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Commitment and Alignment (Not Just Compliance)

  • Commitment and Alignment (Not Just Compliance)

There is anecdote about President Harry Truman envisioning his soon-to-be successor, General Dwight Eisenhower (known as Ike). Truman is said to have quipped, “He’ll sit here and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” In more recent years, much has been written about the limits of forced compliance. If this anecdote is accurate, six decades ago even the most powerful man in the United States recognized those limits.

A change management plan built on compliance has an implicit assumption that those at the top of the hierarchy have a lock on the knowledge and experience needed to implement a new initiative. They, or their proxies, create a set of performance criteria. Employees’ responsibilities are defined by standardized objectives that are enforced with a “do it, or else!” threat of penalties or forfeiture of rewards. The organizational hierarchy is used to enforce the performance standards and sanctions.

In contrast, managing change by fostering commitment engages employees. It requires a shared sense of purpose, established by change leaders who set out a compelling case for the change and the value it should bring. Employees’ commitment to the change increases by involving them in planning, and it brings fresh ideas to the implementation. Collaboration helps create shared goals and better understanding of the coordination and control needed for successful implementation.
Employee engagement is critical, but not sufficient. Infrastructure, incentives, and  leadership all need to be aligned to gain commitment from employees expected to do their work and accomplish their goals in a different way. The most engaged employees will disengage from a change initiative if they don’t have the tools to do their job under the new regimen or if the initiative is presented as an overlay to be accomplished in parallel with “real” work. It borders on magical thinking to expect employees to remain committed to a change if there is no reward for doing so. Leadership whose direction is not aligned with the initiative are signaling employees that the change is not important enough to justify their attention.

On the other hand, when tools, leaders, and rewards are aligned, power is unleashed that further engages employees. When implementing a Six Sigma program at Xerox, leaders looked for members of the design and developmenShapiro Nov Blogt community who were already applying aspects of Six Sigma.* These engineers were already engaged, and their work provided proof that the methods could be applied effectively. They were the first to be trained in the full Six Sigma methodology, and they immediately became a well-versed, experienced group who were passionate about their approach. The change leaders made sure these engineers’ achievements were recognized across sites by inviting them to present their successes at informal lunch-and-learn sessions and more formal company-wide conferences.

The change leaders leveraged the engineers’ engagement by providing them with tools and demonstrating leadership. They carefully chose the tool set to include inexpensive software that was easy to learn. This cut down on costs. Perhaps more important, managers were more likely to deploy these tools, which allowed for newly-trained engineers to apply their new skills to their work and teach their peers. Upper managers attended the Six Sigma training to gain a deeper understanding of the methods and to demonstrate the importance of the program. This combination of committed, engaged engineers and aligned leadership led to a successful implementation, demonstrating the power of employee commitment and clear leadership to create sustainable change.

*Norm Fowler and Heidi Grenek give a more extensive explanation of their Six Sigma deployment in Creating Contagious Commitment .

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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