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Overcoming the Fear of Change
Business Journal

Overcoming the Fear of Change

Implementing change breeds uncertainty. A 20-year expert tells when it's necessary and how to do it effectively.

A Q&A with David Jones, change consultant

There are people who recoil from change no matter how necessary the change is. And there are others who love change for change's sake. The first type can prohibit progress; the second can cause chaos. And both probably exist in your organization. The problem is that you can't dismiss the fears of the first type or the adventurousness of the second. Either group might be right about change initiatives. A leader's job is to make the call, then guide both groups through the organization's transformation.

Get clear about why you need to make a change. Is there a business imperative?


That's not easy, according to David Jones. For more than 20 years, Jones has consulted with some of America's biggest companies -- including Ameritrade, Bon Secours Health System, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield -- introducing and directing change. Assessing the potential of a change is one of the hardest, and most important, parts of a leader's job, says Jones.

But making the decision to change is only the first step in the change process. There are good ways and bad ways to alter an organization, lots of mistakes change agents can make, and pitfalls galore. In the following conversation, Jones explains why change initiatives usually fail, why it's better to take small steps than change everything at once, how to get people on board and keep them there, and what challenges to expect along the way.

GMJ: How do you know when a change is required?

David Jones: First, identify why the organization is considering a change in the first place. Some people call that process strategic intent. But it's simply understanding where the change originates, what we want to accomplish with it, and why we would even do this. The truth is that people really don't like change. Change is hard, it's costly, it disrupts the norm, and it requires us to do things differently. Everything in us would rather stick with the status quo. That's why most changes in business are unsuccessful and don't meet the expectations laid out for them.

The most important issue is getting clear about why you need to make a change. Is there a business imperative? Will it deliver value that justifies the expense and disruption? That's important because when you get into the change process, you're going to find out it's harder than you thought, it will take longer than you thought, it'll probably cost more than you thought, and it will be more disruptive than you thought. You need to be clear up front about what you are doing, why you are doing it, how it will make your organization different, and why the change is really critical to your organization's success.

GMJ: Which is more effective: radical change or slow, small steps?

Jones: Change rarely succeeds; it's very costly, very difficult. But the changes that are most successful are changes that are consistent with the culture of the organization, that are incremental in nature, that don't push people too far out of their comfort zone, and that can be staged over a longer period of time. It's also good to test things -- to do a pilot or get people on board gradually. I was at Bon Secours for 10 years, and even though they weren't ready for me at first, I had time to ease off and make things more palatable. We tested structural changes and new programs at some facilities, watched what worked, and then implemented what succeeded elsewhere.

My first experience was in a medium-sized community hospital, and I had two years to get to know the people and the culture and to test things out slowly and gradually before a new CEO came in and everything moved into the fast lane. But by then, I had credibility. We changed lots of things: pay systems, the performance management system, and many other human resources programs. But none of it seemed radical. It worked because I was known and trusted.

Incremental changes are the better way to go because they're more successful, people adapt to them more readily, and they're more sustainable. Take on transformational change only when you have to.

GMJ: How do you know when you have to?

Jones: Business dynamics, technology, competition, the economy, globalization, and such sometimes require us to make changes that are radical and transformational. When that's the case, we have to know that's the case, and the change has got to be tied to something critical for the organization's success.

Several years ago, I was brought into a small community hospital in West Virginia that was reacting to tremendous changes in the industry: HMOs were coming in, there were new competitors, and there were radical changes in the way the government paid for services. At that point, we simply couldn't do business the way we'd always done it -- our old business model was now a "go-out-of-business" strategy. It required transformational change. So the CEO became the change sponsor. I was the change agent. And we marshaled the forces and organized a new model.

GMJ: How was it received?

Jones: At first, badly. A lot of people had been there their whole careers; many weren't reading the trade magazines or talking to people in other hospitals. They were unaware of the changed environment, and they liked the way they were working. Some people said we were trying to bring in Japanese management techniques. They thought I was some big-city guy telling them what to do. There was even a union organization drive in response.

We had to overcome a lot of obstacles. But we had to change to survive.


It wasn't just the frontline workers who were unhappy, either, because almost everyone had to change in some way. Leadership had been leading by command and control and didn't know how to delegate. There were skill deficiencies, but the new working environment required a lot more self-sufficiency at all levels and more local decision making. We had to overcome a lot of obstacles. But that's the point -- we had to change to survive. And eventually, we did.

GMJ: What's the difference between a change sponsor and a change agent?

Jones: If you're the person sponsoring the change, you have the ability to initiate the change, to provide the resources, and to hold people accountable. Sponsorship is when the leaders look around and say, "Guess what -- we've got to acquire our second largest competitor to gain an advantage in the marketplace." Then they create a new business strategy, which means change on a much larger scale.

Typically, these leaders then go to someone and say, "Here's what we need to make happen; I need your help to execute this." That person is the change agent. [The change agent] is not convincing them to do this; they're the ones who have the urgency. They're looking to you, the change agent, to figure out how to change successfully, and they need your support to help structure the change initiative and get other people excited about it.

But there's got to be somebody in the organization who has the clout and who can provide the sponsorship necessary for the change. Sponsors hold people's feet to the fire and identify those folks who may have something to lose; who may not be excited about the change; who may have to change themselves; and who may undermine, resist, or try to derail the change. Sponsors help hold those people accountable.

GMJ: What does it take to make both roles work in a change initiative?

