Change Management: Improving Business Conditions and Helping Employees in Difficult Times
Nothing is Harder than Managing Change
In over twenty years in the collegiate retailing industry and through numerous discussions with colleagues both in my own industry and outside of it, here's something I've discovered: nothing is more difficult than managing change. Yet many businesses and industries ignore its importance and a strategy for its implementation.
Change is difficult to manage because it involves people and people are notoriously resistant to change. Most people simply like to find something they do well and be left alone to do it. They naturally gravitate toward a method that they find comfortable and become stressed when something enters the picture that disrupts their method. A worker may learn to type with one finger over the course of many years. Introduce the concept of typing with two fingers and that worker becomes defensive and upset.
As businesses deal with advances in technology that present options for improved efficiency and profitability, managers - from CEO's on down to middle management - neglect the importance of managing the change new technology introduces into their business. In the process of introducing new technology into a business, the hardest part of the transition is managing people and getting them to buy in, understand, and ultimately utilize the change in the way it was intended. Managers are great at dropping a piece of technology in the laps of their employees, but they are often downright awful at following through at making sure that technology is used correctly and efficiently and the employees accept its usefulness.
Coping with the New Rate of Change
In my particular job, the differences between how I did things ten years ago and how I do them now is striking. Decisions that could be made in seconds ten years ago now require minutes. Where the knowledge of a single, inventory management system was sufficient to accomplish my tasks, now I need to be familiar and efficient with eight or more separate computer programs. Where we used to have a static work force comprised of a predictable number of workers, now we use a fluctuating work force comprised of many more temporary workers and students, which requires a completely different training plan.
The bottom line is that my industry spends considerably more money now to get its product in the hands of its customers than it did ten years ago. However, despite this increase in labor, our actual labor budgets relative to revenue have decreased. It's the classic "do more with less" mantra that most companies have to abide.
However, the above changes are not what's most striking about the industry. What's most striking is the rate at which the industry and its leaders are being bombarded with new ideas, new processes, new programs, and new answers to the same problems they've always had. While we spend our days doing the work it takes to put our product in the hand of our customer, we're also expected to vet an inordinate number of ideas. These ideas come in the form of sales calls, management meetings, programmatic changes, and other things that have dramatically increased the intellectual challenge of running the business.
And just to be clear: this is an incredibly exciting time in my industry. I'm not resistant. I'm excited. When change is exciting for people, it represents an opportunity.
Change Management is Universal
While most of my experience is in collegiate retailing, particularly academic resources, I believe the challenges faced by my industry are similar to those faced in other industries. So while I will use specific examples from my own experiences, those reading who are in other businesses should be able to translate them to their own situations. Change management is a universal challenge.
The collegiate retailing industry is good at many things. It is particularly good at partnerships, collaboration, and coming up with new ideas. What it is not so good at is providing a path for the implementation of a new idea or a new system. It is quite easy to develop a new system for doing something and demonstrate that doing it the new way will be more profitable than the old way.
I have a particular example that is apropos:
The individual store in the collegiate retailing industry traditionally lags behind its private sector peers in terms of utilization of technology. One of the biggest and most expensive investments any store makes is in its inventory management system. I had a conversation with one vendor, who sold their system to a client and went through all the standard installation plans. However, when the vendor went back several months later to check in on the client, they discovered that the store's academic materials buyer was using the new system just like the old system, failing to take advantage of any of the system's newer, more advanced features. The vendor ended up charging the client an additional 20% on top of the installation fee to retrain the staff not on how to use the new system, but why they should use the new system.
The client's lack of a change management strategy resulted in a lot of wasted time and effort and could have threatened the very existence of the business if the vendor had not had a vested interest in seeing their system succeed. Unfortunately, when new ideas are introduced, accepted, and implemented, most businesses aren't so lucky to have an outside agency recognize that the business is failing to make the change effectively.
In the continuum that is the process from idea to utilization, there is a huge breakdown in the implementation phase that's hurting business, but that can be solved with an understanding of how change management works.
Change Management Doesn't Have to Be Hard
Fortunately, the basics of change management aren't difficult to understand. Usually, it's the execution that proves challenging. Hopefully, the videos explained change management clearly. Here's a summary of the steps required to implement change in your organization:
- Involve Your Team
- Communicate Constantly
- Plan Properly
- Don't Let Up
In the collegiate retailing industry, this has translated a little differently. The steps I've found to be most helpful include the above and also:
- Training, training, training - Without training, employees cannot see the advantages for them of making changes that they initially feel are intrusive or unmotivating. In most cases, sufficient training demonstrates to them how using new software or a new method will be better for them.
- Cross-departmental meetings - Collegiate retailing has a history of segregated departments and territorial issues. GM and Textbooks may not even talk in some stores. However, today's reality is that all departments are invested in the success of the others, so keeping everyone aware of changes, even if they don't affect them directly, is vital.
- Don't jump to conclusions - Like ideas, personnel needs are becoming increasing and increasingly burdensome. It's easy for managers to want to make quick decisions because they're buried under a mound of decisions. Unfortunately, jumping to conclusions is usually the worst possible thing to do be it a personnel decision or any other. Even if it doesn't seem like you have the time, take the time to hear all sides.
- Be Nimble - The new reality is that managers have to be willing to change the way they do things and react positively to suggestions no matter where they originate.
- Try new things - This is another key. With so many new ideas out there, it's critical to be willing to try some of them.
- Don't be afraid to fail - The industry, from directors on down, needs to be willing to fail. It's simply impossible to try new ideas without the risk of failure. Although failure can be mitigated to some degree by good planning, it's a sure thing that failure will happen. Bad businesses are afraid to fail. Good businesses will fail in implementing some ideas, but will learn quickly from that failure and improve.
- Make change exciting and an opportunity - Make sure your employees know that you're excited and that you see change as an opportunity for everyone to learn, grow, and have fun.
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