Commentary: Facing Organizational Change

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 02.01.2006


Grieve; Get Over It, and Get Going


Today, the forest products industry is facing change at an unprecedented rate. And recent closure announcements at Ford demonstrate that we're not alone. Global competition is changing everything, for everyone. Yet this should not be a surprise. Our clothing industry moved overseas nearly 50 years ago, shoes shortly thereafter, and the list of industries shifting to other countries goes on and on. The challenge facing the wood products industry today is simply a continuation of a trend that has been going on for decades. Yet this makes it no less devastating to those organizations or regions most affected. But at the same time, it must not freeze management into positions from which they cannot recover.


Let's face it; if you make $50,000 in the U.S. today you are probably in the top 5% of wage earners globally! That means there are over five and a half billion people making less than you, and that want your job. Most of those, a vast majority actually, make a LOT less than you, and many of these are extremely well educated. This isn't just a hoard of ignorant peasants working in slave camps that are after U.S. jobs. It's doctors, lawyers, engineers, and people with Masters and PhDs. Globally the competition for wages is extremely tough and going to stay that way for a long time. There is nothing the average U.S. citizen can do to change that, nor can the U.S. government. It's a fact of life, like death and taxes – so Americans must face this reality and emotionally move on.


There is an old maxim that is common to many indigenous groups around the world that is applicable to the competitive situation today. These groups expect that an individual should only listen to a negative story (e.g. problem or complaint) three times, but to then ask the individual the question “how can you tell the story differently and in a way that better serves you?” Basically, meaning “I know you've got a problem (you've told me three times) now what are you going to do about it?” This is a great guideline for business managers. Too often we let people and organizations we care about wallow in their problems for too long, without finding the words to encourage them to begin to “tell their story differently.”


In addition, most leaders today are familiar with the concept of circles of influence. Global competition brings these concepts to the forefront. We must act on those things we can control, influence those we can influence, and accept those things we can neither control nor influence. Acceptance doesn't mean giving up, it means dealing with it. If it's raining, bring an umbrella, get a raincoat, or reschedule your walk, but complaining won't change it, you can only change what you do!


The key is changing the story, and the art is in changing the story to a positive one, by starting with acceptance of reality. As an example, “wage rates in Vietnam are much lower than in Kentucky (a reality); therefore, we are eliminating all commodity cabinets and shifting our production capacity to be able to produce much greater variety, much more quickly, and to able to react to our customers changing needs instantly (activities within our control).” Note that the key concept in this example is that the company is implementing dramatic change and changing the story is the first step to changing the organization.


One very valuable way to start on the path of change, but something we have largely forgotten how to do is implement effective ceremony. Ceremonies are a critical part of addressing core human needs, whether it is for recognition, celebration, or mourning. At most organizations, we do too little of all the above. We are taught from birth to be problem solvers and not taught how to grieve, get over it, and move on.


Today there are many organizations with big problems that can't be ignored. For them the process of moving on could look like the following:


  • Grieve, publicly and as a complete organization (e.g. hold an all-company meeting and explain the situation to all employees at once to eliminate rumors. Be honest, objective, and acknowledge the fears of all)
  • Get over it with ceremony (e.g. bury an old product, celebrate a new plan with a big launch – but draw a clear line some how between the “old” situation and the “change” you are implementing.)
  • Move on aggressively. This is not the time for halfhearted commitment. Pick your new path and be as public about it as you can and put your efforts fully into the change. “Kinda sorta” changes don't work!


Too often we see companies on the edge of collapse, frozen with indecision and afraid to act. Resources are scarce so they are afraid to take a chance and make a mistake. Yet, the greatest risk of all is to do nothing. In reality, what is the risk in the attempt? At worse you end up on the same path to bankruptcy you were on anyway. But the upside is the positive energy that comes with proactive behaviors, and the potential/hope that the change might be effective.


In many cultures there is reference to the process of “think, speak, and do.” If you really believe you're destined to fail, you probably are. For organizations trying to face the major problems that can arise from global competition the most difficult part of the process is imagining the possibility that they won't go out of business. This is the reason they often keep spinning in their own story of failure. The solution is to look outside the company for help and input and to be open to the possibility that the answer may be to do something dramatically different than they are doing today. The biggest challenge is the mental one, because once we can imagine a different future, it is often easy to figure out how to get there.


The key idea to take from this discussion is recognition of the human component of change, and acknowledgement that major change can represent emotional loss for many organizations. It is loss of what is familiar, comfortable, and safe. Therefore firms must acknowledge and accept the importance of grieving in the change process and the formal nature that grieving as an organization may require. However, the ultimate key is that the organization grieves, gets over it, and moves on.


Dr. Jeff Howe

February 2006