A Vision is Not Enough

A couple of months ago, I visited a mortgage company to re-finance our home.  A real estate friend had recommended the firm for good service.  While talking with the Vice President of this office, he shared his desire to develop a “Vision statement” for his operation as the first step toward growing his business.

I have helped many organizations develop such “visions,” and promised to send material to get him started.  Driving away, I wondered whether he knew what he was getting into.  Or, was he just another executive looking for the simple solution, unaware that creating a vision is not enough.

Michael Beer of Harvard Business School offered a perspective on this issue in his classic, Organization Change and Development: A Systems View.  He summarized a successful organizational change process with a simple formula, which over the years, we’ve added to:

Successful Change = (E x M x P)*L > C

E = Engagement in Desire to Do Something Different; Felt Need for Change

M = A new Model for how the Organization will be run

P = A planned Process for managing the change

L = The willingness of the organization to Learn or try something new

C = Cost of the change to individuals and groups

As I ticked through the elements of this change formula, I thought about that Vice President, and some questions I should ask him.  

Successful Change

Had he really considered what successful change would be for him?  I sensed he wanted more than a pretty, framed “Our Vision” statement to hang on the wall.  But did he want change that would affect everyone’s behavior, especially his own?  Was he willing to examine every policy, procedure and system within the company and align them with the Vision?  Was he willing to invest considerable time in the process of changing his company?

In some respects, maybe he’s better off not knowing this in advance; otherwise, he might not see change worth the price (but I’m getting ahead of the formula.)

E = Engagement in Desire to Do Something Different; Felt Need for Change

The real estate business in my suburban Washington, DC neighborhood des pretty well. Housing starts and sales are well off the glory years of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  Prospects for the near future are mixed.  I can understand the Vice President’s dissatisfaction with the way things are.  To a certain extent the business is impacted by what is going on around them.

The felt need for change can start with the company’s external environment.  But if people are unhappy only about uncontrollable things, they will quickly feel paralyzed about the possibility of changing anything.

Has he considered what is within his company that needs to change?  Are people not working together?  Are subordinates unwilling to accept the responsibility he is giving them?  Are there policies and procedures working at cross purposes to the organization’s objectives?

Is he the only one who sees the need?  What would his employees say about the organization?  Are they “fat, dumb, happy,” blithely riding the Titanic?  What could he do to spread the engage them in the desire for change enough to energize change, without creating panic or despair? As one person put it, “It’s not talking about the burning platform we’re on. It’s making people feel the heat on the soles of their feet.”

What case can he make to engage his employees in the need for change?

M = A new Model for how the Organization will be run

This is the Vision:  A clear and relatively simple statement of what the organization will be like in the future.  The vision focuses on both internal and external aspects of the company’s existence.  Externally, it describes what the customer will be getting or experiencing from contact with the organization.  Internally, it depicts how the organization operates to deliver what the customer wants.

Articulating a vision assumes people’s tremendous capability for self-managing and self-direction when they clearly understand where they’re headed.  A vision becomes a mental guide, pulling people toward the future.  It is no longer the problems of the past pushing people along day to day. 

He said he wanted to create vision.  Does he know what that entails?  Does he understand what power he may release when all employees understand where the organization is heading?  Is he aware of what may happen when people realize they don’t have a shared understanding of the organization’s future path?

Creating the vision can be exciting; it can also be excruciating. Does he have a way to engage the employees in creating the vision? People are much more likely to be willing to work toward something if they have had a hand in creating it.

P = A planned Process for managing change

This is a tough one.  He’ll have to plan carefully to get where he wants to go. True, change happens no matter what we do.  But changing to a new organization–making the Vision come true–won’t happen if he doesn’t work at it.

When an organization decides purposefully to change, it takes extra effort.  Customers still have to be served, profit generated and stakeholders’ needs met.  At the same time, the employees must begin creating better ways to do things.  The train does not stop while the engineer and passengers are re-designing it.

If he does not manage the change process, it will be ignored and fall apart under pressure of regular operational demands.  How does he get busy people to add another helping to their already full plates?  How does he reconcile existing activities with a new direction?  I suspect my friend had not thought through these issues. 

L = The willingness of the organization to Learn or try something new

The Model, Engagement and a Plan are essentials for any successful change process. They can be reinforced by the organizations willingness to learn and try new things.

If it is a old, entrenched bureaucracy, it will be hard to achieve a success. In that atmosphere new ideas are usually squelched by some of the classic idea killers, “It’s just not feasible,” “It’s not our style,” or “It’ll never fly.”

It the people have a spirit of openness and experimentation and normally are encouraged to find ways to do things better, selling a vision becomes a much easier task.

My friend has to think about his organization and assess where the people stand on the willingness to try something new. It will make a difference in how much effort it takes to achieve success.

C = Cost of the change to individuals and groups

Change is a normal part of life.  None of us came into this world potty-trained.  Like that early experience, we continue to resist change. But as we have witnessed in the past several years, people readily embrace change that improves their lives, e.g. smart phones.

The cost here is not financial.  It is people’s energy, and their desire to know what to expect in the organization.  People learn and become comfortable with the ground rules for working together in a company.  When a leader describes a vision that requires changing the groundrules, people get uncomfortable.  And when they get uncomfortable, they resist.  Had my friend considered the cost of change in these terms?  What strategies would he build into the process to deal with resistance?

Beer’s insight into successful change says the combination of the engagement, the model and the process must be greater than the cost to people and groups.  The relationship among these three are multiplicative.  If any one of them is missing, there will be a zero value and the cost will be far too great.  Result: no successful change.

I wondered again whether my friend knew what he was getting into.  I decided to enlighten him so he wouldn’t naively begin work, expecting that a “vision” would be enough.  I would share the tips and techniques other business leaders have used to insure all the puzzle pieces are included.  Others have succeeded; so can he.

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