Organizational Fields: The Keys to Successful Change


The Concept:

Studies show that as many as 75% of all process/performance improvement initiatives fail to deliver the expected results. It isn’t for lack of trying – Six Sigma, TQM, Kaizen, BPR – the list of methodologies claiming to have “the answer” to successful performance improvement goes on and on, yet so do the failures. Could it be that we are overlooking something? Something that may be the critical determining factor as to whether a change effort succeeds or fails?

After years of using highly linear, deterministic models that attempt to reduce organizational dynamics to simple equations, the tide has begun to shift. Change leaders are beginning to realize that flowcharts and metrics are not enough to create successful change within an organization. They are starting to realize that many influences – soft, “touchy-feely” influences – may impact a performance improvement project as much as the actual steps in a flowchart.

This new way of examining process performance is called “field analysis” and is integral to the concept of viewing an organization as a dynamic, living “system” [ see EIR 1, October ‘06 ].

Simply put, “fields” are those intangible factors that surround all processes and organizations and which exert significant influence on the probability of change success or failure. These fields include:

· Morale

· Sense of team

· Sense of purpose

· Sense of success probability (feeling that you can succeed in a given role)

Here are a few examples of how fields can influence performance:

· An organization initiates a process redesign project to improve the customer support/help desk process. After spending significant time and resources on the redesign, the implementation stalls and dies a quiet death. Interviewed help desk employees report that they felt a sense of “hopelessness” and that “nothing would really change.”

· A business implements a new initiative to improve the customer experience. Employees are told that “customer satisfaction is the #1” goal, however, leadership continues to push goals of increased sales over everything else. 90 days later, customer satisfaction has not increased and employee morale is at an all-time low.

· A technology-driven company is plagued with low morale in its Sales organization. Although various incentive programs are attempted, nothing seems to work. Sales people complain that the processes don’t allow them to sell effectively, but they are largely ignored. Key sales people stop trying to sell to new customers.

Each of the above examples was representative of the impact that fields can have on performance. Whether it is general poor morale, dissonance between what management says and what they actually do, or a feeling that you can’t succeed at your job, fields affect project success.

The problem is - how do you incorporate fields into the way you lead change activities?How can you harness these intangible, fuzzy concepts as allies that can help ensure positive results?

Applications for the Executive:

Although not as straight-forward as flowcharting a process, establishing new metrics, or adding new technology tools, improving your fields may be the single most valuable thing you can do to improve your business.

1.  Recognize & Redesign your Fields

The first step in improving field performance is to recognize what fields are at work. We like to do this through highly-focused interviews, but you can do it in your own organization by simple talking to your employees. Take every opportunity to interact with your staff and ask them about what they are seeing, hearing, and “feeling.” Don’t be dismissive or defensive. Listen to what the employees are saying. You might recognize these fields as “themes” that recur throughout your discussions.

Next, “redesign” your fields to better align with your goals. One way to do this is to make a prioritized list of fields, ranked by the “pain” each is causing, and developing specific projects to address each deficiency.

In the end, it is largely a “trial and error” exercise. Over time, you will learn what fields are having the most influence and what tactics have the most impact on those fields. The important things to remember are (1) pay attention to the fields and (2) take action to close gaps you identify.

2.  Time Your Projects

Timing is everything. Don’t start a key process improvement activity when morale is very low. Don’t try to launch a new system integration project when employees are preoccupied with a possible lay-off. It is not enough that the project has a positive return, is needed by the business, etc. It also has to be successful and that means it has to be timed properly.

Prior to starting any change project, brainstorm a list of the fields that may have an impact on your project’s success. Then create a list of “mitigation tactics” next to each of your most problematic fields. If you have highly problematic fields that you can’t address through your mitigation tactics – you have a problem. Consider postponing your project until the field issues have resolved themselves or you have developed appropriate tactics.

3.  Eliminate the Negative Factors

Unfortunately, during your field analysis, you may find that it is one of your own employees that is creating a negative impact on the fields influencing your organization. We’ve all had that experience – the “disgruntled guy” who would rather complain and find fault with everything rather than trying to help fix the problems. These people are poison to the fields of an organization. No matter how much time you spend trying to improve morale, sense of purpose, or sense of success probability, “disgruntled guy” can undo all of your hard work in short-order. You must decide if the value added by the disgruntled employee outweighs the drag on the group or if he can be convinced to change his outlook. Don’t make the mistake of trying to ignore the situation and hoping it will go away. It won’t, and it will jeopardize your efforts.

Although you can’t [easily] measure them and you can’t see them, you can certainly feel the influence of fields on your performance improvement projects. Recognize this influence and plan for it when considering projects and you will significantly improve your probability of project success.



About the Author:

Kevin Smith is a co-founder and managing partner at NextWave Performance LLC.

©2007 NextWave Performance LLC