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Making Waves of Change

Author shares her views on ways HR leaders can gain support for change initiatives from all their employees and ensure the transformations succeed and survive.

Monday, July 21, 2014
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Have you ever wanted to initiate a big, meaningful change within your organization, but didn't know how or where to start? In her new book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start the Change -- At Work and in Life, author Patti Johnson offers a host of tips on how to do just that.

Johnson, the CEO of Irving, Texas-based change and organizational development consultancy PeopleResults and former chief people officer at Accenture, shares examples of leaders from the business, sports and academic worlds who have sparked and gained support for significant change within their organizations.

In a recent Q&A with HRE Staff Writer Mark McGraw, Johnson shared some ways in which HR leaders can do the same. 

In Make Waves, you urge readers to "step up and be the one to initiate change in their work and [their] lives." How can an HR leader ignite meaningful change in his or her work, and throughout his or her organization?

I see four important roles that HR leaders play in initiating change. One is the change co-pilot, who serves as an expert and guide for the leadership team. The connector is an advocate for wave makers throughout the organization -- those who have even small ideas that can make a difference -- by connecting them to mentors, insights and funding. Then there's the obstacle blocker, the one who eliminates or updates programs, processes and policies that conflict with a leadership commitment to innovation, change or transformation. And finally, the wave maker. HR leaders, themselves, can be wave makers.

HR professionals can make major contributions wearing any of these hats. In my book, I highlight an eclectic mix of wave makers who started changes, big and small, including some HR leaders. In his time as senior executive director of HR for Accenture technology solutions, for example, Eric Buhrfeind -- currently the chief people officer at the Aricent Group [a global innovation and technology-services company based in Redwood City, Calif.] -- impacted a very competitive recruitment situation in India, by initiating a partnership between MIT and Accenture to offer certification opportunities for Accenture employees in technical functions; a program that helped the company recruit and retain talented technical employees in a number of key global markets.

Guwan Jones, corporate director of diversity management, workforce planning and human resource analytics at [Dallas-based] Baylor Healthcare System, had a passion for connecting diversity to daily patient decisions. She has worked with her leadership team to identify even small changes so patients get needed information in the right way, at the right time.

For example, she helped ensure that translations were suited for the patient population rather than an academic, and advised doctors that providing month-long prescriptions to patients who must ride a bus to pick up their medications would decrease the likelihood of these patients continuing on their medications in the long term.These seemingly small decisions, as well as striving for diversity among caregivers, were her focus.

Both Eric and Guwan connected their work to the bigger "why," and they were "incrementalists." They didn't do everything at once, and they collaborated with others extensively. You can't start a change alone. Sometimes, you just need someone to bless it, to give it credibility. And you don't always have to start by going to the chief financial officer or to the leadership team.

The sixth chapter of the book is titled "Planning a Wave That Lasts." How can an HR professional implementing a substantial change ensure it will not only achieve the desired results, but sustain them in the long term?

HR professionals can influence a sustainable change by ensuring the purpose and the "why" are clear and shared, and [make sure] that individuals see they are integral to the change and can contribute to it.

In business, we often have the strategy or change of the month. True change isn't a one-time event or launch. HR professionals can ensure the bigger purpose or the "why" is incorporated into everything about the change, by being active in communication efforts with employees, constantly reinforcing the "why" to workers, and encouraging contributions from a broad employee population. A financial metric isn't enough.

As an example, if your larger purpose is to ensure that any candidate has a positive impression of your company -- even if you don't offer them a role -- that will change everything. Recruitment becomes not just candidate elimination, but a way to share your brand. And, this underlying "why" can stand the test of time and have meaning beyond the annual change in the campuses you go to, or the skills you need to develop in your learning program.

The book also discusses "how to build a community around your wave" of change. What sorts of tips do you have for HR in terms of building support for making a significant change in the workplace?

Lasting change grows through a coalition or community of people who, individually, are committed and feel part of it. This means less one-way big presentations and more conversations -- conducting small-group discussions and involving more people up front, not just to listen to the answer.

