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How to thrive in times of transition

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Learning how to adapt to change is a necessary ingredient for success, both in business and in your career.

In the business world, we are always trying to hit a moving target. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "The only thing that is constant is change." In a plugged-in, connected age, change comes rapidly. The change can be from macro sources like economic recession, or from micro sources like reorganization within your supply chain. Learning how to adapt to change is a necessary ingredient for success, both in business and in your career.

Some change begins so gradually you do not see it creeping up on you. Other change comes as a shock—a jolt out of nowhere. Either way, when change is occurring the first question you need to ask is, "How does this change alter my organization's current mission and goals?" For instance, if you are a film maker and digital cameras are gaining widespread acceptance, then your organization's goals—indeed, its entire strategy—will be affected. If you are changing from a centralized to a decentralized supply chain model, the goal remains the same but the tactics for achieving it will be different. During periods of change, we are called on to manage not just what is changing—be it a matter of policy, process, or personnel—but also to manage how the change is made and implemented. Here are some thoughts on how you can not just survive but also thrive in such times of transition.

Steps to success
Change management starts with a call to action—pointing out the problem or opportunity that you believe is creating a pressing need for change. A call to action emanates not only from perceptions about the changing environment, but also from supporting facts from credible sources. External and unbiased third-party sources help support the change initiative's credibility.

To get things moving, it's necessary to establish a forum for people and organizations that will be most impacted by the change. This is an arena for people to exchange ideas, discuss merits and pitfalls, and solicit feedback and support. Brainstorming and playing "devil's advocate" are useful for bringing creative ideas to the surface and arriving at the best way to implement the needed change.

Get help by asking internal experts for their assistance. Transitions often affect many functions of the company, such as finance, accounting, human resources, and others. Functional specialists can be useful advocates for the change; they can even become change champions by actively promoting the benefits of moving in a new direction.

Supply chain professionals understand the adage "plan the work, and work the plan." So it won't surprise you that any significant change initiative needs a plan of action. This is a step-by-step guide to implementing your change initiative. Among other things, it should ensure role clarity for all the key players as well as lay out the actions that need to be executed. As you develop this plan, be on the lookout for smaller, digestible actions that accelerate change and demonstrate that the plan is working. John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School and an authority on leadership and change, calls these "short-term wins," and they really help validate the value of the effort. Also, don't forget to celebrate success as each milestone is achieved. This helps your team to maintain positive energy and demonstrates just how much you value them.

Of course, you need to be a believer. You must believe at a deep, gut level that rejecting change is not an option. Your followers will be looking at you constantly to gauge whether you still believe in the mission. This is especially true when the going gets rough, which it almost certainly will. You can't fake belief. If you don't believe in your mission with your full heart and mind, don't move forward.

Within the change forum, dissent is normal and can be highly valuable. People who are skeptical of the mission can play a contrarian role within the group. A skeptic can give voice to what others may be thinking but are not secure enough to say. Skeptics help the group see different perspectives and consider other trains of thought. The result can be a more thoughtful—and ultimately more successful—response to the challenges the change presents.

The opposite of the official dissenter is an official proponent. To gain greater acceptance for the transition plan, it's invaluable to have someone who can spread the good word about it. This plan ambassador ideally will be a high-profile person, someone who commands respect and consideration. Gauging a potential ambassador's affinity for your change initiative can be delicate. The group leader should initially approach high-profile people privately to get a sense of their perspective. If this "behind the curtain" meeting is a success, then a meeting with the group is warranted. The group's ability to increase an advocate's enthusiasm for the plan directly affects the advocate's show of enthusiasm about the group and its initiative elsewhere.

There can and should be more than one official proponent. Your immediate boss should be your first-line proponent, and he or she should advocate for outreach to the rest of the firm. The boss's public support is crucial for acceptance and ultimate success.

When you have advocates, especially one from outside the inner circle, be sure to keep them informed. When you stay in touch, you refresh their enthusiasm for your mission. Their interest is sustained and your cause remains front of mind. Tailor the messages you send them to hit their key priorities. See the issue through their eyes and show them the value that will accrue to their area's benefit.

Other advocates can be recruited around the water cooler, in the hallway, and on the elevator. You can turn a casual meeting into a quick promotion for your change initiative. Prepare a brief description of your plan for general dissemination, and use it. This "quick pitch" will spread the word and help you keep your finger on the pulse of co-workers' attitudes. Their thoughts may provide unique and useful insights.

Just as positive messages can run through an organization, so can negative ones. Be sure to address disinformation immediately. Logically and thoroughly meet any negative "press" head on. For instance, if you hear someone say that the transition will cause another group to miss budget, show how your plan will ultimately be better for the company than the status quo. Help the organization see the bigger picture. This is influencing as a high art.

Be responsive to change
Change is not easy. As mentioned earlier (it can't be mentioned too often) be sure to show appreciation when someone endorses your plan. Anyone who helps or advances a plan for change deserves to be thanked, ideally in a public way. Positive energy breeds more positive energy.

Last, when the transition is complete, consider making permanent adjustments to job descriptions, evaluations, and benchmarks. The game has changed and it should be documented for the future.

Charles Darwin, the father of evolution theory, said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." We all need to take those wise words to heart.

Tim Stratman is founder and president of Stratman Partners Executive Coaching Inc.

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