Change by stealth

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

It is inevitable that when you start to introduce a business change such as systemisation into a business you will meet with resistance from your employees.

In some cases these will be people who before now have been compliant or even well-motivated employees.  Sometimes the change process exacerbates a problem that already existed.

Your employees will have been quite comfortable with the way things were.  They worked willingly enough but if things went wrong they felt no sense of responsibility – it’s your company and your problem.  After all, you must be making lots of money as the owner of the business.

Their reasons for coming to work are quite different from yours.  As a good manager and leader you of course try to engage them, develop them and reward them properly but no matter how good a manager you are the majority of your workforce will feel little sense of ambition for someone else’s business.  It may also be the case that they feel little sense of ambition for themselves either, other than earning more – that is why they are in a small business.

This gives you a problem.

You are trying to convince them of something that to you is perfectly logical and reasonable:  In order to keep growing the business you need to run it differently so you want employees to take more responsibility.

Yet to them this is threatening.  Their performance is going to be measured.  They are going to be held accountable for their results.  At best this means working harder; at worst it means that they will not be able to cut it and will lose their job.  No wonder they are resisting change.

Overcoming this resistance is tough and some business owners give up, becoming a hostage to their employees.

One approach you can try to avoid this happening:

  • Introduce the change to one part of the business at a time, starting with the most positive and willing of your direct reports. The idea is to a) avoid scaring people b) build a coalition of converts over time and c) avoid opportunities for a coalition of the opposition to form.  Once the first person is starting to work the new way then start on the next most positive and so on.  Leave the assassins and energy-sappers till last;
  • Start by exposing them to basic management information for their area in regular monthly reviews. Working through the numbers will lead to conversations about related KPIs and improvement plans;
  • Involve them in developing the budget and KPI targets for their area for the next 12 months;
  • Over time adjust the balance of the monthly review to one where they are explaining performance and deciding actions and you are coaching them;
  • Eventually each individual will be taking the responsibility you want them to and formalising it becomes a small step. Accountability starts to become the norm in your business.

You might call this “Change by stealth”.  There are some drawbacks that immediately spring to mind:

  • With even a few managers this could take a couple of years;
  • What if you have no suitable people?

To the first, the response must be that systemisation is not a simple, quick fix.  It does take years and developing and coaching your key people is going to become a large part of your job anyway so you might as well start now.

The second is a tougher problem.  If even the best of your people cannot or will not step up then you are faced with the risky and expensive prospect of hiring someone to replace them.  This route should be avoided until you have first tried change by stealth – maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.  However, experience suggests that the people that got you from £0 to £1m will generally not be the same people as get you from £1m to £10m, who will generally not be the same people who get you from £10m to £100m.

If you’d like to learn more about how to systemise your business then why don’t you register for this event?


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