Inside Small Business: Meeting the challenge of change - Michelle Gibbings

We live in interesting times. Change is everywhere and it impacts organisations both large and small. For leaders, this means the environment they are working in is often ambiguous, complex and disruptive.

To survive and flourish in this environment, small businesses need to master four key steps…

Inside Small Business Magazine recently published Michelle’s article about meeting the challenge of change – you can read it here.

Four key steps to help small businesses survive and flourish in “interesting times”.

There is a famous saying, “May you live in interesting times”, and no doubt it applies today with change everywhere, impacting organisations both large and small.

For leaders, this means they are working in an environment that is often:

  • Ambiguous – the ground rules are uncertain and shifting, which can leave people questioning their role
  • Beyond boundaries – the usual boundaries of roles, organisations and work are changing
  • Complex – problems are not predictable, and neither are the solutions
  • Disruptive – people and organisations are constantly seeking the next “big thing”, and the quest to be innovative is never ending.

To survive and flourish in this environment, small businesses need to master four key steps…

1. Devise a sustainable approach

Most efforts to change fail in organisations for a range of reasons including lack of leadership, difficulty in maintaining momentum and ineffective (or no) mechanisms to support the change.

Many change efforts are started without the necessary planning and analysis. For example, there is often no assessment of the business’ capacity to absorb the change, nor an understanding of the capability of impacted stakeholders to adopt the change.

Employees want to understand the “why” – why the change is necessary, how the change connects to where the business is heading, and what it means for them and the work they do.

A considered and well-executed approach has five core elements:

a. Strategic alignment – Understand what is driving the change. Is it external (such as new regulations or new entrants) or internal factors (such as a new CEO or productivity challenges)? Clarity is also needed on where the business is heading, and how the change connects and supports its vision and strategic agenda.

b. Options – Alternatives should be developed and reviewed, including potential risks and impacts. Selected options should have a clear benefits case so the business can measure if the intended benefits of the change have been delivered.

c. Planning – The steps to make the change happen should be planned. This is not about creating an inflexible plan, but about having a strong sense of direction and clarity on the way ahead and what is needed for success.

d. Infrastructure – Infrastructure that supports implementation of the plan should be identified and in place. This involves structured sequencing, monitoring, governance and execution of the change taking into account the business’ capacity, capability and objectives.

e.. People support – This is one of the most important elements, and it is more than just communicating and training. Helping people to cope and thrive through change is most effective when it is at a mindset, values and behaviour level. This includes providing people with personal and technical skills as well as tools to help them adapt in the changing environment.

2. Know the Landscape

Once the approach to the change has been outlined, it is a good idea to take a stocktake and determine if the business is ready, willing and able to change.

This assessment helps to highlight any gaps or areas that need to be addressed so the change has the best chance of being successful and sustainable.

  • Ready: The business knows where it wants to get to, and has a plan for execution, with a logically and thoughtfully sequenced change roadmap. There are always unknowns with change, and it can be impossible to plan for everything, so it is important to be flexible and adaptive.
  • Willing: The business has effective leadership, and the roles and responsibilities of those involved with the change are clear. For example, a sponsor may be accountable for the change, and a project team is helping to deliver it. The leaders across the organisation have accountability for leading the change. This is not something to be delegated to someone else.
  • Able: The business has the capacity and capability to bring about the change, and has the resources to ensure that impacted stakeholders are well prepared.

3. Develop Leadership

As Warren Buffett said, “a leader is someone who can get things done through other people”. Leaders cannot lead if there is no-one following them. Leaders who can inspire and support those around them are essential in times of change.

An organisation’s leaders must be able to build engaged and healthy teams, which in turn create a groundswell of support and movement toward the change.

In times of change it is not just the team and individuals who need to change. To consciously lead change, leaders must be prepared to change themselves – their mindset, working style, and leadership behaviour.

This is more than just new technical skills – it’s about delving into the meaning that drives their behaviour, and the mental models the are applying to their decisions.

One way to do this is for the leader to identify their “leadership moments of truth”. These are the actions they take, often subconsciously, that define how their leadership style is viewed by colleagues, peers and team members.

For example, it includes what they pay attention to, what they prioritise, how they react to issues and when things go wrong, what they say, what they do and don’t do, how they allocate resources and rewards, and how they recruit and promote.

Red flags arise when a leader’s behaviour is inconsistent or if they are playing favourites with team members. Team members quickly notice when a leader says one thing, then does another.

How leaders engage with, support, involve and communicate with their team will determine if a change is landed safely or not. It is therefore critical to ensure that leaders, at all levels, are equipped and motivated to lead their team through change.

4. Maintain Momentum

As a change starts, challenges will inevitably arise. Unexpected obstacles and roadblocks make progress slower and more difficult. What seems easy in the beginning becomes much harder.

It is at this point that deliverables start to become de-scoped, activities re-prioritised, and the team starts to question its ability to deliver. And so morale falls.

This is the time that change leadership really needs to come to the fore. It is critical to:

  • Be clear on the project’s goals and what every person in the team needs to do to get there
  • Break the goals into manageable deliverables so progress will be easier
  • Celebrate progress in a way that is meaningful for the team
  • Focus on areas where the team’s efforts will produce the most effective results
  • Work to eliminate the friction in the business that makes the change harder than it need be.

All this may involve removing bureaucratic processes and unnecessary activities. While it is hard battling through the middle stages of change, bravery and tenacity pay off.