Changing The Way Things Get Done

Guidelines For Converting Employee Wisdom Into Action 

Several years ago I had the opportunity to be involved in a very large-scale re engineering project, intended to help a large, traditionally-organized and managed telecommunications company (GTE) make significant changes to become a leaner, more competitive business. I was tasked with responsibility for designing the process by which the wisdom of the front line employees could be surfaced and utilized in changing the way things got done. What follows is a summary of three “White Papers” prepared to explain the process to Front Line Employees, Internal Change Artists and Managers/Executives. 

This piece assumes you are involved—or will soon be involved—in some kind of organization-wide initiative to create positive change using input from the people who know best what needs to change and who have a lot of untapped creativity: your front line performers. 

It also assumes that you are looking for a way to surface the best thinking they have to offer and ensure that those breakthrough recommendations for action are formatted and presented to decision-makers in a way that increases the chances of their adoption and speeds up their implementation. 

These three articles encapsulate the best practices I have been able to garner from my 20 years of working with breakthrough thinking via employee-involvement leading to successful strategic change in many industries and arenas.

PART I Notes For Front Line Employees

How the recommendations for action developed by Re-engineering Teams are handled is nearly as important to the ultimate success of the effort as what gets recommended. This is because you are trying to change a system from within that system, something which requires an openness to consider breakthrough ideas from the key decision-makers. The clearer decision-makers can be about Who is going to do what with the recommendations, the better things will go. 

You want to avoid the perception that “The same old thing is happening” as action ideas are proposed. You want to send a signal to the organization, starting with the Reengineering Teams making their proposals, that “Something different—and therefore maybe even successful—is happening in this process.” Here are a few key principles to help you Change the Game via a Reengineering Process.

Pre-Work: Gaining Up-Front Commitment from Key Players 

A successful change process depends on sound pre-work. The first step needs to be getting top management sponsorship for change and commitment to be open to change from middle management and key movers and shakers among front line people (and, where present, union leadership). This means more than just a grudging willingness to go through the Re-engineering process and “see what happens.” That is not enough. Without the clear commitment from a diagonal slice of opinion-shapers, you will not have sufficient leverage for successfully acting on the breakthrough recommendations which get generated in the process. How do you get this kind of commitment? Any way you can! Up front, we like to work with the senior person—and ultimately middle managers and the Unions, too—to get them to look at the following: 

• What is it currently COSTING the organization to have unresolved problems and ineffective ways of doing things?

• HOW LONG can these things be allowed to continue without significant change?

• What are the RISKS associated with going all out for strategic and operational breakthroughs (personal and organizational)? 

• What are some IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBILITIES? (Things that appear to be impossible, given everything, but which are theoretically possible, and which—if developed and implemented successfully—would transform the organization.) 

• What WOULD BE THE BENEFITS if the major obstacles to higher performance were discovered and handled? • What are they WILLING TO COMMIT to have the project be successful?

The Senior Person Must be an Active Sponsor/Champion 

Once the senior person is willing to support the effort, they need to generate in their own speaking and listening a visible no-kidding all-out commitment to have it succeed. This makes them the Sponsor or the Champion of the change project. Their first order of business is to get a similar buy-in from their direct reports and key middle managers. How? It’s amazing what a little honest communication from the boss does to middle managers’ commitment. . .

But middle managers and key front line opinion-shapers (including union leadership) must also see the potential value in it for them as well. This is especially hard when downsizing is in the cards. 

I have had what I would call “failures” twice in my career, and both can be traced back to a lack of commitment by the top executive in one instance, and to the top management team in the other. In both situations the process rolled along with what seemed to be a clear commitment from everyone at the top, only to break down after the recommendations for action came in from the Re-engineering Task Group. “Well, we never thought they would be suggesting such drastic change as this!” 

How do you tell if you have enough commitment? To some extent it’s a crap shoot every time. In both of the above failures, I had an inkling, a hunch, that something wasn’t exactly right. Both times I ignored the signs, telling myself that, after all, things were going well. In one case, I was unable to get the senior management team to take more than two hours to prepare to receive the action recommendations. “We know how to do that!” they said, even though my gut told me they needed a lot of work on listening carefully and non-defensively to the action. In the heat of the moment, two of the key decision-makers sarcastically ridiculed the hard work and thoughtful product of the front line Breakthrough Team. The rest, as they say, was history. . . Never again.

The First Task: Communicating the Effort to the Organization 

One of the most effective ways to do this in our experience is to have the Re engineering Team(s) themselves prepare a communication for all employees, spelling out their mandate, timeline, and an overview of the process. If they all sign their names, it represents a powerful inducement to people to give the project a chance. I have heard people say things like, “Well, if old Frank is signed on to this thing, maybe it’s worth looking at. . .” It must be seen as a project owned and operated by the whole system, not just by management or a select group like Human Resources or Quality Assurance—or by an external consultant.

