Changing Fear

Nothing sharpens the mind like clear and imminent danger. Whether it be a competitive threat, a natural disaster, or just a threat to your budget, many people believe the best way to rally their troops is with fear. Pressing the fear button is now such a cliche, that it seems many lobbyists and politicians are in danger of getting RSI.

While rallying the troops is important, effective change management requires more than leaders with slogans. Successful change can be very difficult, and requires careful planning and a clear sense of direction. The Kotter 8 step process is a commonly used framework for change managment, and makes it obvious why the fear button can so easily stop change.

A large part of the change process is communication with stakeholders, and their active participation in the process. But success requires leaders to walk the talk – and lead by example. This is often where projects start to fall apart.

FearI think that the long term performance of organisations privatised by government in the 1990s is very instructive. Whether it was desired or not by the people within these organisations, Commonwealth Bank, Qantas, Telstra, and the CSL all undertook a complex series of major changes when privatised. Each privatisation faced serious opposition from both the general public and employees.

Of the group, Telstra has faced continuous criticism over it’s handling of change. I believe that in large measure, that is because many of the changes which Telstra undertook were focused on factors of interest purely to shareholders and financial markets – not customers.

Clearly Telstra operates under tight regulatory pressures, but I think it is safe to say that while the Sol Truijillo era executives were reaping large rewards, customer saw few improvements. Stakeholders heard about lavish executive rewards, while the direct workforce was downsized savagely, and shifted to subcontracting service providers. The disconnect between leadership actions and future vision was obvious.

While many of those strategies and leaders have recently been replaced, the unintended consequences of poorly executed change are still being felt today, with the Fair Work Ombudsman recently prosecuting sham contracting arrangements.

The key process in the early stage of any project is to clearly communicate a vision for the future, one which your team takes to heart, and adopts as their own. This is why disconnects between words and actions can be so damaging. For projects that rely on external stakeholders, it is critically important to have your own team behind you, engaging with stakeholders.

Risk factors to watch out for in your own projects include:

  • poorly defined business goals (vision) for the project
  • leadership team is divided in their support
  • project team don’t agree with goals
  • project has long lead time before any tangible outcomes
  • workforce on the receiving end of change are not treated as stakeholders

Every change project faces internal resistance of some sort. You will often find existing work processes that are incompatible with the new direction, or team members who are worried about their salaries being cut, or job responsibilities being affected.

Fear is the key to this resistance, and it nearly always revolves around possible loss of income, or power. Projects become bogged down by this resistance, and many project delays and cost overruns are caused by a failure to plan for these fears. Address the fears seriously, and you have a better chance to keep the project on track.

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