A Forgotten Element of Change Management
Dr. Jim Bohn
Introducing Dr. Jim Bohn the Blue Collar Scholar
The proliferation of Change Management books throughout the past decade has provided us with useful frameworks for bringing an organization from point A to point B. Executives read about the latest technology, the latest employee engagement solutions, and the latest organizational structure that will provide a corporate win. Yet with 70% of change efforts failing, it’s worth taking another look to see if we’ve missed an important element of change.
Missing the “Middle”
Since much organizational change takes place ‘at the front line’, we make strenuous effort to ensure the success of people who must ‘do the work’ every day. Procedures are written, barriers are analyzed, and exceptional efforts are taken to help front-line members of the organizations manage day-to-day actions when the change has been put in place. Unfortunately, this approach disregards a vast population of critical middle management. We have errantly assumed that people who are at managerial levels will magically be able to manage a business in the future without doing the careful thinking required to (1) understand the impact of the change, and (2) guide their people into the new world.
Many Change Initiatives are envisioned by executive management with a focus on the end user (that’s where the rubber meets the road and often has the greatest impact to customers and data entry). As Change Leaders, however, we need to carefully consider the impact to Middle Management and hear their voices. They are often in the impossible situation of supporting a change they do not fully understand, yet the success of the change will stand or fall with their leadership
Managers at many levels of an organization have gained ‘rules of thumb’ (heuristics is the academic term) for seeing and understanding how business works through years of trial and error and deep thought processing. They come up with techniques for information acquisition and decision making that is nearly tacit due to their experience. They are, however, at risk during a major change. Here’s why. Upper management has had months, perhaps years to think about the change. They have struggled with it, wrestled with it, dreamed about it, and come to conclusions about what to expect from the change. I have observed that upper management has two expectations about change: front line people will be able to do this change when it is released, and management should be smart enough to ‘figure it out’ and manage the business when the change is done. The focus is perennially on training the front-line person. As one leader I worked with quipped:
“We focused so much on having our people do this that we forgot the leaders.”
Who are the Middle?
Middle Managers are high-level analytical thinkers who live and breathe the strategic side of the business. They are engineering managers, financial people, HR managers, and directors in strategic roles, VPs of Operations and others who need to spend time to think through the change to make it successful. They are key players with a wider, almost philosophical look at a change – they see connectedness to the parts. This is the forgotten element of change because it flies in the face of executive expectations for middle managers to get on board quickly.
For example: Financial level people, e.g. controllers see interconnectivity of the parts that other parts of a business others may not see. Call center and operations people see the world one way, executives see it another way. No one is wrong, but all need time to think about how to think about the change impacts the business, and their teams. Individual managers see the world differently and thus must adjust their thinking processes to new changes. Some of this is pure brain activity requiring time for managers to adapt.
It’s about time
Middle managers have developed rules of thumb, tacit judgments from their experience that allow them to effectively manage a business. Those rules are the framework they use when making decisions that impact multiple people and outcomes. When a change is introduced, those rules are impacted. A big challenge in any change is downloading all the thought processes from the business analysis team to those who will execute and use the change/ system. Middle managers need time to think about the impact.
Executive presupposition (and lack of patience) assumes that people will naturally take their great ideas and implement them simply through using the phrase “Just do it”. But Middle Managers need to take the time to develop heuristics again. When people change, they are literally making new neural connections in their brains, and that requires work. That work takes time.
“But we don’t have time”
Executives will set a deadline for the introduction of a new change and tell the organization to get it done. The pressure to complete a change will never go away, and it is likely to escalate in an increasingly competitive global climate. The assumption is: “we don’t have time for Middle Managers to come up to speed”. But not supporting Middle Managers is a question of “pay me now or pay me later”. It’s a question of how quickly you want the organization to absorb change.
What to do?
The Project Leader on any change can build in a few sessions to prepare Middle Managers for the change. Let them kick the tires. Let them think about how the change will impact their teams. Let them clearly understand the logistics of implementation. “When will this be implemented? Who will do the training? How will my people learn about this?” This effort doesn’t need to take months. An effective week of training, learning and discussion is generally all that is needed. Focused, systematic involvement of middle managers has a payoff.
