As the energy industry evolves, we’re faced every day with new roles and responsibilities and finding smarter ways of working together. According to a McKinsey and Company survey from 2015, “just 26 percent of respondents say the transformations they’re most familiar with have been very or completely successful.” We’d all like to beat those odds with our own change-management efforts. McKinsey, of course, has a viewpoint on the topic. But I wanted more data, especially in relation to my own experience with change management.
What are the fundamentals for making a change successful whether it’s an IT project, process improvement or creating a new line of business? Is the key to success having executive sponsorship? Does a willingness by the company to embrace a new way of working or technology make or break the effort? Does success rest with the qualifications of the project team?
I did an online search on the phrase “change management certification,” and it produced at least 14 pages of results, everything from an extended education program at the University of Manitoba to a certified change manager practitioner certification from the Global Association for Quality Management. To find a book on the topic of change management, one online retailer I checked with offered more than 20,000 titles from which to pick.
Clearly, change management is a big topic, maybe even an overwhelming one at times. A project team can simplify the guiding principles, though, without short-changing the process. Here’s how:
Get buy-in: When I worked for a major utility, we decided to bring in a new software system to ring efficiency out of a laborious and time-consuming process. Our line crews would be heavy users of the product, along with supervisors and dispatchers. As we planned the implementation, we talked to our HR department and brought in labor manager from each of our operating companies. We engaged union representatives ahead of the change. After briefings, our executive team got behind us and everyone understood the product wasn’t changing our process; the software was helping the process. While getting buy-in can sometimes be a painstaking process, it can also be as simple as letting your constituents know what’s going on.
Get talent: When you compare American electric utilities to those around the world, you might see that they are superb at what they do because their people are trained, knowledgeable, practiced and dedicated. Similarly, the success of a change-management effort is an experienced project team. But a solid, well-liked manager of day-to-day operations doesn’t necessarily translate into a great “change manager.” Whether they have formal credentials or simply years of on-the-job experience, great change managers are people who successfully tackle problems, don’t seek attention for what they’re doing, manage ambiguity well and know how to navigate the organization. They know how to set priorities, keep a project on track or bring it back from the brink. At the elbow of each of these veteran “change managers” should be people with a desire to learn the role.
Get reviews: A change-management effort won’t succeed or fail based on how long it lasts, but it certainly will fail if the company doesn’t set and measure progress against milestones. There are short-term efforts that belly flop just as easily as a long-lasting undertakings. With the buy-in mentioned above, project managers have the ability to keep company executives engaged in reviews. These reviews should occur anywhere from bi-weekly to monthly. Be disciplined about making assessments happen. And executives should push managers for the kind of milestones in these project reviews that they can assess for a tangible result. “Everything is on track for this line item” is not a sufficient reply in these meetings. Instead, a report should, for example, note that “we’ve gained agreement from all labor reps.” The latter is a measurable outcome.
Get research: When a company makes a strategic (or even tactical) change, people in the field often get left out. But change impacts everyone. A simple misunderstanding about how workers should enter data into a spreadsheet in the field might derail a company transformation. In fact, any large group inside a larger organization can make things succeed or flounder based on how they perceive it. For example, earlier in my career, the utility industry decided to move away from creosote poles for environmental reasons. Companies began opting for poles treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. However, some of the utilities who made the call for CCA poles didn’t realize pure CCA poles (no additives) were harder to climb. With the help of linemen across the industry, manufacturers added treatment to soften the pole while retaining the CCA qualities.
While a company must manage its bottom line, stakeholders’ decisions should rest on more than financials. A change-management program’s stakeholders can help their company understand circumstances beyond financial considerations, and, from the outset, highlight the hurdles. Understanding the concerns, along with input, gives everyone a vested interest in solving the problems that might derail a change that will ultimately make things better and safer for employees and customers.
If a company is going to successfully implement change, then fundamentally it needs: executive sponsorship, a willingness by all to embrace new ways of working; and experienced project managers leading the charge. Get it done.
About the author: Jim Nowak is senior director of operational services for ACROS LLC. He retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees.