a distinct group. Involve them early and often … even before the front-line of the organization. Listen to their issues about implementation challenges. Most important, recognize that the middle managers in your organization carry the greatest responsibility for implementing and sustaining change on a daily basis.

Beyond that, middle managers must be equipped for success. Ensure that they have the information needed to answer the inevitable questions they will receive from front-line team members. Provide the new skills and support that they will need to lead in the changed environment. Troubleshoot the inevitable bumps and challenges at their levels. This is often an underutilized group for resolving conflicts and developing work-around solutions.

Finally, define expectations and measure performance. Focus on the activities that must take place to make the change succeed. Incorporate those metrics into regular business reviews. Middle managers are highly attuned to where attention is placed in the organization. They stop paying attention to the change when you stop paying attention to it.

What About Steve?

Two years later, Steve had moved on. New leadership abandoned most of the transformational change efforts he had put in place. A few departments hung on to selected aspects of the change, but most went back to the way things were done before.

Meanwhile, there was a silent celebration of another change that died in the middle.

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations achieve positive results in a world of accelerating change. To bring Randy to your organization or event, visit www.penningtongroup.com , email info@penningtongroup.com, or call 972.980.9857.

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