Are You a Change Agent

By Dave Ulrich

Aug. 21, 2008

Change happens. It is in the technology that makes our cell phones, Internet devices and our seemingly new products out of date. It is in the demographics of the diverse workforce as baby boomers learn to work aside Millennials. It is in changing global economic cycles with simultaneous growth in some markets and recession in others. It surrounds us.

Change matters. An executive recently said that a business that took 50 years to build could be lost in two if it does not change. Individuals, teams and organizations that change succeed; those that do not fall behind, unable to ever catch up. As a distinct organizational capability, change goes by many names: agility, cycle time, flexibility, responsiveness and transformation. Organizations that change respond to external demands, create higher intangible market value, implement strategies, plan for the future and create excitement among employees. Change means doing things faster, and so change enables. Instead of winning through innovation, customer service and globalization, leaders demand fast innovation, rapid customer service and swift globalization.

So what does the inevitability of change mean for HR professionals? Let me suggest three principles HR can implement to coach, design, deliver and facilitate change.

Principle 1:
Make the unspeakable speakable
Anyone who has been in a relationship for a long period of time has discovered that without candid conversation, the parties turn away from each other instead of toward each other. This drift eventually widens and the relationship fades. To build a relationship, caring partners need to turn toward each other, which means they need to talk. They especially need to find ways to talk about the things they don’t want to talk about. They need to make the unspeakable speakable.

In almost every organization there are unspeakable viruses that limit successful change. These viruses are customs and norms that—without being talked about—shape how employees behave. In many cases, they hinder an organization’s ability to successfully change. In our work, we have identified over 30 such viruses (for a complete list of the viruses, visit or e-mail me at Here are some of them:

Activity mania: We like to be busy; our badge of honor is full calendars, even if it excludes thinking and results. We hide behind our “busyness.”

Have it my way: We don’t learn from each other, and the “not invented here” syndrome, in which outside ideas are devalued, rules the workplace.

False positive: We do “nice talk.” We are overly kind even if we disagree.

Authority ambiguity: In our organization, we are not sure who is responsible or accountable, so no one is.

Turfism: We defend our turf, sometimes to the detriment of the overall organization.

Over-changed, also known as the “full sponge”: We have a capacity problem. There are too many changes going on at once. We are burned out and stressed out on change. We cannot let things go.

Over-measure: We measure everything, even to a fault. Our dashboards are way too complex.

Under-measure: We don’t have indicators that track the important stuff. We measure what is easy, not what is right.

Going for the big win: We look for the mega change that will solve all problems instead of starting small.

When these viruses can be named, identified and talked about, they can be overcome. HR professionals can help their managers and teams detect and eradicate these viruses by daring to describe them, and then by having candid conversations about them so they don’t return.

We have found that new employees often see these viruses better than old employees do. When we visit a friend or family member, we more readily see the clutter in their house than they do themselves (and, unfortunately, vice versa). We have also found that teams can actually have fun naming, drawing and self-mocking the unspeakable change viruses that lurk in their organization. One team drew their most prevalent virus, and then posted these drawings in their offices until the virus went away.

Creating a mind-set of change means that HR professionals model and encourage leaders to constantly learn, unlearn, improve and accept the inevitability of change.

Principle 2:
Turn what we know into what we do

    Those who have not seen me for five or six years almost always remark that I have lost a lot of weight. They want to know how I did it, and are surprised when I tell them that I have in fact discovered the secrets of losing weight (and hopefully sustaining the loss).

With bated breath, they listen to my secrets: “Eat less, eat right and exercise more.” As the reality of these “insights” sinks in, they are disappointed.

They have missed the point. The challenge of weight loss and other personal changes is not discovering a secret of what to do, but learning the discipline of doing it. Knowing what to do is much easier than actually doing it. In managing change in organizations, most leaders can accurately list within two minutes seven to 10 keys to successful change. In our work, my colleagues and I have identified a number of keys to successful change management, including:

Leadership: Have a strong leader who sponsors and champions the change by investing time and energy.

Need: Create a shared need so that the rationale for the change exceeds the resistance to the change (when people know the “why,” they accept the “what”).

Vision: Shape a future vision with direction, goals and behaviors.

Commitment: Engage and commit others to this vision by giving them information about the change and getting them to behave as if they are committed to the change.

Decisions: Build a decision protocol that segments the vision of tomorrow into decisions that are made today.

Systems: Institutionalize a change through wise investments in people, communication, rewards, information and data, and budget.

Measures: Monitor how the change is going so that learning and adaptation occur.

HR professionals help turn what we know into what we do by bringing the discipline of a change checklist to any project or initiative. Pilots, surgeons, merger specialists and fast-food restaurant managers find that the discipline of a checklist increases performance. An HR professional may regularly perform change audits by making sure that the key elements of successful change are diagnosed and implemented in a disciplined way.

When HR professionals use a change checklist within an organization, they can diagnose what investments should be made to make change happen. In many cases, this diagnostic can identify where not to invest change resources, since that one particular discipline is already sufficient for change, while other disciplines are in short supply. In one case, the first three dimensions (leadership, need and vision) scored high, but decision protocols and institutionalizing the change scored low. This team did not need to spend more time on discussing why the change should occur or what the outcome of the change was, but on how to make it happen. In another case, leaders scored high on the change disciplines, but employees did not.

HR professionals who do a change checklist make sure that knowledge about change is turned into action that delivers change.

Principle 3:
Make change a pattern, not an event
    Ultimately, change is not about a single incident, but about creating a new pattern. People sometimes ask me when I am going to go off my diet, which is a misguided question. It assumes that my weight loss is tied only to a diet, not a way of life.

In organizations, HR professionals help make change a way of life by seeing that it becomes assimilated into how work is done. Change is not something that happens in a workshop, team meeting or process review, but ­occurs naturally and continuously during all work activities. Creating a mind-set of change means that HR professionals model and encourage leaders to constantly learn, unlearn, improve and accept the inevitability of change.

A pattern means that a new culture is created. We have found that organizations are more likely to change their culture when they begin the culture discussion by focusing on customers outside the company and what the company wants to be known for by their best customers. The changes employees and organizations make inside can and should be clearly and directly linked to the expectations of customers. Change is not an idle hazing meant to distract employees, but a means of serving customers. When inside change links to external expectations, HR programs (staffing, training, compensation, communication) and leader behaviors occur because they deliver value to the marketplace. HR professionals who ensure that internal changes are linked to external expectations see change less as an event and more as a pattern or culture.

In our research on competencies for successful HR professionals, the ability to manage change and be a cultural steward were among the most critical differentiators for an effective HR professional. Change happens and it matters. By following these three principles, HR professionals can help employees discover the excitement and energy that change brings.

Workforce Management, June 9, 2008, p. 22-23Subscribe Now!

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