Change management: a case study of how not to do it

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Background: I work in a research institute that focuses on semiconductor research. My group works mainly on silicon photovoltaics. When I joined the group there were roughly 20 people in the group. By this point in time that number has grown to 60+ people. The increase in budget has followed a similar increase. Growing pains have become apparent with this incredibly quick growth. Change management is one of the premier aspects of management for a group in this situation. This case study looks at the success in this area of management.

Case: Successful research is generally the product of close collaboration between a team of people. Due to the rapid growth a lot of inexperienced people have joined the group. The fastest way to teach and disseminate knowledge to the newcomers is through a combination of formal and informal interactions between members of a team or group. The office space is the most powerful tool to improve these informal interactions. Whereas the cafeteria, the coffee corners and the lounge areas are open for everyone to run into each other, offices and cubicles are where most people talk about work related issues. During the rapid growth, office space became a problem. The old group could fit entirely on 1 floor of the building but all the new people received temporary desks in containers on the parking lot. In a later phase a part of these people were moved to another building. In the end, the managers and 50% of the group sit in one building on the same floor. The containers and the other building each house 25% of the group. All three locations are 5 minutes walking away from each other. Desks were allocated in an unorganised fashion up to this point. This results in people from the same team being separated by enough space to become a problem for quick and convenient interaction. At the same time this creates cross-team interactions that are equally valuable in the sense that they can provide innovation in the way of thinking thanks to a new perspective. The coming year is a year of consolidation and hence the time is ripe to create an organised desk allocation plan. Although the real problem is the division over three separate islands, upper management feels that an improvement over the current situation is still possible through a redistribution of desks. The main idea is to place people together based on the topic that they work on. This will strongly encourage the teamwork within the topic but might cost dearly in terms of cross-topic interactions. The topics that end up on the islands will really be on an island.

Kotter defined an 8 step change model. This checklist will be followed to see how well this particular change was managed.

Step one: create urgency

Tell a compelling change story that can motivate people to change.

There was never any communication about the problem. No clear reason was communicated why changing the desk allocation would improve the current situation. It is unclear whether this was communicated to middle-management but if it was it didn’t reach the majority of the group. It’s not obvious to find a clear metric that could be used to argue that there is indeed a problem with the current way of working. Both intra-team and inter-team interaction is important and the real case to be made is that a bigger office space needs to be found to combine all the people from the group.

Grade: fail

Result: complacency

Step two: form a powerful coalition

Identify and engage stakeholders to develop the plan. Need 75% of the management to buy in to the idea.

I’m not part of the middle-management but I’ve had interactions with many of these managers and at best they seemed disinterested. At worst they saw clear problems and didn’t consider it to be their plan but rather a plan from higher-up. Employees were not consulted so never became part of the coalition for change.

Grade: fail

Result: confusion

Step three: create a vision for change

A clear vision can help everyone understand why you’re asking them to do something. Ensure that your change coalition can describe the vision in five minutes or less.

No urgency was created. The case wasn’t communicated to begin with. The vision for change didn’t resonate because most people see more clearly the social implications of being moved away from long-time cubicle-mates compared to the organisational benefits of sitting with topic-mates. In addition the organisation based around topics seems to break down in many instances. Some people are being placed together for no clear reason since they haven’t collaborated in the past and have no clear synergies that can develop in the future. Some people with pre-existing conflicts are being placed in close vicinity and some people seem to be getting special treatment by escaping the topic oriented organisation.

Grade: fail

Result: misalignment

Step four: communicate the vision

Talk often about your change. Openly and honestly address peoples’ concerns and anxieties.

The fact that a change was on the horizon was first communicated on Thursday. This was the first clear communication and it skipped all the previous steps to jump right into announcing the change. No input was asked from anyone, no interaction existed, nobody engaged the discussion of changing desk allocations. It was not the first time that there was talk of relocating people so the urgency of the change was clearly not perceived by most people. The actual plan for the new desk allocation was communicated by email on the next day, Friday evening 6h30. It came unexpected and without too much explanation. No date was announced for the move. The next Monday another email clarified that the move was to happen on the next Monday. That left 5 days for possible discussion and negotiation to change some things in the plan.

Grade: fail

Result: inaction / resistance

Step five: remove obstacles

Recognize and reward people for making change happen. Identify people who are resisting the change, and help them see what’s needed.

People started talking more and more about the implications of the change as the week continued and the impending move came closer. Questions were raised but probably few of those reached the upper-management. Some people got in contact with them after a while to try and change their minds about the change. Clear arguments were presented and were met with a long silence. A change was proposed but depended on a few other people who had to agree to move as well. After some emails back and forth the proposal for a small change was withdrawn because it would result in a domino effect. The false hope and eventual stone-walling of the proposal lead to additional frustration and feeling of misunderstanding.

Grade: fail

Result: frustration

Step six: create short-term wins

Nothing motivates more than success. Look for sure-fire projects that you can implement without help from any strong critics of the change.

In a sense the first attempt at placing together people working on the same topic consisted of moving one topic together into the second building. It resulted in breaking up some synergies along the way, for no clear reason. In the second building the people are split over 2 offices and all too frequently people will send emails to each other instead of walking over to the other office to talk in person. Informal interaction with people sitting in other locations is strongly reduced. The offices in the second building are in a remote location and it takes too long to walk there to catch someone at his desk. The people who were relocated can probably better attest to the usefulness of the move. Since no clear metric existed to argue that there was a problem, there is also no clear metric to show success of the new approach.

Grade: fail

Result: cynicism

I will stop short of the last two steps because of the long list of failures. With time we will surely continue through the transition curve. We have gone from avoidance in the past two years to resistance in the present day. The future will result in the exploration of the potential advantages of the change and if all is well we should end up in the commitment faze. That’s where we really want to be.

Step seven: build on the change

Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early.

Step Eight: anchor the changes in corporate culture

So despite all the things that could have been handled better, what is it that needs to be done right now to salvage as much as possible from this change? What can we do to turn the ship around?

  • Continue to communicate what will and won’t change
  • Encourage people to express their feelings about the change constructively
  • Encourage people to express their views about how to achieve the change
  • Don’t take it personally – they may appear mad at you – you are the messenger and are in their line of fire
  • Listen actively