Jones: The trick for the change agent is to be really, really clear with the sponsor as to what the sponsor is willing to do to make the change successful. Sometimes the change agent is more committed to a change than the sponsor, and then the agent must try to compensate for the lack of sponsorship.

For example, maybe the CEO isn't as visible as he needs to be around an initiative, so as change agents, we have to get out there and carry the message. Maybe the sponsor isn't sending out the communication, so we create our own communication vehicles. Maybe the sponsor isn't holding people accountable, so we're out there trying to tell people why it's important.

When that happens, people look around and say, "Well, I see you talking about this change, but I don't hear the CEO talking about it. Why isn't he out here? Why aren't leaders telling their people this is important? Why are you the face of this, and why have they gone quiet?" If you can't get your sponsor actively engaged to provide the leadership necessary, you can't succeed only on the strength of your desire to make this thing happen.

GMJ: Then what should you do?

Jones: You've got to back up, slow down, and re-engage your sponsor. If the sponsor is unwilling or unable to play his required role, that is your signal that the change is no longer important. Without adequate sponsorship, the change initiative will eventually fail, and you, the agent, will be blamed.

To make change, you've got to constantly retest the sponsors' commitment and resolve. One of the things a good change agent does is discourage leaders from initiating change when it won't be sustained or when leaders don't really understand what they're getting themselves into. It's crucial to test sponsors' commitment repeatedly so that down the road they don't say, "This really is a lot more work than we thought. We really had no idea it would take this long or cost this much, and if we had known, we wouldn't have started it." When people backtrack, you lose so much time and energy -- and you lose credibility and productivity.

GMJ: Then change becomes much harder the next time.

Jones: That's exactly right. Then you get what we call "change history" -- your record of starting, sustaining, and finishing change. If you have a good change history -- of doing the right things in moderation over time or making key strategic decisions and executing them effectively -- then when it comes time for the next thing, people will be a lot more excited and motivated than if you're somebody who starts a lot of things without a lot of forethought and then abandons them.

I've been in a lot of organizations where employees think, "I'm going to wait this change initiative out. I've seen these come and go. I've seen leaders come and go. I've heard these words and phrases before. I'm not going to get excited about this, because I know it's not going to last." That's the worst situation you can be in: when you desperately need to make a major change and nobody believes you because you've cried wolf too many times.

Things are going badly if the change starts with fanfare but ends on a whimper.


It's much better to start fewer things and do them effectively, especially large-scale changes. People are busy, and they don't like disruption unless there's a good reason for it. Show them that change will make their lives better. Make the case that we're bringing an innovation, a solution, or a change that will solve a real-time problem or fix a pain point.

GMJ: Can you give me an example?

Jones: I saw this with a diversity program in a financial services company. At first, it seemed like a great idea, and we jumped on the bandwagon. But over time, enthusiasm waned, and it became clear that leaders, managers, and employees would have to make significant changes. It was going to take time to see results, and some of the issues that surfaced were ingrained in the culture and caused people a great deal of discomfort. It became easier to have a marginal program than to push the organization to make the meaningful and sustainable changes.

Our experience was not unique. Very few companies can make a commitment to sustain changes over time and make the difficult decisions and investments that change requires. Many programs are either marginalized or abandoned when the price of change becomes prohibitively high. When that happens, they fail to meet the original expectations.

GMJ: What are good metrics for assessing whether a change is successful?

Jones: First, define the strategic intent or the business imperative that you're trying to accomplish. Get very clear about how you will measure success. Then determine whether you can use the same metrics you already have in place that define your business success -- growth, profitability, margins, employee engagement, balance sheet, productivity, the strength of your talent pool.

One of the reasons that change initiatives fail is that organizations don't spend the time up front deciding why they're doing this, what it will do for them, and how they'll measure success. One result is that they redefine success by lowering their expectations.

You can tell things are going badly if the change starts with fanfare but ends on a whimper. Nobody calls a meeting or puts a blog out or has a big celebration to announce you're not doing this anymore. People just stop talking about it. The more disciplined and specific you are up front, the clearer your implementation structure and metrics will be. It also will be easier to keep people's focus on how a change helps meet goals.

GMJ: Does change get easier then?

Jones: No, it gets harder. Once you get past the novelty of a change, you'll find that every system in your organization is set up to reject it. You've got to have the resolve, the courage, and the fortitude to see change through that part of the process, because it's the most difficult part of the transition. You'll only accomplish that if you're able to successfully communicate why you're changing, how it will be measured, why it is critical, and why people need to get on board and make this successful.

When I was working at a hospital in Nebraska, I was doing a reorganization in human resources while also driving a bigger organizational change agenda. Within three months, I started getting a lot of pushback. The change sponsor had a hotline for people to use with questions and concerns, and the sponsor's assistant called to tell me they were getting a lot of pushback, so I asked her to transcribe the comments.

I came in on a Saturday to read the stack from my own folks, and that was one of the worst days of my working life. There was so much fear, so much misunderstanding -- even though we had meetings, sent newsletters, used every form of communication. I had to re-evaluate why we were doing this, whether it was an ego trip, whether it was worth doing. I had to go back to our original survey where employees talked again and again about what wasn't working and why they weren't engaged. But many of my staff weren't excited about the change, and the further we went, the more alienated they became.

So we did some team building, took more care of people emotionally, made sure people were involved and heard, and got out more data about what we were doing and why it was good for customers. It's easy to get out of touch with the emotions of the people most affected by change.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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