Jakub Bakalski, Finance Director Central Europe Cluster at Cereal Partners Worldwide (Nestlé & General Mills), tells us about the challenges of how to bring corporate change to a successful organisation to make it more successful.

Sometimes timing is everything. So it has been for me with change management, which came to the rescue during the toughest times in corporate change. We faced a wide and deep strategic change that impacted virtually everybody in the organization, including my team and me. “What’s so hard about corporate change” you may ask? Well, I’ll tell you what…

Reasons for change

Burnes identifies only a handful of reasons why the organization should “investigate change”. Among those are performance issues, rising opportunities and vision related strategic needs (Burnes, 2017). That is perfectly clear, but what if one or more of the above conditions are true on a global level, while this is absolutely not the case for a particular regional organization? Australian Change Track Research indicates that the greatest barriers to successful change are lack of commitment, passion and involvement (Cheese, 2013). But how do you inspire if there are no local reasons for change and the change itself feels imposed by people you haven’t even met once? How do you unfreeze an organization that is performing well?

The quality of leadership is by far the best answer I can come up with at the moment. Although Burnes suggests that so called transformational leadership, as opposed to transactional management, would be “counterproductive during periods where maintenance of the current operational systems would be most appropriate”, I believe that in times of corporate imposed change, it is the only way to move forward. Operationally things will get worse, before getting better again, but this looks like a small price to pay compared to the inevitable mess that resistance will lead to.

Even the best in class leadership won’t solve all the dilemmas employees may have regarding the change, if there is no clear and immediate reason for it. Moreover, creating a crisis is not the answer.

“Please don’t lessen our business performance to impose change. Do not force me to provoke a crisis. I know what needs to be done and I will act accordingly.”

Coping cycle in practice

We all know five stages of the cycle (Burnes, 2017). First three of them – denial, defence and discarding – can be associated with the first step of Lewin’s Three-Step model – unfreezing of the current setup. It is so much more difficult to walk through those steps with your people when your local business is sound and there is no immediate (and objective) need for change. But what if you are also pushed through all the steps at the speed of light? How should you act if you get to deny change for five to seven days and then the next phase is scheduled? And what if your team gets The Coping Cycle (including time schedule) emailed before you are even informed about changes planned?

My experiences indicate that although the intentions are often good, the execution can go terribly wrong. Mark Schneider, the CEO of Nestle started his first meeting with Nestle USA team with a joke. “I am from headquarters and I came here to help you” he said and the whole room laughed. The joke was intended, but in many other cases it isn’t. While I understand the urge and the need to move with the change, it is also important to understand that strategic changes take time. Significant changes also call for conscious change management, including empowering people to act on the new vision (Kotter, 2007). Without the time and trust, the joke is on headquarters and the change fails.

“Please trust me, empower me and let me act my way. I know my team better than you do.”

The change process itself

Finally, can you tell what kind of the organization you work for? Is the company accustomed to change because it evolves all the time? Or maybe the organization is quite conservative and the rare changes it experiences are incredibly huge events that turn corporate life upside down? If the latter is true, it is important to recognize it and act accordingly. Organizations that do not change constantly, “tend to have difficulty in choosing the most appropriate approach (…). Each change is seen as a unique event and seems to involve an element of reinventing the wheel as the organization struggles to determine how best to deal with it” (Burnes, 2017). My (sometimes painful) experiences tell me that CEOs often mistake the truth with their perception of it. The result is a change plan that does not take company specifications (and specifics) into account, therefore being unrealistic.

During our residential week in Maastricht, we were shown a comical signpost: “Welcome to Maastricht. When it’s hot, please dress for the body you have, not the body you want. Thanks”. I believe that this “universal truth” should also be an inspiration to those organisations, which despite being multinational conservative giants, want to act and change like start-ups. No can do.

“Please act your age (and weight). Understand who and where you are before committing to change.”

Sources:

Burnes, B., 2017. Managing Change. Seventh Edition ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Cheese, P., 2013. What’s so hard about corporate change?. Fortune, 20 May.

Kotter, J. P., 2007. Leading Change. Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, January.

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