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3 easy steps to lead change in your organisation

In 2007, my company was contracted by an oil major in Brunei to run change management workshops for the operations staff at the platforms. They were changing their shift system from a 7-day on/7-day off (7/7) schedule to a 14-day on/14-day off (14/14) schedule. Now if you are like me, you might think, "What's the big deal? It comes up to the same thing," right? Well, it was a big deal to the staff. For one, they would only be away from the family fourteen days a week, as opposed to seven. This might also disrupt many routines! So, there was a lot of unhappiness on the ground when the change was announced, and that unhappiness went very deep, to the extent that the Asset Director was cursed for this change during a townhall, and there were threats of sabotage. It was at this stage that they went looking for a change management expert and found us. We were appointed with only 2 success metrics: that there will be no acts of sabotage and no letters of complaint to the Sultan of Brunei during his birthday in September.

Over 5 months, we engaged with the staff with a very simple message: that change - any change - is natural, and that the new normal will be better than the old one. We put the solutions in their hands, saying that they had the power to make it better or worse. In the end, we met our objectives - the engagement sessions were extremely popular, there were no acts of sabotage, no letters to the Sultan, and when the system came live on 14 October, all operators and technicians boarded the helicopters with smiles. We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations (and were mentioned for it in the Brunei Times).

Here are three things we did which were very similar to the Heath brothers' process outlined in their book, Switch! When change is hard.

Talk to the Head

No, it does not involve telling them the business case for change. That is good only for shareholders and senior management. When we interact with people, we need to share information that means something to them. By moving from the 7/7 schedule to the 14/14 schedule the company basically halves the number of helicopter trips. Not only does that halve the potential risks, it also saves a lot of time and money as it also halves the number of disruptions to the work done, so more can be accomplished over the 14-day period onboard the platform as opposed to the 7-day. There will thus be a huge increase in productivity. But this message would not sit nicely with the operators because their focus was on double the time spent on the platform. Hence, we needed to talk to their head in another way.

One way the company did right was to provide an onboard allowance, something which did not exist in the past. This allowance was more than $1,300 per month and paid to everyone onboard, regardless of position, job title, rank. So long as you worked on the platform, fulfilled certain criteria, you received the money! This is a way of sharing the productivity gains and that went quite some way in reducing the angst of the change, but there were still pockets of resistance.

Next, we helped the operators look at the issue from a balanced viewpoint. Many of them voiced out the "hardships" of having to endure 14 days on the platform as opposed to 7. Yet none of them focused on the 14 days off the platform. This was 14 days that they could do many things with, including running a side business which the company allows (within certain parameters). When the full month is seen with such a perspective, the 14 days onboard does not seem so bad, as there were 14 days off to look forward to.

But we didn't stop there. The company encourages all of them to take a healthy interest in their job, and supports them when they think of ways to improve their job or their life onboard. This can have such a hypnotic hold on some people such that they would volunteer to stay on board longer simply for the opportunity to complete their project. We identified three such people, got them to share what they did, how they did it, and how easy it is for anyone to do it. They are the bright spots that the Heath brothers refer to in their book. These are the people who,despite limiting circumstances, come up with a solution to their situation. These solutions can then be applied to the whole group to move them to a new level. Our bright spots helped us to overcome resistance since they were a part of the group, and they experienced the same things and yet managed to come up on top. They made very good role models for the rest to fashion their time on the platform more productively.

Appeal to the Heart

Yet, talking to the head was not enough; not all people respond to change in a cognitive way. Hence, there was a need to also appeal to the heart. We needed them to want to go down the 14/14 route, not simply to accept it.

The first thing we did was to share with them Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' process of dealing with change, especially when it was sudden; that of denial, anger, depression and acceptance. We gave them permission to feel the emotions of the 14/14 change so that they could move on to acceptance. When one of the participants shared his personal experience of this process, recounting how is son died a fiery death in a road accident, and how he moved along that same process, we used that as a rallying call for the rest of the engagement sessions (fortunately that man attended one of the earlier sessions!). By acknowledging that it was alright to be angry, and even depressed, before they moved on to acceptance, it helped accelerate the process for all the participants, and moved them onto acceptance faster!

We also took time to flesh out the 14 days off. By asking each of them to share how they would productively use the 14 days off, we received tons of ideas which the others heard, and also contemplated implementing. Some shared that they would use that time to travel; a few said that they were rebuilding their home, so the time would be very useful (a project at home too!). Many of them shared that they were running a business, predominantly in vehicle repair and maintenance (what better way to use their skills?!) and that would give them more time to focus on building the business. By getting them to share what they cared about, and how they were going to achieve that, they came to look forward to the 14 days off, rather than focus on the 14 days on.

Lastly, we also discussed how the additional $1,300 would help their family. Bruneians are very family-oriented so simply talking about more money might not be able to move them to accepting the change. But the minute we focused on the family, and what the family could benefit from the additional $1,300, the class exploded. Many of them spoke about education, about creating a better quality of life, about giving back to the community. These appealed much more to them than simply the fact that they would be receiving extra money. Money in and of itself did not motivate; but what they could do with the money, and how that could impact the family - that was priceless! It got them to think of all the different things they could accomplish with the additional income, thereby appealing more to the heart.

Map the Path

At this stage, the operators and technicians were well on their way to accepting the change. But we needed to ensure that they remained on track when the system went live on 14 October. Together with management, we put in place several activities:

(1) a family meeting. Families were invited to a lunch-and-chat to learn more about what they can expect of the change, and they were asked to highlight any challenges so that the company could look into providing greater support;

(2) count-down "clock" on the platforms. It was not a physical clock but a flyer on the notice board that counted down the days and asking them to look forward to this new and exciting change;

(3) elaborate explanation of the criteria for eligibility of the additional $1,300 allowance, including a simulation for each member based on their work output over the past months, and whether they would be eligible for the allowance for that output; and if not, what they needed to do in order to be eligible; and

(4) encouragement of forward planning to get matters in order well in advance of the shift system start date.

In the end, when the system went live, everyone knew what to expect, what to do, and how to do it. There were smiles and thumbs up from the crew departing for their first 14-day stint. No one was absent, no one was late. And needless to say, there were no acts of sabotage, nor letters of complaint to the Sultan. This was an immensely successful change initiative, and one which earned us another contract with them in 2009.

While at that time we were not aware of the Heath process - I don't think the book had even been written at that time - but when we compared what we did to what they wrote about in their book, we see total alignment. The process was simple:

Talk to the Head, Appeal to the Heart, and Map the Path. It is a process we now call Championing Change.

I hope that you find this process useful for you as you champion change in your organisation!

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