In HR, we often think we have to show up with the answers, and this works against creating a community around an idea or change. Of course, not everyone can contribute to everything, but I think we have a huge opportunity as HR leaders to use our own crowdsourcing and to let others inside the tent.

HR also has a history of having the answers and solving problems. Starting change takes a different mind-set. It's thinking up front about what is a must -- policies, timing, branding -- and what can be shaped by a larger group with a few boundaries.

Some examples might be to ask a diverse group -- not just senior leaders -- to create the kind of learning program they find most interesting, and then let the experts translate it. Ask the team to develop the process that will be most efficient. Put questions out to a much larger group for input, in-person and online, and then listen to the answer. So often, we ask for input after the plan is already well-formed. Invite others to be a part of it early on.

You write about the commonly held idea that things should remain the same "because that's the way they've always done it," and offer some tips on what to do when "your wave hits a wall." How can HR leaders overcome resistance to a change they are trying to implement within the organization?

You have to be smart about why the resistance happened. Do your own research and analyze why you hit resistance, and who offered it. Your plan will be different if the resistance was because of the idea, the timing or budget constraints. To really understand the resistance, you have to listen and be open to the answers. Taking that step back can help you assess whether you have a roadblock or a detour.

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I outline some steps for determining if you have a roadblock or a detour. It starts with setting aside any disappointment or emotion and looking at the facts, much like a researcher or reporter would. Was it the budget that made the change stall? Was it the timing? A lack of sponsorship? Ask yourself these questions and really get down to what derailed you.

Then, determine if it was the idea itself, your plan or the situation. In some organizations, you can have the best idea, but if you share it after the annual budget is locked down, you will have an uphill battle for obtaining funding to even experiment. Always go back to "What can I do?" and the answer will help you determine if a well-thought-out plan B may work. So many times, our plan B was the better choice all along. So, don't give up too quickly.

In my research on wave makers, I have found they have what I call "adaptive persistence." They were determined and didn't give up easily. But they were adaptive and flexible enough to find the path to progress. Also, they didn't take the resistance personally, and even expected it. If the change was easy or obvious, it would have been done already. Learn from the resistance and adapt.

You also write that "anyone can start a wave. Anyone." In fact, you dedicate an entire chapter to discussing why business leaders need more wave makers to help spark innovation, creativity and transformation within the companies they lead. What do you say to an HR leader looking to create more wave makers?

I find that top leaders often talk about innovation, change and transformation, but the organization isn't set up to deliver on that promise. HR leaders can play a critical role here, by promoting the need for wave makers throughout the organization. Senior leaders set the strategy and vision, but can't possibly know all of the answers for translating it throughout the organization. And, the new idea will often come from someone close to the work.

HR can activate more wave makers [by] encouraging their development. For example, offer what I call "white-space assignments" that require creating something completely new. A white-space assignment may be creating a new division, new product or leading a new initiative. This type of experience requires invention, creation and developing a new idea or approach with no precedent.

Develop by coaching and asking the right questions, and by providing experiences that promote an enterprisewide mind-set. One of my best development experiences, for instance, was working for a leader who forced me to think.

She forced me to ask myself, What is my rationale? Why did I choose this option over others? What return-on-investment do I anticipate, and why? These questions helped me learn to consider a variety of factors well beyond the easiest or most obvious path. An enterprise-wide mind-set is developed by working on a project or processes that go beyond your immediate workgroup. For instance, marketing professionals benefit from understanding operational implications and supply chain leaders are smarter for knowing the financial implications. And, beyond learning outside their group, a wave maker will also think about what benefits the enterprise, not just his or her group. You become a wave maker by looking at a larger world that goes beyond your current project or assignment.

You have to decide if you want wave makers in your organization. You can first look to see if you have any systemic obstacles built into your organization that squelch innovation and change. For instance, do you penalize experimentation? Do you expect everyone to go through proper channels and multiple levels before an idea is shared? Does your performance-management system reward efficiency above ingenuity? There is a balance, of course, but you must ensure you recognize and honor the behaviors and decisions that will bring you the innovation or change that your business needs.


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