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Pussyfooting on change management

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, January 07, 2014    

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IT was not the beginning of a new year, or a birthday celebrated thereon, which triggered a deep introspection on change and the passage of time for me. It was an oversized black suitcase with two broken zippers that I rediscovered in my storage area.

It was packed with children's clothes and keepsakes, like my younger daughter's first teddy bear and the backpack my older girl carried in the second grade -- her first year of school in the United States. I took out the stuff, sorted them, threw away a few turtlenecks and sweaters, and pondered what to do with what was still usable.

And what about the suitcase? Except for the zippers, it was in great condition. Could I find someone to replace them? What would it cost to repair a suitcase that's at least 10 years old relative to buying a new one?

Throwing it out seems like the logical thing to do, but tossing anything is hard for me -- a result of growing up way too deprived, I think. It never seems right to just throw away something that, with a little effort, I could still use, or maybe someone, somewhere, in some far-flung corners of the world, uncorrupted by cable television, would be perfectly happy to have. I am sure I am not unique in this regard.

Yet, throwing out stuff is easy compared to disposing of old habits and attitudes that have been deeply ingrained in who we are and in our cultures, even when they add no value and clearly impede progress.

Ask anyone you know how their New Year's resolutions are going so far.

Or ask Dr Peter Phillips, the man with the unenviable task of whipping our finances into shape so we can at least maintain good relationship with our creditors, hopefully achieve some measure of economic growth, and seriously begin to address our most debilitating social problems.

As finance minister, Phillips needs to accomplish "fiscal and monetary policy reforms aimed at creating a stable, predictable and resilient macroeconomic environment; structural reforms aimed at significantly strengthening Jamaica's external competitiveness and productivity; strategic private and public investments; and ultimately social stability".

He is up against a national culture of waste, inefficiency, over-consumption and under-production, and a spectacularly nonsensical bureaucracy internally. Externally, he must contend with an unrelentingly competitive global marketplace and a worldwide economy still struggling to shake off a five-year-old recession. He must reorient people to these realities if he is to get anywhere.

Ask Police Commissioner Owen Ellington, head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), the arm of the Ministry of National Security "responsible for the maintenance of law and order, the prevention and detection of crime, the investigation of alleged crimes, the protection of life and property, and the enforcement of all criminal laws". The JCF has close to 10,000 positions, 19 organisational units, and a network of stations across the country.

Ellington is contending with one of the highest murder rates in the world, a society that is resistant to law and order but selectively wants its crime problems solved, and a police force that, itself, too often operates in breach of the law.

Or, ask Education Minister Ronald Thwaites, who wants to see better outcomes, not merely relative to the dollar amount spent, but to the needs of the country. His ministry comprises 11 agencies, six regional offices, and a central office with approximately 40 units under five divisions. The units oversee approximately 1,000 schools serving more than 100,000 students and 20,000 teachers, as well as two public universities and several community and teachers' colleges.

Thwaites is up against an unwieldy bureaucracy, a constituency that seems especially resistant to change, and an archaic organisational culture which, too often, seems pitted against itself.

We are challenged indeed, and now that we have pussyfooted long enough, the fixes need to be quick, we think. Still, the throw-everything-at-the-problem-and-see-if-something-sticks approach will yield only confusion and frustration, and so will any attempt at wholescale change in an unprepared space.

The country, as a whole, and its more complex organisations, individually, requires a structured approach to help people adapt to new realties. For people/workers everywhere in the world, major change is unsettling. Resistance to, or fear of it, is not culture-specific or unique to any industry. I dare say it is harder for the average Jamaican worker, with our renowned dysfunctionalities and our rapid in-your-face transitioning from a high to a low context culture.

Worse, we are not naming the phenomenon or explaining it particularly well; and much of it is either imposed, or influenced superficially by American television or casual travel to the USA.

Harvard Business School professor, John P Kotter, a leading thinker and author on organisational change management, posits that effective change management requires, among other key tasks, building the right team with appropriate mixes of technical skills, emotional intelligence and commitment to the job; establishing and framing the vision right, in order to guide the strategy and work of the organisation; and projecting urgency by setting objectives that are clear and relevant with timelines attached.

And, since there is hardly any other way to achieve change but to communicate with respective publics what needs to be done and how and why, this function (communication) becomes the lynchpin of change management.

Goals must be clearly communicated, involve all relevant stakeholders and show what is at stake for them. Rather than a hostile or condescending approach, which serves only to isolate and harden resistance, communication should be ethical and transactional.

Facilitating action by removing obstacles and enabling feedback from workers and support from leaders -- including rewarding and recognising progress and achievements -- is also crucial to effective change management.

More than anything else, managing change is a core responsibility of leadership and a prerequisite for success.

gvirtue@usa.net

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