Business Brains

After the pep rally: how to keep the passion for change burning

Posting in Energy

Long-distance runners and presidential candidates know that the essence of successful change is in staying power; not in an overblown burst of energy at the starting gate

I remember a few years back, an IT vendor launched a huge, splashy campaign to rebrand everything it did under something it called "e-@ction." There was a new logo. There were meetings, press conferences, piles of press releases, and a redesigned Website. The CEO and VPs did all kinds of songs and dances about the new direction the company was taking.

A year later, the entire campaign was dropped. Overnight, the "e-@ction" moniker simply vanished. It was back to business as usual. (The company is much smaller these days, but still in business.)

I don't know what led this company to drop the entire rebranding effort so suddenly. But such is the pattern for corporate change management efforts. Many of the best-intentioned efforts to set a company on a new course simply lose steam, and managers and employees lapse back into old patterns. Anyone who's ever been to a national sales or user group meeting knows the score: three days of absolute passion, energy and excitement. The CEO is up there getting everyone pumped up about new initiatives. You're ready to conquer the world. But after a few months, daily reality tends to set in on the part of the folks that need to implement and maintain the effort. Inertia takes over.

This has especially been a challenge over the past year, with managers attempting to buck up employee morale or use the downturn to take companies in new directions. As noted in a previous post here at this blogsite, managers often fumble communications during tough times. Still, managers of some companies facing tough choices, such as DuPont, were able to get out in the trenches and actively engage with their workforces to keep the spirit going.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a visionary writer and consultant who has been guiding our collective journey into the 21st century organization for the past three decades, says we need to pay more attention to the plight of the implementers of change -- those managers and employees in the middle of things that have to see things through on a day-to-day basis, long after the warm fuzzy feelings of the business pep rallies fade. As is the case of a long-distance runner or presidential candidate, the essence of successful change is in staying power; not in some overblown burst of energy at the starting gate.

This is "Kanter's Law" -- "Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work," she points out. That's where change fizzles out. As they say, the devil is in the details. And, Kanter points out, you don't need a global economic crisis to derail a change management effort.

Kanter says the race goes to those with the perseverance and stamina to keep going. Such is the case with new business initiatives. She provides some common-sense advice, such as urging managers to stay tuned to changes in the overall environment, and keep track of any progress the change is delivering.

But an interesting bit of advice Kanter also provides is to not deny the feelings of dread people may feel about the change, but instead to embrace those feelings -- to even "wallow" in the dread. Kanter observes that "optimists are less afraid of their nightmares than pessimists. Pessimists are more likely to deny or avoid negative information. Optimists are more likely to look at the dark side, because they have the confidence to feel that they can do something about it."

The key is to keep everyone well informed and aware of what's happening -- even when it's bad news. Even when it seems external events are overwhelming, it's smart business to find ways to keep members of your organization energized and engaged in the change management effort.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure