Scarecrow management harnesses fear to create momentum

Robert H. Spencer, Accenture

July 17, 2003 — In the middle of a major change program recently, a manager shared, “Feels more like we are creating scarecrows.”

Major change is a frightening experience for many. Much depends on managing fears and harnessing them to maintain momentum. Here’s how successful managers do this, tips coined for this purpose as “scarecrow management.”

1. Making Fear Work
In major changes, fear creates both anxiety and heightened awareness. Managers, however, sometimes try to reduce fear by reassuring employees that the change is nothing to be afraid of-then wonder why people fail to take action.

The key is to make fear work for the change. As with the scarecrow, change requires a sense that something bad might happen. This does not mean making threats. Effective managers help their employees understand that there are consequences for the organization and employees in failing to change. They then focus employees on those actions that will help them and the organization succeed.

A word of caution on the limitations of project teams. Frontline supervisors are in the best position to help employees understand the actions they need to take. When they defer to projects for this detail, fear tends to be dissipated and the beneficial effects lost. Supervisors are key to making fear work.

2. Keep Visible
Scarecrow management requires visibility. The successful change manager will get out into the organization and be highly visible. The challenge is to be visible all the time.
It is not enough to just express a goal or vision for a program of change.

Cheerleading and enthusiasm, however desirable, are not sufficient. Like the scarecrow in a field day and night, key managers must find ways to convince people that they are constantly engaged.

Some of the highest impact strategies to maintain visibility include touring organizations unexpectedly and quizzing frontline employees on how they feel they are contributing. Resourceful managers often reach out beyond the workplace by sending memos or newsletters to employee homes. Jack Welch popularized the idea of thank you notes to recognize achievements.

In all these ways, the manager and key messages are made constantly visible. The engagement senior managers demonstrate both keeps people on edge and reinforces the efforts of frontline supervisors.

3. Create Surprise
Scarecrows get a lot of mileage out of surprise, and so with the effective change manager.
Senior executives typically start their change programs with a core group of supporters. But, it is also important that the executive reach out beyond to include others with special skills and motivations.

In this regard, the most useful question for senior leaders to ask themselves is, “Who do we want to go to war with?”

The answer is likely to be people you can rely upon to work hard, master new skills, and give their all to help the organization succeed. They find barriers interesting challenges instead of insurmountable obstacles. These people are rarely, however, all in place.

Since change heightens alertness, key moves before or as a change is launched sends a strong message to an organization as to what it will take to be successful. Make a mistake or try to work around an ineffective manager and the executive is likely to find the organization draws its own conclusions about what is important and what is not.

The act of getting your management team right will create many surprises but will underscore the seriousness of the change program.

4. Build Focus
For a scarecrow to be visible in a sea of corn, it has to be tall enough and get attention. A change program that lacks a series of well-defined metrics and goals will be difficult to focus on for the long haul.

But be cautious: metrics can generate one of two negative consequences.

In organizations with weak controls, the introduction of new metrics is likely to create confusion. In these environments, managers will struggle with how to interpret and apply results. In these cases, training in how to use controls needs to precede widespread dissemination of the metrics.

In organizations with strong bonus programs, measurements often become ends in themselves rather than means to ends. In these circumstances managers may be provoked to do whatever it takes, even if the actions and results are inconsistent with the change intent. In these circumstances it is useful to delay linking metrics to bonuses, focusing managers instead on articulating key behaviors and developing targets.

The successful change manager will establish goals and measurements that not only help people reach, but also mark their progress. Metrics should be tailored for individuals and departments, to ensure that the change program is relevant and purposeful.

5. Admire Simplicity
The scarecrow serves as a useful metaphor: the best changes are simple and straightforward.

No matter how complex, effective managers engage their organizations but providing a few, simple principles people can use to guide their actions.

Scarecrow management is all about orchestrating efforts at various levels of the organization to manage and harness the power of the natural fear that is involved in change. At the executive level, this means creating surprise, keeping visible and making things as simple as possible. At middle management levels, this means building focus. And at the frontline supervisor level, this means making fear work. Executed properly, scarecrow management can improve almost any harvest.

Spencer is an associate partner in Accenture’s Utilities Human Performance practice. He can be reached at robert.h.spencer@accenture.com.


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