What’s the ROI?
Executives want to know what they’ll gain from their investment. In this case, it’s quite simple. When Middle Managers clearly understand the change, have given thought to how it will benefit the business and their teams, and have considered how they will personally support the new ideas, everyone wins. The ROI? The organization changes to meet market or customer demands, as expected by Executives when they planned the change in the first place.
Middle Managers are the key to the success of every change. They drive the organizational strategy developed by executive management, and they also managed subordinates who will engage the change. Middle Managers have the intellect, experience, and skill to ensure a change is embedded in your organization, so paying an extra bit of attention to them during a new initiative is a wise investment in your success. Bottom line? Don’t overlook the need to bring Middle Managers up to speed and give them time to work through the impact of a new initiative. Their additional skill and confidence will give your organization a strong chance to embrace complex change.
Bio – Dr. Jim Bohn
Identifying himself as a Blue Collar Scholar, Dr. Jim Bohn has served in a variety of roles in the corporate world since 1973, personally leading the transformation of multiple underperforming teams to achieve award-winning levels of success. “Working in the real world, I have had to live with the change management decisions I have made, both good and bad, and I believe that experience has given me insight into the best ways to approach change.” Having retired after several decades with Johnson Controls, Dr. Bohn launched his own Change Management and Organizational Transformation Practice. http://proaxios.com/
As a writer, His book on managing change “Architects of Change: Practical Tools for Executives to Build, Lead and Sustain Organizational Initiatives” was released in July 2015. Available at Amazon.com. Many of his LinkedIn posts exceed over 1,000 views and some have received nearly 12,000 views, acknowledging his expertise in organizational thinking.
His recent book entitled: “The Nuts and Bolts of Leadership: Getting the Job Done” is available on Amazon.com.
Dr. Bohn is currently completing a book entitled, “Getting I.T. Right: A leader’s guide to installing the organizational App.”
As a leader, Dr. Bohn has personally led significant change management projects including IT implementations, mergers, and reorganizations. He has served in roles ranging from the shop floor to design, engineering, sales, and service. “I consider my early operations experience to be invaluable for understanding change problems.” His pedigree includes global experience in change and operations.
As an educator, Jim Bohn has taught Organization Development at University of Wisconsin’s LUBAR School of Business, Business Ethics and Strategy at Concordia University and Leadership at Marquette University. He is currently an adjunct teaching Organizational Behavior at UWM-Lubar School of Business.
As a social scientist, Jim is deeply passionate about learning, developing and practicing organizational research in the context of change.
As a published scholar, Jim’s interest in Organizational Efficacy began during his Ph.D. studies at the University of Wisconsin. “The idea that people might be able to evaluate the power of an organization to control outcomes was very intriguing.” His groundbreaking research in Organizational Efficacy was published in Human Resource Development Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3, Fall 2010, and has been translated into Russian and Italian. Jim was interviewed by Business Week in 2006 on the subject of Organizational Efficacy. [PDF]
He is a Master Facilitator who has led hundreds of workshops with audiences ranging from front-line mechanics to Senior Vice-Presidents. In addition to his work in organizational transformation, he has spoken at the National Academy of Change Management Professionals, and led workshops for SHRP and Wisconsin I/O Psychologists, ASTD-Twin Cities, MNCMN, MNODN, Atlanta Field Service Conference, the Chicago Corenet Real Estate Group, SHRM SIG group, Metro Milwaukee SHRM Annual Conference, PMI Group International, the Plant Manager’s Association, OFB, HR.COM, and PRSA International among others.
In addition, Dr. Jim Bohn has a passion for helping those in need. He has served on the Heroin Task Force of Ozaukee County, with Advocates of Ozaukee County (for victims of domestic violence), Habitat for Humanity, Safe Families of Minnesota and Family Sharing of Ozaukee County.