This is the ninth of the blog posts based on the top ten most read Straight Talk Tips that go to my clients each month. The tips are free and you can sign up for them here

How to manage change effectively

Almost all organisations undergo extensive change at some time in their history. It may come from a merger or acquisition; new leadership, change in processes, technology or systems. Sometimes the change is anticipated and planned well in advance. At other times organisations have to react quickly in response to the arrival of a competitor, or change in market and economic conditions.

In spite of all the practice we have had in managing change, and the clarity of the principles that are involved, it’s often handled very badly.

Strange though it may seem, we can learn as much about handling change from a 15th century political philosopher as we can from a Harvard Professor of Leadership. What both have in common is an awareness that coping with change is a personal and emotional process.  When a change project plan ignores these personal factors, a newly structured and engineered organisation may well find that it is littered with the human carnage of anxious, depressed, exhausted and demotivated people.

The Harvard Professor of Leadership is John Kotter, who in his book Leading Change, writes from his extensive first-hand experience of the human anguish and waste that are created in organisations as they attempt major transformation. In his book he offers an eight step process that helps avoid some of the damage and ensures that change is more successful. Six of his eight steps focus specifically on helping people understand, accept and adapt to change in organisations.

In a very different context, Machiavelli, the 15th century Italian writer, is considered one of the main founders of modern political science. In his book, The Prince, he writes about the arts a prince should employ to stabilize a new regime and build it into an enduring structure. He says that cruel actions - and there is no doubt that plant closures, retrenchments and restructuring can be considered as cruel acts - may be morally acceptable as a means of achieving good results, so long as they are decisive, swift and effective.

Perhaps the best guidelines for any transformation process come from combining these two very different sources of wisdom. There must be a clear battle plan, and that plan must be actioned decisively. At the same time, care must be taken to attend to the needs of the people who survive the cruel act, so that they have the strength and motivation to carry the new regime, or re-created organisation, into a prosperous future.

Organisations that find their people responding to change with low motivation and poor performance might ponder some other Machiavellian words.

‘Princes [should not] complain of the faults committed by the people… for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example’.

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