The art of managing in uncertain times.

author picture Article written by Vincent Halluent

“We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.” Stephen Elop, former Nokia CEO, after Microsoft acquired Nokia.

If you have ever been responsible for implementing changes, this will certainly resonate with you.

Dealing with uncertainty usually involves assessing operational and financial risks - to name but a few. These analyses assist the decision-making process and help reduce uncertainty-related anxiety. But who, in today’s world, can reasonably claim to be able to measure the risks of a financial crisis? Who can measure business operational risks linked to terrorist attacks? Uncertainty produces anxiety and anxiety breeds resistance. The higher the level of uncertainty, the more likely resistances will block any type of transformational effort. As a result, leaders struggle with the tension between the desire to drive change and the risk of alienating people.

There is no getting away from this age-old issue. According to a research gathering more than 300 project leaders, employee resistance is perceived as the top impediment to business reengineering. But that’s not all: it is cited up to five times more frequently than any other project obstacle. Resistance problems must be met quickly and head-on. This ability should be part of the DNA of any organization not only facing internal transformations but also having to promote behavioral changes among its own clients.

All in all, you can either try your best to avoid mistakes by improving risks assessments or beat the competition by making change management part of your DNA. What is the wisest move?

Resistance: what’s in a word?

Resistance to change takes on a number of forms, each calling for different answers. Consider the case of a company moving offices. Increased commute time usually raises serious concerns among employees. Root causes of resistance are very “real” and logistical. Compensatory measures might include teleworking or a pay raise. Yet, HR solutions are not a panacea when it comes to imaginary socio-affective types of resistance. Moving from Brussels to a distant province is likely to be perceived as a sharp turn with a downgrade, triggering negative emotional responses. But who can say for sure that the work environment will be worse? Confronting points of view and airing concerns on a collective basis greatly helps to put worries into perspective. Last but not least, moving to a smaller or open space office is sometimes equated to a loss of prestige and social recognition. Symbolic resistances of the sort call for replacement symbols or trade-offs. This scenario illustrates the need to first cut the problem into bite-sized chunks by defining levels or types of resistance.

Forcing the change.

Whichever the case, infusing a sense of urgency and making sure that the knowledge gap – that is, the gap between what someone can do and what is expected from him - can be overcome is paramount to fight resistances. Employees and managers are often disinclined to abandon the old ways when a product sells reasonably well. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, how do you engage those people? Harvard Professor John P. Kotter first coined the metaphor of the “burning platform” to picture a dire situation where there is no other alternative than “jumping”. But a burning platform may generate side-effects such as learning anxiety in the case where people question their own abilities to adopt new behaviors or develop required skills. Besides creating a burning platform, leaders should thus provide their teams with the training and education necessary to implement the change. Pressure will do no good if people feel disempowered or unable to rise up to the challenge. It all comes down to striking a good balance between survival urgency and knowledge acquisition.  

“Who’s who” an how to react?

Change-related behaviors within an organization follow a Gaussian distribution or bell-shaped curve. The graph below describes what can reasonably be expected in a context of uncertainty. Out of a staff of 100 people, 40 will follow in the footsteps of a tiny group of 10 “innovation champions”. About 40 more people will take the back seat until further notice. Consider the last 10% to be the group of nay-sayers.


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Leaders have to offer tailored responses to each of these audiences if only to prevent resistance from spreading like wildfire throughout the organization. Profiles of the first kind shall be enlisted as early volunteers and rewarded accordingly. The same goes for so-called supporters or “early majority”. Standing arms crossed and demanding “proof”, the third group can make or break your efforts. Just like any “swing state” (or entity) in an election, it requires careful attention. Failure to do so will bring this group one step closer to the nay-sayers and rigidify the organization. Though it may sound counterintuitive, engaging in a battle of wits with the last 10% is extremely risky and mostly useless as they automatically oppose change. Too much focus on this segment usually generates undesired side-effects, not least seeing the “late majority” group join the ranks of opposition hardliners in an attempt to attract attention. Tough decisions such as removal or relocation of staff might be required to deal with refractory people and their capacity to destabilize the rest of the organization. Whether systematic or exemplary in nature, these decisions should be envisaged on ad-hoc basis [financial soundness, previous disciplinary actions, public or private sector].

There is a whole host of reasons why transformation efforts fail. Resistance is a top issue. Promoting agility and defrosting a hardened status quo comes at price. As a rough estimate, 10 % of the overall budget (source PROSCI) should be allocated to change management. Identify the root causes of resistance, create needs and rewards for successful change, then make your move.

Alternative solutions in a context of uncertainty.

Besides streamlining CM skills and managing resistances and resistant people, it is of uttermost importance to keep focusing on “certainty within the realm of uncertainty” - that is to say your clients! It be should business as usual in spite of the implementation work. 
If the future is somewhat unknown, teams should also be explicitly told so and reassured on the implementation process itself, which should be transparent. 
It is difficult to predict whether a decision is good or bad, only the future can tell. It is even more the case in a context of uncertainty. Leaders themselves may be overwhelmed with doubts. The solution is to remain close to the field and to frontline teams during the whole transformational process. It is crucial to listen to them and communicate openly, including about one’s own doubts. At the end of the day, leading by example also means showing vulnerability.

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