Often people will read a simple piece put out periodically by the Breakthrough Team(s) very differently than they read the official company newsletter. You may have to make friends—or, in a worst-case situation—do battle with the internal communications people to get their buy-in to the idea of parallel sources for people. As I am re-writing this today—in 2006—it would be like the difference between a blog from a front line person [the Team’s piece] and the hard copy newsletter [from corporate.]

Guidelines for Success 

Throughout this process, it will be important to keep in mind the following caveats: 

1. Be selective about which issues the Breakthrough Teams are to work on and clarify what decision-making authority the group will have for each issue. “How will the decision be made on this issue?” is a key question to clarify at the very beginning of the group’s work. 

2. Maximize voluntary participation and make sure group members are not burdened by their participation. I like to suggest that Breakthrough Team members be given at least 20% free time to do the project, which means a reduction in their work output for the duration of the project, which needs to be 

planned for and covered by other staff.

3. Guarantee protection of the individuals participating in the Breakthrough Teams. This usually means the Sponsor giving a clear message to the Supervisors of Team members that they are not to punish them for taking on this extra duty. 

4. Establish a clear and timely communication system between this group and other employees. (See above.) Even if there is an existing official company or group newsletter, I often suggest starting a special BREAKTHROGH TEAMS HOT SHEET about this specific project to further differentiate it from the “normal” modes of communication. 

5. If possible, provide the Teams with a physical space as a kind of “Breakthrough Command Central” to work out of. This will help give them an identity with their peers, and make the process more real to the organization. 

6. Develop ways for other employees to express their views to the group. 7. Some structure for the Teams and their meetings should be established, including facilitation and record keeping, developing decision making alternatives, establishing time lines and agendas, etc. 

8. The atmosphere of the Teams’ work sessions should be open and informal and organizational “rank” left out of the room. 

9. Encourage the Teams to establish smaller task forces if working on several issues simultaneously and to bring in outside experts if needed. 

10. If a particular Team turns out to be an ongoing or semi-permanent group, periodically rotating members and leadership. 

11. Establish a clear procedure for evaluating the effectiveness of the Team.

Part II – Notes for Internal Change Artists

Guidelines For Making Recommendations To Decision-makers

When submitting recommendations for action to decision makers it is important to recognize that there are many dimensions to what you are doing:

• There is an inherent threat to both parties in the simple act of asking front line people to dare to suggest improvements or breakthrough ideas to management.

• Decision-makers have been taught that they are supposed to know everything and be on top of what is happening. 

• When you come along with your great ideas—which probably are great ideas— the more useful and practical your suggestions are, the more decision-makers are liable to feel foolish. “Why didn’t we think of that?!” 

• This can lead to a defensive and argumentative response to the hard work of many front line people in the Teams. 

To overcome this built-in tendency, those of you making the presentation to decision-makers must not be coming from a position of blame—trying to make management look wrong or stupid. This will be hard to do, since there is likely to be a lot of “heat” around issues which have been unresolved for any time, and you and your colleagues may think, “Here’s our chance to give it to them!” You must exercise restraint in this moment, and place yourselves in the shoes of the decision-makers you will be addressing—even if it seems that they never do that with you. . .

Framing Your Breakthrough Recommendations for Action 

A good starting place is expressing your genuine appreciation for management’s willingness to sponsor such a process, acknowledge their courage in doing so, and state that you are coming from a commitment to respond to their invitation to help them create positive change. On each action suggestion, help them understand the rationale behind your proposals. Including concise support documents in a recommendation package can increase your impact and speed up the decision making process. 

S T R I P E S 

A Breakthrough Thinking and Presentation Format 

S What is the Situation Now. What is SO? 

T What is the Target or the Transformed state? Imagine a year from now what will be, what’s going on then that isn’t now? 

R What are the Reasons you are not already at Target, in your opinion? What are the Restraining forces that are keeping T from happening? What are the Rationalizations that people give themselves for things having been kept this way for so long and being the way they are now? 

I What are the major Issues that will have to be addressed, uncovered and talked about, the monsters under the bridge that no one wants to talk about.

P How is what’s happening here an illustration of a Polarity that isn’t being managed well? 

E What would be the Evidence of success? How would you recognize, or what would be the first signs that this intervention had worked? Everyday signs.

S What is a first Step you can take toward the transformation that would itself be something you’ve never done before? 

Although developed some years after the Trilogy was written, many Breakthrough Teams have used the STRIPES format for presenting their recommendations for action to decision-makers with great success. It covers all the bases and gives those tasked with the responsibility for making wise decisions a clear look into the logic and wisdom of what is being presented. (For more on Polarities, go to Barry John’s great book Polarity Management, or contact us.).

Notes on How to Make the Final S (Steps) More Powerful: 

1. A clear statement of the problem and reasons why a solution is needed. Spell out negative impacts, the “cost” to the organization.

