Viral Change Management- learning change management from viruses

Article / Change and Organization

Viral Change Management- learning change management from viruses
M Makhalima , Executive Coach, South Africa

Organisations change because leaders change- a change leader needs to be enthusiastic about the change and infect the rest of the team with his enthusiasm- as a virus would infect its host.

I think sometimes the process of Change Management has been complicated unnecessarily, sometimes to create work for consultants who tell leaders what they already know- or, worse, collude with leaders against the proposed change effort. The 12 years with which I have worked with Change management and leadership development have led me to believe more and more that change only happens when leaders of change: where they change themselves and live the change.

Think about it- who sets the vision for the organisation? Who is tasked with deliverables? Who organises to deliver on these mandates? You've got it- the leader. I have been amazed at how many of the change management programmes are directed 20% at the leaders and 80% at the grassroots population. These people are not only the wrong focus of the change effort, but they are also the more difficult group of people to influence effectively- especially if the organisation is large. Individuals in organisations have not only different expectations, but also different maps and perceptions about the organisation and for change to happen a leader would need to speak to all these maps and perceptions- this can take years. That complexity increases exponentially if the organisation is distributed in different regions, cities, etc. In short the heterogeneity of the organisation's people is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change effort. So why start there?

If the organisation had 36000 people in an organisation and had to implement a change effort- say, a new system- where would it be the right place to start? Who are the best people to influence? Who are the people that understand the vision of the organisation better than others? Who has a more vested interest in organisational performance? Who is this change effort for - really?
Answering these questions would most likely already lead the leader of the change effort to already start looking at the change process differently. So in essence, I propose in this document a viral approach to change. This approach borrows from the organic approach used by the virus to replicate itself in the body. It carries a few assumptions:

  • 1.Change Starts with the Leader of the change - if they are not as convinced about the change effort, they will struggle to ripple it out. The change leader should make the change process easier on themselves by proposing the changes that they absolutely believe in. The passion behind this belief is absolutely critical if this change is to stick. The assumption behind the assumption here is that the leader needs to infect the immediate team with his enthusiasm- if he is not enthusiastic about the change- it will certainly move at a snail's decimation.
  • 2.It is easier to influence a small group of people than have to influence a big group- the leader spends more time and has more direct influence on the immediate team than the extended teams- the leader has access to both personal as well as organisational expectations and is in a better position to align the two for purposes of influencing for change.
  • 3.Change momentum is maintained with the committed few who work relentlessly towards its implementation. I dare say in times of great change, the ability of the committed few to adapt to circumstances and to understand how these are linked to organisational outcomes should be a non-negotiable competence of the leader's immediate team. Anyone who does not possess this competence in the team should either be worked on or worked out (polite means may be used, but the brutal fact is that if a member of the immediate team does not buy into the change, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and should be redeployed to a place where they will not significantly impede the change effort.

Finally the leader should then be there to support the immediate team in implementing the change effort and create a place for continuous learning. The change leader’s secondary function here is to remove as many obstacles to change as possible for the implementation team to succeed.

This is possibly a simplistic view to change in organisations, but I have learned that change in organisations is made complicated by words and processes and academic models, some of which deal with peripheral stuff. I propose that change will happen because the leader of the change wants it to happen and it's his job to infect the rest of his immediate team with the compelling need for change and use coercion where appropriate and then create an enabling space for the change to then take place. I imagine that the change process using this approach will probably start with coaching the leaders to take on new values, believes, assumptions and actions that are necessary to drive the requisite authenticity to infect the rest of the team. Once this is done- most of the change will take care of itself in an organic manner.

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