The whole deal with how companies end up managing change always surprises me. We’ve been saying in business in about 100+ years that “change is the only constant.” Hell, look at last week. Donald Trump becomes the President of an advanced capitalism. So if you’re doing business in that advanced capitalism, well, there’s some uncertainty and change coming. You gotta figure out about managing change in that context.
OK, so what surprises me?
I guess the main thing is that we often kick this idea of “managing change” — or “change management” — to HR, which is dumb. HR doesn’t directly make money, and as a result, a lot of true “decision-makers” could care less about it.
So — if change is the only constant and managing change is theoretically important, why are we housing those processes in an also-ran department?
Well, the answer is that we’re not really. HR owns one section of managing change, which tends to be compliance, paperwork, and telling people “Hey, you’re no longer needed here because we’re doing this other thing.” The perception among executives, of course, is that they are the ones managing change. They’re making the decisions that drive the ship and the growth. Naitch!
Let me just run through a couple of quick examples around managing change and how to improve it.
Managing change: The micro-level problem
There’s a lot that’s flawed with how we develop managers — and how we explain to them what their “goals” should be. Most people want to be perceived as doing a good job and maintain their health insurance, so they tend to do what their boss says. There’s a bouncing ball problem here, though. See:
- Most organizations are not very good at setting priorities
- A lot of managers end up being “hair trigger”
- Most jobs have a high degree of “triage,” and/or “This shit needs to be done now”
- That creates a lot of false “sense of urgency” projects
- This burns people out and they chase new jobs
I’ve had maybe 12 different jobs in my life. At every one, something like this has happened. I’ll be at my desk working on whatever, you know? Someone will come over and say, with absolutely no context, “This other thing that Jim is working on is now a priority for Bob.” I might not even know who Jim and Bob are. It doesn’t matter. Because of how we consider hierarchy, I’m supposed to stop what I was doing and work on this thing for Jim and Bob.
“This new project is urgent for Jim,” a manager hisses. You wonder: “OK, who is Jim though?”
Some people have very well-defined jobs with goals and growth targets. Good for them! The fact is, though, many of us — many! — do not have a clear job role. In those situations, it’s easy for everything to change on a dime. No one really knows what we do, but we’re a warm body and goddamn it I need this now to please my boss, so I’ll go ask that warm body.
Change is literally everywhere at the micro level. So how do we go about managing change better?
Managing change: Let’s improve it
Here’s a dirty little secret. Everything at work comes from two places, ideally:
- A sense of priority around what to work on and when (in what order)
- An alignment between the big-picture strategy of the company and what you are supposed to do within that
If a company can consistently hit those two targets — clear priority, clear alignment of strategy and tasks — it’s usually a good place to work that makes money consistently.
Of course, people fuck everything up. You always end up working with chest-pounders, cross-throwers, target-whiffers, and buffoon managers. Priority and alignment are tossed out the window. Here’s how to fix it, and thus get better at managing change on the daily tip:
- Focus more on communication in the workplace, i.e. train managers how to be better here — and compensate them for clarity as opposed to just hitting numbers
- Promote less assholes
- Remove “ownership” of managing change from HR and hand it to Ops or VP level
What do I mean by “compensate them for clarity?” Well, let’s say you do some type of annual review. If a boss/manager gets a 10 from employees on “communicates new ideas well” or whatever, give him a $10K pop. Then, at the next meeting, call that out. Now the other managers know “Oh, I can make an extra $10K if I communicate well and my employees underscore that.” It’s small, but a start.
Managing change: The macro level issues
Macro-level managing change processes make me want to sleep in a dumpster for a week, typically. What usually happens is that a gaggle of ass puppet senior leaders decide to “shift the business model” or “pursue new revenue streams.” They work on that plan with consultants for 2–3 months. Most people throughout the company know what’s happening — gossip is everywhere — but there’s no transparency about it. Then, three months in at some all-hands meeting, a higher-up talks about the new idea. It’s all about managing change! Some things might shift! Instantly, everyone in the room is thinking layoffs. People are scared. Is a robot coming for my job? Why did the execs huddle on this without getting our input?
I can answer that last question fairly easily: they don’t give a shit about your input, they give a shit about their vacation to Oregon wine country. For that, they need a fatter bonus. But yea, people love to withhold information down the business chain — this, in turn, increases their own relevance to any process. (Work is about 191 percent about psychology.)
Then there’s the gold standard of work problems: execs think at the macro level (supposed “big picture”), but that plan must be executed at the micro level. For that to work, people need to have some semblance of an idea what’s going on. But execs tend not to care about anyone except their direct lieutenants and/or people that can make them look good. So now what?
Fixing the macro issues with managing change
The easiest way would be a wholesale shift in how we evaluate companies, away from quarterly reporting. Since that will never happen, well, we need some other ideas. Obviously “effective communication” would be a good one, albeit a buzzword. For that to work, we need a way to tie compensation/bonus to communication skills, such as the example a little bit above. Otherwise executives will not even remotely care about this.
I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.
One of the easier changes you can make is how we think about “strategy” or “our strategic plan.” Namely:
- We often confuse “strategy” with “operations”
- Often, we create intractable “strategic plans” whereby there’s no way to approach managing change
Consider this, from a recent gig I had. They would make “road maps,” i.e. strategic plans, of what needed to be done in different departments. Good! But these road maps were often set 20–25 weeks ahead, and then, well, things would change. Priorities shift. Leaders bellow about new things. But the road maps are intractable. So if something is a true priority now, it can’t get addressed for 26 weeks. That’s half a year. Uh. Um. Er.
Companies often do this — it’s called “process for the sake of process,” and it’s not good — so eliminating that would be good.
- Make lists throughout the year of pain points / issues / revenue erosion areas
- Come together as leaders and (maybe) HiPo’s and discuss the issues
- Design solutions to those issues — that’s where “strategy” begins
- Now move to what the execution of those solutions look like
- Add in stopgaps and evaluation periods for when supposed priorities change
Managing change: The big picture
Most western world work is honestly triage bullshit. We’re all supposed to be heads-down monkeys. “There’s an urgent client need! Get on it!” It’s hideous at most places, and only about 5–10 people are really making any money. The rest of us are just hitting targets like a bunch of kids playing Tetherball in Oklahoma. You wonder why employee engagement numbers are in the crapper globally? It’s because we all run in circles on a variety of “urgent” tasks while other people count their $20s.
Work is a very emotional, psychological people — until AI hits scale, it’s still populated by people. Unfortunately, we often strip that away from how we discuss work. It’s about growth. Projects. Tasks. Numbers. Spreadsheets. Targets. Goals. No. It’s not. It’s about all those things but also how people feel about those things, and what those feelings do to motivation.
Then we assign “people issues” to HR, which executives ignore 9.8 times out of 10 they come up. So that’s healthy!
In all of this, managing change takes a major backseat. We’re just supposed to accept and tolerate that everything will change on a dime every 2–3 days if the bosses want it to be so. Running in circles like a bitch is the new norm at most companies. That’s sad. It shouldn’t be that way. We should all stop and think logically for a second about how we’re going about managing change.
What else you got on the idea of managing change?
My name’s Ted Bauer. Google me, I guess.