2. List the alternatives that your work group considered. 

3. A simple recommendation for action and reasons for choosing it over other solutions. The more specific you are, the better. Suggesting that they “do something to improve communication” is not going to accomplish anything. Give them something they can SEE and FEEL happening, something they can agree to and make the action steps which follow unavoidably clear. 

4. State what you would like them to do with the recommendation, and some idea of the time frame for accomplishing it and why. 

5. Establish a clear communication link by letting them know how you would like them to communicate with your work group regarding any questions on your proposal, and identify a contact person from your group for them to contact. 

6. Make a statement letting them know that you realize they may have constraints you aren’t aware of and that you would like to work with them in an open productive way. (If a decision maker feels you are flexible and cooperative it can increase the chances of implementing a good solution.) 

7. Let them know that the issue is so important that, if they find they can’t accept the recommendation as it stands, that you’d like them to come back to you with their concerns so that you might work out something that would work. In one project we were involved in, decision-makers rejected the suggestion of allowing assembly line workers to reduce their stress by having music played through loud speakers in the manufacturing building. But they invited further discussion. The Team went back and did some research, looking for—and finding—OSHA data that supported the notion that having something to listen to actually reduced mistakes and accidents in manufacturing plants. In the ensuing dialogue, a breakthrough emerged, which provided for workers to have personal cassette players and OSHA-approved headphones. The managers were so impressed with the spirit and thoroughness of the research by the Team, that the authorized the company to buy the cassette players for front line people, allowed those who wanted them to pay for them over time via payroll deductions, and even fronted the cost of the first set of batteries! “If I had known how expensive that was going to be, I might not have done it!” said the COO.

Notes For Decision-makers In A Change Process

Effectively Utilizing Recommendations For Action 

Front line workers throughout an organization often have valuable ideas for solving problems. It is important for you to learn how to use their ideas in ways that increase employee motivation without sacrificing the long term interests of the organization. As my colleague, Bob Crosby, says in a book on the same theme, you need to learn “walk the tightrope between employee influence and management authority.” (Walking the Empowerment Tightrope

The manner in which you act on recommendations or proposals for action submitted to you has a powerful effect on the willingness of employees to contribute to their work environment in the future. If you use the cross-functional Re-engineering Breakthrough Team model that I advocate (or some derivation), it can enhance the successful development of good ideas and increase the likelihood of those ideas being implemented.

Some things to consider when working on a recommendation from other employees are listed below: 

1. Empathize. Most importantly, put yourself into the shoes of employees presenting a recommendation. Think through what effect your response to their work and recommendations would have on them. Just remember what goes on inside you when you have to make a report to your boss or a higher level. 

2. Listen actively and non-defensively. Often parties involved in solving a problem fail to find a good solution, not because they disagree on which ideas are feasible, but because they are not clear on what each other is saying. It is critical that everyone involved communicates clearly and checks to make sure they are understanding what others are proposing. When being presented with something as important as this, it is a good time to ask clarifying questions. Arguing or defending is not productive. 

3. Take action on everything. Agree to take some sort of action on every single recommendation, even if it is to study it, or send it back for more thinking by the

team—with a clear By-When for the next conversation. It can be very demoralizing for employees to work hard developing something that they never hear about again. 

4. Optional responses. One problem many managers get into is that they see an employee proposal as a win/lose situation or a power struggle. There are many ways to adapt recommendations so that they are mutually acceptable. Some options include: 

• Fully accept the proposal as is and mandate its implementation. • Accept the proposal in part. 

• Reject the entire proposal as is. 

• Delay the decision until more information is gathered or work is done. • Adopt the recommendation for a trial period. “Let’s try it until ___.” • Route the proposal to another person or group who is in a better position

to make a decision. (Including employees in making a presentation to the other decision maker is highly recommended.) 

• Inform the people presenting the proposal that it is their responsibility to implement change in that area. 

• Accept the proposal but hold off on implementation until other conditions change (i.e. budgetary constraints). 

5. Communicate. Once a decision is made, make sure this is clearly communicated to everyone affected or involved, along with an explanation for your action. Explaining why the proposed ideas were accepted or rejected can be an important tool in the training and development of a motivated workforce culture. It not only builds trust but can give your people a deeper understanding of their jobs and how the organization operates, financial constraints and/or opportunities they were unaware of, etc. 

6. Monitor follow-through. Establish a clear process for supporting and monitoring implementation of recommendations, making adjustments, and evaluating the outcome.

7. Clarify misunderstandings. Keep your ear to the ground and if you hear that people are misinterpreting or misrepresenting your actions or the rationale behind what you did and why you did it, clear it up immediately. 

8. Publicly acknowledge the Team Members. Remember to recognize those who contributed (find out who they all are) for their efforts and give them appropriate credit, face-to-face with a handshake whenever possible. 

Nothing is more demoralizing than to have someone else take credit for a great idea, or for nothing to be said in recognition for what has been done. You must acknowledge the people who were involved and the work which was done if you ever want to have anything like this succeed again. 

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