Anchoring change in tough times

by 11 May 2009

The current economic crisis is a time of great change, and with change comes opportunity, writes David Creelman

HR leaders know a great deal more about change processes than the typical en gineer or financial analysis. HR under stands the importance of engaging all the stakeholders and extensive, ongoing, two- way communications. HR also understands how a system of rewards that works against the change you seek will effectively derail any change effort. HR understands organisation al politics, how to assign accountability and how diversity leads to more creative decision -making. You may not think of yourself as a change expert, but I hope this list reminds you of how much you do know.

Anchors and identity

One idea about change that is not well known comes from USC professors Chris Worley and Ed Lawler (see their book Built to Change). Paradoxically, they suggest that one of the best ways to promote change is to identify the things that won’t change.

For example, a company making expen sive running shoes for the US market might recognise it needs to change. If it tells its em ployees “all options are open” or “anything could happen” then that simply creates anx iety. However, if the organisation says “We will never give up on the athletic shoe business”, that provides an anchor employees can hang on to. The organisation is letting the em ployees know they may drop other lines of business, they may change marketing strate gies or they may move production – but they won’t stop making and selling shoes.

The idea is that there are some things that are core to the identity of the organisa tion. The identity provides an anchor in turbulent times.

A slightly more nuanced way of looking at this is to make clear what definitely won’t change, what is unlikely to change, and what is open to change. For example, the running shoe company might also list core values that will not change no matter what happens. They might say it is very unlikely they would relo cate their manufacturing plants; however, they might say that they are eager to create new types of athletic shoes and sell to consumers outside the US.

By telling employees what won’t change, what is unlikely to change and what is open to change it both reassures them and helps them focus their attention on the right things.

HR’s role in change

As with any good business manager, HR should have an opinion on the future of the business. If you agree with my economic fore cast, then that suggests the organisation should use the crisis as a time to embrace change. HR leaders don’t get to decide on strategy – that’s the CEO’s job – but they should offer an opinion.

If you find the CEO agrees with the view that change is necessary, then HR should remind top management that it has expert ise in change and can help with the process. Here is where you begin to use that long list of relevant skills and knowledge about change I mentioned earlier. This is also where you can use this new idea that identity acts as a helpful anchor.

It’s a very simple exercise to ask leaders what definitively won’t change, what proba bly won’t change and what things are likely to change. This information becomes an im portant framework for your communication to employees. It is an important tool for help ing your organisation get through the eco nomic crisis by creating the ability to adapt to a changed world.

By David Creelman, CEO of Creelman Research.dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com