Fighting the Storm in a Sea of Change
by Gregory P. Smith

Change in the 21st century is like sailing a ship during a storm. Waves coming at you from every direction. Hidden rocks threatening to tear your ship apart. The water never stops churning and there is no time to rest. Falling overboard is a scary possibility and if you fail to work together to chart a course, disaster could very well be your companion. 

There is this same sense of urgency in today’s economy, even in the best companies, with no guarantees that tomorrow will bring the same success as today. How can we survive in this type of environment? By becoming leaders and agents of change successful people will learn to read the ocean, prepare for the storm, avoid the rocks, work as a team, and feel the excitement of becoming a different, better organization. 

“Change before you have to,” says Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric and the most quoted manager in the world today. He goes on to talk about “continuous improvement” (incremental and evolutionary) change and “transformation” (quantum and revolutionary) change, urging companies to embrace both types as the only way to survive in today’s global competitive environment. 

Why is change so difficult for companies to initiate and employees to accept? We resist even the best ideas because we are comfortable with the status quo. Changes often fail, and employees are sometimes adversely affected; therefore change that we perceive as negative is resisted or ignored. Many times executives fail to make those critical, gut-wrenching changes that could save or sink their companies. It is easy to keep doing what you have always done -- even if it is wrong or obsolete. Lots of companies want to change, but few execute it well. 

There are two basic types of change --- reactive and proactive. Reactive change occurs after external forces (usually competition or customers or government) have already adversely affected performance. If you lose a major account or your product is suddenly obsolete, you have no choice. Something must be done to survive, and this type of change can be desperate and very stressful. The other type of change is proactive. This type is initiated to take advantage of some opportunity such as a new market or an opportunity for cost savings. Generally, proactive change is more deliberate and satisfying. A company justifying and purchasing a new piece of equipment or an expansion into a new office can be very exciting.

Resistance to change is natural. People have concern about how it will affect their jobs and welfare. They think, “How will this affect me?” There is uncertainty about whether or not the change will be in the organization’s best interests, or even if it will be around six months from now. Some say, “This is just another program that will be gone soon. We’ve tried things like this before.” And so, the organization goes through the painful change process that involves shock, denial, suffering, resistance, acceptance, and finally commitment. Sometimes this process can take months or even years.

If change is inevitable and if Mr. Welch is right about actually proactively seeking ways to change, how can we do it better and less painful. Here are some ways we may become better change agents and overcome resistance:

Preparation and vigilance
Remember the Titanic? Never be satisified with status quo. All businesses will eventually face the storm. The ones that survive will be the ones prepared.

Education and communication 
Although it takes time and effort, the very best approach is through letting people know as much as you can as soon as you can. People resist less to what they know and understand. Start the process early and communicate the progress frequently. 

Participation and ownership
To the extent possible, let people help make the decisions and participate in making the change. When they are involved, it becomes “our” project rather than “their” project. When problems occur, they get solved more quickly and quietly. Support comes from involved people.

Facilitation and support
New skills may be required to manage change and support the new way of doing things. Training overcomes insecurity. It is important for people to understand the change process and remove barriers to its success. 

Strong leadership
Owners and managers must be committed and make their feelings known to subordinates. Sometimes leadership may involve a strong message, and other times the need may be encouragement. If there is no leadership, there will be no commitment.

Gregory P. Smith is a retention expert and shows businesses how to build productive work environments that attract, keep and motivate their workforce. He is the author of the book, Here Today Here Tomorrow: How to Transform Your Organization from High-Turnover to High-Retention. He speaks at conferences, conducts management training and is the President of a management consulting firm called Chart Your Course International located in Conyers, Georgia. Phone him at 770-860-9464 or visit .

Articles by Gregory P. Smith | More like this in Leading Change and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2000 by Gregory P. Smith. All rights reserved.

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