Avoid resistance to change by focusing on specific processes

After deciding to lead an organization in a new direction, many attempt to change the culture in tandem with strategy and processes. This is common in mergers and acquisitions, where c-suite leadership desires that the two entities mesh and begin operating as a single organization as rapidly as possible. However, the culture is often so solidly entrenched that attempts to force a quick shift can result in employee resistance to change and reverting to past processes. 

Instead of trying to force rapid change, one of the more successful organizational change management strategies is to begin by focusing on a few specific behaviors. Start with taking the time to observe the behaviors and attitudes that currently define the working environment. Prioritize addressing those that most reflect the problems with the previous culture that your new strategy hopes to correct. 

When determining which behaviors to address, the Harvard Business Review suggests focusing on those that are widely visible. Experiment with new processes that align with your ideal culture and observe which succeed, and how. During this time, also be on the lookout for certain employees who set the example and whose actions are commonly emulated, as these will likely be future agents of change. 

One example provided by the HBR is the case of the Public Service of New Hampshire, the state's electric utility provider. The organization's management was overly focused on the immediate problems facing their specific positions, instead of overarching strategic challenges and coordinating efforts to address these. Instead of trying to overhaul the entire culture of the large organization, it instead focused on specific processes that reflected the larger cultural issue. 

For example, the first process that was addressed was returning power more rapidly after an outage. Managers were encouraged to share what strategies worked best for them in their respective areas, and to pool resources. After this area was improved, the next process was increasing the productivity of maintenance crews. Many of the workers were cross-trained with other teams to gain insight into how the different departments relied on each other, and what processes could be improved to speed overall productivity, such as having all the necessary preparations accomplished so that when a maintenance crew arrived on-site they could begin work immediately. As efficiency and coordination increased, management became more conscious of the effect of their work on other departments, and began adjusting their focus to overarching strategic goals. 

Another such case occurred when Aetna, the health care insurance provider, merged with U.S. Healthcare, a lower-cost health care provider. Aetna was known as "Mother Aetna" to its employees, and the organization's employees enjoyed a culture that was focused on retaining the status-quo, suspicious of outsiders and allowed employees to stay for as long as they wished as long as they "showed up everyday and didn't cause trouble," according to HBR. When merged with U.S. Healthcare's more aggressive culture, employees were close to full-out rebellion, and Aetna's CEO was forced out after failing to address the major culture clash. 

However, after John Rowe became Aetna's fourth CEO in five years, he avoided making grand promises to transform the organization and force a cultural shift. Instead, Rowe focused his efforts on getting to know the individuals that made up his teams and the processes that defined the current, combative office culture. He then sought out and identified agents of change, and gained their input onto which processes needed to be addressed. By avoiding the rush for quick change and focusing on specific processes, Aetna finally was able to form a new, productive culture and increase employee engagement. 

Sometimes, like in the case of Aetna and U.S. Healthcare, outside perspective is needed to defuse tensions and provide above-the-fray perspective. Change management consultancy can help organization avoid the pitfalls that cause teams to resist change and stall change efforts.