While chatting with a retired fire chief, the conversation rolled around to change management. Given my lack of experience with fire departments, the chief piqued my interest by saying that implementing a change in a fire department is completely different from business. He explained that the obstacle in putting a fire department-wide change into operation lies with the officers. (In the fire department hierarchy, firefighters report to officers, who report to the chief.) According to the fire chief, the firefighters, because of their position, don’t see the need for any new direction. In contrast, the chief and his or her staff see the need on a longer-term strategic level. Firefighters see that what they are doing right now is working for the current situation and see no need for change. The chief and his staff depend on officers to enforce the change in direction, but officers are loath to do so because they have personal and working relationships with the firefighters that could be jeopardized.
His explanation had a ring that is all too familiar. How often do we hear that the problem lies in one particular area or with one group of people? Just fix those recalcitrant middle managers, and implementing change would be a snap. If only it worked that way. The fire chief’s description is of an organization that is misaligned relative to the change. The leadership sees the bigger picture and understands the strategic direction that the department needs to take. They understand the problem and have chosen an approach to address it. The people at the other end of the hierarchy understand the day-to-day work better than anyone. They know how to get today’s responsibilities done, but may not recognize that today’s work is not enough for the future of the organization. The middle level is caught between the other two, which are askew from one another. The middle level is expected to translate the new direction for the future into tactics and goals for people focused on today’s work—a delicate balancing act that may well put working relationships at risk.
It can be a challenge for change leaders to move away from the “blame game,” and instead step back and take a more systemic view. Being aware of the bigger picture doesn’t make it easy to get others to act on it. Changes as diverse as leading a community-wide cigarette safety program (cigarettes are a leading cause of fire fatalities in the US) or a company-wide quality initiative start with commitment. Leaders who demonstrate their commitment to the change and make sure that every affected employee knows what is driving the change are taking steps toward successful implementation.
Leaders can demonstrate commitment to a change, starting with collaboratively engaging employees in developing the business case. Collaboration creates a common understanding of the needs and goals of the change. A compelling business case outlines the forces driving the change in a way that is linked to aspects of the business affected by the change—including customers, vendors, employees, processes, and products. It explains, in practical terms, the advantages of making the transition to the new way of working and the consequences of failing.
Actions always speak louder than words. If training is needed for the change, leaders who participate in it are showing they believe it is worthwhile and they support it. On-the-job actions, such as integrating outputs from the new way of working in business decisions, sends a clear message of management’s commitment. For example, if you are moving to a distributed web-based resource planning and use tool, it is key for leaders to use reports generated by the new system, rather than from the centralized legacy tool, in resource planning and scheduling decisions. Making sure employees have the tools to take advantage of the change, listening to employees concerns, monitoring progress, rewarding successes, and making course corrections can make the difference between success and failure. Active engagement by leaders encourages active engagement by employees and helps make change a reality.