The following is a guest piece by Forbes columnist August Turak.
Despite the fact that many self appointed “change agents” think there is something inherently irrational, even pathological, about the fear of change, there are damn good reasons why it has survived the incessant pruning of natural selection. All change is not good, and this is why the adage “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” has persisted for so long in the mythos of business.
We started our business on a few thousand dollars and a shrink wrap accounting system. Seven years later we were acquired by a foreign company and that same $149 accounting system for millions of dollars. Despite the fact that we rapidly outgrew that accounting system, cursed it daily, constantly looked at wonderful alternatives, and even allocated budget, we never replaced it. Why? Fear of change.
We were terrified that something would go wrong during the transition that would bring our business to its knees. We were afraid to find ourselves with the worst of both worlds: an old accounting system no longer functioning and a new one not yet on line.
All authentic change goes through three stages:
Anticipation is the exciting stage of change where we anticipate the benefits and make our transitional plans. Regression is when things get worse before they get better. Consolidation is when we turn the benefits of change into business as usual.
The problem lies with the regression phase, and our fear is that this regression will become permanent. When we quit a good paying job to start a business we anticipate that owning our own business will mean more fun and more money. However we must be prepared for a regressive stage where we initially make less money and have less fun than we did at our old job.
Our greatest fear is that if the business fails this regressive stage will become permanent. We end up with the worst of both worlds; no job and no business.
It is not change per se that people fear. They fear that the regressive stage of change will become permanent. As a result, we try to ring out the risk by looking for an evolutionary and incremental change model that skips over the regressive stage. However this is like expecting to change your golf swing without getting worse before you get better. Taking a step backwards in order to take two forward is an essential aspect of authentic change. All authentic change is revolutionary not evolutionary.
The reason why all those accounting system sales reps vying for our business never got a sale is that they never addressed our fear of the regressive stage of change. Instead the salesmen repeatedly discounted their products. As an old salesman, running a sales driven company, nothing infuriated me more than watching salesmen discounting perfectly good products because it was easier than addressing our real objection: Fear of change.
Here are five steps to address the fear of change and make change happen:
Step 1: Be compassionate
Whether it is employees or clients put yourself in the other guy’s shoes and realize that the risks involved with change are real. It may very well be her job, not yours, that is on the line if your transformation goes awry.
Also compassionately remember that the people you are relying on to implement a new product, service, or management model may not have all the power you give them credit for. The days of telling people to jump and having them say “how high?” are gone. Implementing change today relies on building consensus rather than top down executive fiat.
Step 2: Have a plan for getting initial buy-in (include contingencies)
Make sure your plan or proposal takes into account all the legitimate concerns and potential dangers surrounding change. Your plan must get everyone affected by the change on board including a contingency for what you’ll do if people turn against you later on.
Always remember that the very same people who are your greatest fans during the anticipation phase of change can become your greatest obstacle when the regressive stage sets in.
Step 3: Minimize your risks
The next step is to minimize these risks. Think of all those cleaning solutions that recommend that you try them out on some inconspicuous swath of fabric first. Find some “out of the way” department or project to experiment on where the variables are controllable, the investment is minimal, and results are easily measured. Keep “rebooting” if necessary until you “get it right” then let the success of your experiment become contagious. Others will start saying: “Who are those guys? How can we get results like that?”
Soon your experiment will spread virally and top management will no longer be risking a revolution by imposing change. Instead they will be responding to a bottom up groundswell.
Step 4: Measure results with hard data
This point about hard data is critical. If you can’t or won’t measure results don’t expect sympathy from me or any line manager. I don’t care how theoretically “worthwhile” your transformation is, you must link your efforts to the mission of the company and that means, whenever possible, financially.
If you can’t measure results then you probably shouldn’t try to bring about change, but you’ll be surprised to find that almost anything, whether qualitative or quantitative, can be measured if we just put our heads to it.
Step 5: Feedback
Make sure you have a great reporting process in place before you begin. Use this reporting process to give everyone affected by change the positive feedback they need to keep the faith when things get dicey. Above all keep the lines of communication open so that people feel supported rather than abandoned during the chaotic phase that every real change inevitably must go through.
Many if not all of the problems that have dogged the launch of the Affordable Care Act can be traced to poor change management planning. Currently the president and his team are experiencing the regressive stage of change in spades, and it remains to be seen whether this will eventually be seen as a “phase” or whether these management problems will prove fatal.
But regardless of whether you are for or against “ObamaCare”, it is not difficult to see that the administration failed to create a comprehensive plan that included the five steps outlined above — especially when it came to testing.
Finally, if you are in a business culture that is resistant to change, instead of wasting energy on frustration try this formula. In the next couple of weeks, research a change that you want to make happen. Anticipate all possible objections and create contingency plans for anything that could go wrong. Put in place testing procedures, and measurable goals to track success. Create consensus by presenting your plan to colleagues and stakeholders.
With preparation, contingency planning, buy-in, testing and metrics, you’ll find that bringing about change is far easier than you thought.
August Turak is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, award winning writer and author of “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity”. He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Selling Magazine, the New York Times, and Business Week, and is a popular leadership contributor at Forbes.com. You can learn more about August at his website www.augustturak.com.