In the water business, things are rarely easy, so it is tempting to think that only the “smart” or the “lucky” are able to succeed. Frankly, it usually has less to do with luck or IQ and more to do with good timing and the ability to manage change, as stated by marketing expert Leon C. Megginson in his most famous quote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Many factors can necessitate changes to a business, such as:
- Competitors’ actions: Your competition launches an exciting new product line that matches yours, with an asking price 50% lower than yours.
- Changing customer needs: Your clients want drinking water systems that you typically have avoided selling or servicing.
- Technology: Somebody invents a salt-free softener that is cheap and works just as well as salt-based ion exchange.
- New business opportunities: You want to open a second location or introduce a new line of products and services.
- External economy or government activity: Your state changes installation and service licensing requirements for water treatment systems.
- Key employee separation: Your service manager took maternity leave and now would rather leave the workforce completely.
Intelligent change is a strategic imperative in today’s business environment. Unfortunately, in trying to be the best, standing out from the rest, and seeking higher levels of status and power, many managers and leaders make emotional changes without thinking or planning properly. In their haste for change, they forget the fundamental principles that are prerequisites for a successful change to occur. The worst change is the kind initiated by your own “lizard brain,” the part of you that merely reacts to stimuli around you.
Regardless of the initial reason for change, all change must be logically planned, executed and measured. As a change agent, I always ask the following questions of ownership and top management before attempting to develop any plan:
- Why are we doing this?
- What is the outcome we desire?
- How can we measure the attainment of this outcome?
- When do we need this to be accomplished?
- Who is responsible for execution?
An open and honest discussion with the leadership of your company about why the change is needed, what steps you envision and what obstacles or pushback could be encountered is extremely valuable, and will not only help in “selling” the change, but also in exposing complications that you might not already have considered. Do not allow initial knee-jerk reactions to sway you from your vision at this point—use any early management-based resistance as a stepping stone to refine your plan before rolling it out to the entire organization. If you cannot sell your idea to top management, then forget about selling it to the rest of the organization.
It is also important to be realistic and clear about the desired outcome of the change. Do not set vague or ambiguous goals like “sell more ultraviolet (UV) systems,” “train the service department,” or “do more business in New York,” but rather, “sell 23% more UV systems by the end of the year,” “have each member of the service team enroll in the Water Quality Assn.’s Modular Education Program and earn his or her Certified Service Technician badge,” or “grow gross sales in New York by 18%.” The more specific you are in the outcome you desire, the easier it will be for the entire organization to rally around you.
Plan of Action
Once you are certain of the rationale and ability to measure success, then you can advance to developing an action plan.
Identify the resources you need to implement the change. Change is rarely quick or easy, and it will require not only financial resources, but also people, information technology and time. Most change initiatives that are unsuccessful fail because they do not identify or allocate the resources required. If you want to train your staff, understand that it will cost the organization time and money—not just the raw cost of labor, but the actual weighted overhead as well as the opportunity cost of taking employees away from something more profitable while they are being trained. A frequently overlooked cost is the mental and emotional toll on the employees themselves, because change or uncertainty can produce stress and anxiety. Be prepared to address this.
Map out the timeline with measurable milestones. No successful plan is open-ended. Break your plan down into reasonable milestones that build upon each other with a clear expectation of who is responsible, what is required and when it needs to be accomplished.
More complex plans will require increasing layers of responsibility and overlapping milestones, but the foundational principle remains the same: Break the plan down into realistic pieces. I have seen too many plans fail because the originator tried to move forward at an unrealistic pace.
Develop resource transfer and incentive plans. Consider any new knowledge that needs to be acquired, physical and financial resources that need to be allocated, and, of course, when, why and how appropriate actions will be rewarded.
Launch the plan with appropriate transparency. “Why?” This question often sends shivers down the spines of entrepreneurs and managers because they feel like the asker is questioning their authority or expertise. This is actually rarely the case, especially with younger employees who are accustomed to getting answers to their questions and thrive on collaborative teamwork. Instead of bristling at being asked “why?” take it as an opportunity to teach the underlying principle of what you are trying to accomplish. Your employees are human beings, not human resources; they thrive when treated as people instead of assets.
Lead from the front and do not be afraid to share your overall strategic vision with your employees. You and your management team also should be prepared to listen to objections. Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. Educate your employees about the direct, real and tangible benefits to be gained from embracing new methods, policies and attitudes, and how they will impact the business and their own individual lives. Do not forget to inform them of how their efforts will lead to enhanced output, and illustrate the incentives that can be enjoyed by embracing the change. If each employee in the business personally understands and buys into the need for change, along with his or her own part in executing the change, then the change will be exciting instead of scary or burdensome.
Motivate, Assess & Adapt
You and your management team need to be the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of every new plan. If the change requires a new dress code, wear it first and wear it happily. The same goes when it comes to work schedules, parking plans, travel or new technological tools. Do not be one of the many bad leaders who do not “practice what they preach,” or who think they are too good to change. By adopting small incremental milestones in your plan, it is easier to keep everyone motivated by attaining the small, frequent victories that bring everyone closer to success. You cannot fake enthusiasm, so if you do not actually believe in what is being done, do not be surprised if your employees do not either.
In assessing the execution of the plan, be realistic and objective. Resist the urge to check things off because they are nearly done; they are either done or not done. In an ideal world, we would be able to intuitively sense when something has gone awry, or more realistically, use metrics and real data before the deadline to see that things are not quite on track. Do not intervene before the deadline passes, though—empower your employees to work through their goals without your meddling. This is particularly hard for entrepreneurs who want to control every aspect of their businesses; you must empower your employees to succeed in order to encourage their personal development and reinforce engagement.
Failures also will inevitably happen, and your enterprise will become stronger if it addresses failures positively. The worst thing you can do when failures occur is single out the employees or teams responsible and embarrass them; they are already embarrassed by their failure and quickly will turn to resentment if berated. Seek to understand why the failure occurred, and empathize with the people who experienced the failure. See things from their perspective and seek balance by providing the knowledge or other resources they require to succeed when the milestone is reset.
Dealing With Success
It has been said that when Alexander the Great saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. This sentiment is real to many entrepreneurs who enjoy the hunt. Do not go looking for more change just for the sake of making change. While you cannot rest on your laurels, allow enough time (usually at least two quarters) to measure the success of the execution and whether it requires additional fine-tuning. If everything is working as intended, reward and incentivize as promised and then leave it alone. Do not keep tweaking things until they break again.
Although managing change can be difficult, implementing these tried-and-true principles can help you be a truly successful agent of change. Overcome your fear, cage your inner reptile and empower your people to make your company successful and fulfilling.