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23 Jan '13

Charting a healthy change process



When you are going to propose major changes to an organization it is important to have a clearly defined process up front that you intend to follow and that will help the organization negotiate the whitewater that will result.

Prepare people for coming changes

People do not like surprises. Once you know that you are going to enter into a process of change, let people know and let them know why. You are not communicating final decisions; you are paving the way for changes that are going to come.

Always tie your process and proposed changes to your mission, guiding principles, central ministry focus or culture.

Remember that people are naturally change resistant. Thus if you are going to bring change you must appeal to values that are a higher value than their resistance to change. The discussion is not fundamentally about structure or programs; it is about mission fulfillment (ROM: return on mission). The more you communicate this, the more people will 'get it.'

One of the gurus on change processes, John Kotter, suggests that in order to get people's attention and convince them of the need for change, you need to "create a crisis." In the absence of a crisis, why change anything?

In ministry organizations, the "crisis" is that the lack of change will compromise (or is already compromising) our ability to do what Christ has called us to do. The result of change will be greater return on mission. Again, it is all about mission.

Recruit a guiding coalition

In any key change you are going to make, you want to have a guiding coalition of individuals who are on board and will publicly and privately support the process. This certainly should include all board members and key ministry staff members. (If you have board members or staff members who are not publicly supportive, you have other issues to deal with).

This should also include other people of positive influence in your organization - those who can help the early or late majority who may not understand the need for change. This is not about a lobbying exercise but recognition that people influence people and that within every organization there are key influencers. If these key influencers understand where you are going and the reasons for it, they become voices of reason and encouragement to the rest of the organization on the merits of moving forward. If you find that your key influencers are opposed, you may want to do more homework and groundwork before you move forward. After all, wise leaders are not going to propose something that they think will not have the support it needs to succeed.

A best practice is that before you propose major change, know that it is going to succeed to the best of your ability. You can test the waters by sounding out those who you need to be in the guiding coalition to influence others.

Provide ways for those in your organization to have input.
The higher the stakes in proposed changes, the more critical it is that you provide forums for members of the organization to ask questions and provide suggestions. The more open that leaders are perceived to be, the more likely the organization will be supportive of the process and outcome.

At this stage, proposed changes are seen to be in 'wet cement.' There may well be feedback or suggestions that would cause leaders to tweak or modify certain proposals before the cement hardens. This also allows those who will be affected by the change to speak into the process although they are not the prime movers in the process.

In the process...over-communicate with the organization.Possibly the greatest failure of leaders in a change process is the failure to adequately communicate with their organizations. This does not usually happen intentionally. Leaders already know what is going on and assume others do as well. In addition, once they have communicated, they feel that the job is done. This underestimates, however, the number of times necessary to communicate to a group before a message is heard. When there is not adequate communication, leaders are seen as aloof, arrogant, unaccountable, power hungry - all of which are probably far from the truth.

Trust is gained by leaders, in large part, by three simple disciplines: being missional, communicating well and listening.

Do everything you can to keep anxiety and conflict over possible changes low

As we have noted, anxiety over change often brings out the worst in people - much like weddings and funerals do within family systems. Leaders have a lot invested in major proposals they make and it is normal for them to become defensive when people push back hard or even attack. Whenever anxiety is present in a family system - and organizations are family systems - one of the jobs of leaders is to lower anxiety wherever possible. A key to this is a non-defensive attitude when challenged. If one responds low key and gently to emotional attacks, the level of conflict is usually lowered.

Do not neglect a prayer strategy for change initiatives

Our battle is not against "flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12)." If you are proposing change or a ministry initiative because it will give you a greater return on mission, know that the evil one will oppose you at whatever level he needs to, to keep it from being successful. The bolder your plans, the bolder his response.

And if Satan can bring division in the process, or encourage bad attitudes or sinful junk to surface, he will. Why? Because your changes will make your ministry more effective. Sorry, but he doesn't want that to happen.

Relax, persevere and lead boldly

Change is not about us. Ministry advances are not about us. God has called us to lead boldly, and even more so when leading is not easy. Leaders need to be wise, to respect process and people, and to trust God for the outcome. What will surprise us more often than not is that when we do this right, the vast majority of those we lead will respond positively - even when they are not innovators or early adapters. Why? Because they have the same desire to see Christ honored and His kingdom expanded as we do.