Are you ready to be a change agent?

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Editor’s note: The annual list of the Best Places to Work in Virginia will be published in the February issue of Virginia Business.

I love winter.  I watch the changes around us —  as snow takes the place of colorful leaves and the air turns a crisp cool.  Now that the New Year has arrived we all can acknowledge that things are changing.  Change is a normal, expected part of life and is also part of any organization. 

Effective organizational change management is needed today more than ever.  With the many challenges of the economy, and fierce competition, companies are changing strategies and plans almost daily.  It is necessary to change.  Organizations are open systems — like a living cell.  Organizations live and breathe, start and die and weather environmental storms. They must learn how to adjust, bounce back and reinvent themselves.  Just like a living cell, organizations are capable of survival and transformation until they decide not to change. 

Organizations need change agents.  They promote open communication at all levels, have a plan for carrying out change and get the whole system involved.  Simply telling people what to do without sharing knowledge and creating an atmosphere for dialogue will create more resistance and half-baked initiatives.  Invite others to participate in the change process and be open to ideas and concerns.  Most important, an organization must have a dedicated leader with thick skin and a culture that is ready to do something (a sense of urgency).

If your organization needs to change, you will need the whole “system involved”.  This means that employee involvement is the order of the day.  This is more than just suggestion boxes in the lunchroom.  If you want real, lasting change that will be effective, you will need to be a convincing strong leader and lead the whole organization through the change. 

As a consultant, I always am fascinated with how leaders, teams and organizations respond to tough business challenges.  One typical response is more meetings, retreats and training programs.  Companies usually don’t need more training; they need to get into real, open dialogue and learn how to develop their own unique action plans.  Sometimes “best practices” from other companies are not the answer.  Perhaps less facilitation, more trust and a flow of fresh ideas by people who care about the issues will make the difference. 

Successful organizational change is:  planned, complex and driven from the top, and it relies on an open system approach.  Training programs, team building and more policies alone will not produce the level of lasting change needed in today’s business world.  People are not machines that can be “fixed” or “engineered”.  People have thoughts, interests, ideas and intelligence.  Are you using them?
If you are a leader in your organization, or you are in a position to make change happen (that makes you a change agent),  here are some things to think about when planning a change effort:
Change for a compelling reason — Identify the sense of urgency and be clear about the change needed.

Do not act alone — Never work in a vacuum, and get support from the top and bottom; gather input and creative ideas from all involved.  Involve some “early adopters” to cheer and support the change.
Deal with the pain — Change is hard, so be ready for hard work and resistance. Have a tough skin.

Have a whole system approach — Consider the whole system.  What other areas or functions will be affected by the change?  Are they part of the solution?

Be courageous — Develop your leadership skills and set an example for others as a brave warrior.  What risks are we all willing to take? What will you do when you encounter resistance, politics and negativity? 

You may be experiencing big or small changes.  Maybe the culture needs to change, or quality improvements are needed, or maybe there is a morale or turnover issue.  I want to help organizations manage their organizational change efforts with confidence and great results.

Karen Gulliford is a consultant in organizational and leadership development at The Titan Group, a Richmond-based human resources consulting firm.

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