Thursday, May 22, 2008

The winds of change

We recently conducted a program for one functional team from this organization, lets call them XYZ. Now this XYZ is being acquired by a larger organization (lets call them ABC). These are my impressions from the program. When I say 'we' conducted the program, I mean my company, High Places.

'The future has a way of arriving unannounced' - George Will

The Head of this Division formally opened the program by saying that “Life is what happens to us when we are busy planning other things.” There could have been no better way to start the program than this. XYZ is on the threshold of a big change, probably the biggest it has faced in its path of growth and expansion. It could well be the last change it will face, as it will soon merge with ABC. (Interestingly, more than seven years ago, the erstwhile Director of XYZ had to give a press release stating that "we have no plans for a merger with ABC or anyone else, its only market rumours”.) Seven years and one merger later, it is no more 'market rumours'. XYZ now squarely faces the crossroads of corporate growth. Further, the change has come upon them rather rapidly. The merger was announced in February and the formalities towards the merger have already started taking place since April, 2008.
The program was initially planned as a team-building event coupled with celebration of a good year gone by. Later the flavour of 'managing change' was added to it.
Henry David Thoreau has said “things do not change, we change.” The stark reality naturally follows, that you really cannot manage change. It will happen inexorably at its own pace. The only part you can manage is yourself. As another wise man has said, "you can't alter the wind, but you can definitely adjust your sails".
Given the limited time at hand, we planned to devote the first half-day event to team-building. The activity used a Scrabble board and multiple options of doing various activities, which give each team a chance to maximize their points. It is a complicated game that requires quick thinking, time management, resource allocation and goal-orientation. Majority of the participants used the time available to enjoy themselves (and did it to the hilt!). As a result, some teams got so busy with the merrymaking that they forgot the overall objective of the activity. The activity ended with a short but terse debrief that brought to surface the aspects of getting caught with micro-management and ignoring the larger picture. In other words, missing the trees for the woods.
This was followed by the activity that made the participants draw their conclusions on basis of highly ambiguous data. This sobered many a participant. The inability to admit that 'I am not sure, cant say' to oneself and others was too stark to be ignored. It also highlighted the need to be open about one's doubts and assumptions. The realization that someone else might know more than I do was a bitter pill to swallow to some. Given the nature of work in their function, this was not in the least surprising.
As spirits flowed freely and the dance floor came alive in the evening, it helped lighten the mood, but only just so. The undercurrent of a tinge of sadness was more than palpable. (People did say 'cheers to the last get-together of this team.')

The second day was devoted to the more pressing matter of the impending change and people's response to it. The first activity was 'Roman Catapult – Design Transfer Version'. The teams were asked to design a 'machine' out of the given resources. Half way through the project, they were asked to exchange their design with another team. The spirit of celebration pervaded this activity too, but to a lesser extent than the previous afternoon. In fact, three out of four teams took it very seriously. The change that came at the half way point threw many of the plans out of gear. It was interesting to note during the debriefing how teams had responded to the change differently. The team that was doing rather well (according to themselves) in the first half found it difficult to accept change. On the contrary, the team that was floundering in the woods during the first half eagerly looked forward to it, hoping that it will give them success after 25 minutes of frustration. This clearly reflects the overall sentiment accompanying the merger and change. XYZ has been doing very well in business and has grown from a modest beginning over the last few years. Naturally, one would resist giving up something that one has nurtured so carefully and painstakingly over years.
The next activity saw the whole team blindfolded, getting thrown in the metaphorical deep end. There was complete lack of coherence, leadership and focus; and the ambiguity of the situation simply paralysed most of the individuals. The debriefing touched upon the points related to the inevitability of change. The message was loud and clear – you can either be a silent passenger who gets swept off by the forces of change, or you can be proactive and actually participate in the change. 'Be the change that you want to be'. And in this process, it won't help to be half-hearted. As an old American proverb reminds us, “It doesn't work to leap a twenty-foot chasm in two ten-foot jumps.”

The second half of the day saw an open house session, where people articulated their perceptions about XYZ and ABC. It was interesting that they came up with a long list of points that they thought were the cultural strengths of XYZ. When it came to talking about ABC, they could think of only system-related strengths. While they tried to defend this collated data by saying that they knew very little about the culture of ABC, but this defense was rather insipid. It is more than amply clear that the greatest concerns that people carried were not about the systems and procedures in ABC that they will have to master very soon, but the kind of work culture that they would have to be a part of in the coming days and. Once again, the fact that change is inevitable and that people will have to gear up for the days to come was in sharp focus. The group would do well to learn from Anais Nin, the famous French journalist who once said, “There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” The session ended with a dialogue about how people develop their individual perceptions about the world around them and how differences in perceptions can lead to friction.
The final activity 'Form a Company' illustrated the need to share information and resources for achieving a larger common goal.
In retrospect, I can think of three areas of concern that people carry before and during any major change. These are not entirely my thoughts, of course. I have learned a great deal about this from my mentor, Dr. Zahid Gangjee. a well known OD practitioner who has helped many organizations find a way ahead through the dark forests of uncertainty and change.

1. Fear of losing the relevance of their current knowledge
2. Fear of losing their salience and importance after the change

3. Fear of not adjusting to a new set of values

The 1st two are comparatively easy to resolve. Any upright manager will soon find that the knowledge gained in the past does not really go waste in spite of changes happening around. The realization dawns when they begin to differentiate between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge can get stale when it is not applied; it turns into wisdom when applied at the right time. The second area of concern is also not an unsurmountable task. At the risk of sounding slightly dismissive, I would say that if the person deserves it, the importance will come to him anyway and anywhere. In case of a corporate acquisition, the question is really about how people perceive it, whether they see the larger pie or not, whether they see it as a threat or as an opportunity. Its the 3rd area of fear that can become the proverbial monkey on the back. I have seen enough managers complain (or actually quit) after a change giving completely flimsy reasons for quitting. "I had a cabin that had a lovely view of the sea. Now my cabin faces the sales department." The real reason is the person could not adjust to the new set of values that the organization wants to follow.
The wheels of change are in motion, and I am waiting with bated breath to see how many people catch the upward rise of the wheel's rear end to get on top, and how many get frozen and allow themselves to be crushed under the descent of the front end. The 10th card in a Tarot deck is the 'Wheel of Fortune' It occupies the exact middle position in the 'Fool's Journey', thereby reminding us that any change is not final, it is just another milestone in a long journey.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." - Unknown quote, sometimes attributed to Charles Darwin.

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