Modernization and Adopting Change

Empowering a Base of Supporters

Posted by Chris Barlow on Jun 5, 2019 10:30:16 AM

Stage 5 of the 8-Stage Process of Transformation

Empowering a Broad Base of Supporters

Part of our Series on Leading & Adopting Change

A major transformation effort cannot succeed without broad support, in attitude and in action, across your organization. In order to get this support, people need to be inspired by the vision and empowered by leadership – in this case, “empowered” means that employees feel capable of helping, that their help is needed, and that organization structures, systems, and supervisors are also in alignment with the vision.

Stages 1-4 of a transformation effort are:

  1. Establish urgency for change,
  2. Build a guiding coalition,
  3. Develop a vision for change, and
  4. Communicate that change vision.

These four stages can inspire people to support the transformation effort, but there are numerous obstacles that can still block them from having the power to do so.

In this article, we summarize Stage 5 of John Kotter’s Leading Change, sharing how leadership can remove these obstacles and enable the people in their organization to give vital support needed for success.



The 4 Biggest Obstacles to Empowering Supporters

1. Structures

In the early stages of a transformation effort, structures are not always a barrier for transformation. However, once people in an organization are being broadly encouraged to engage in a vision, it will become apparent whether the structure of the organization is an obstacle for transformation.

Here are three examples of how structure can undermine vision by disempowering people:

Structure undermines change when:

  1. The change vision is “focus on customer,” but the structure of the company has disjointed resources and responsibility for its products and services.
  2. The change vision is to “delegate more responsibility to lower level employees,” but the structure of the company consists of layers of middle managers who constantly override or criticize these employees’ decisions.
  3. The change vision is to "speed up the organization’s ability to develop products, serve the customer, and grow," but the structure consists of independent silos that lack trust and open communication with one another.

When structural barriers are not removed, leaders take the risk that employees will grow frustrated and give up trying to support the new vision. It’s important to quickly address structural barriers, or to even take them into account where possible during the vision creation process (Stage 3). If structural barriers are initially allowed to remain and only later removed, you will have lost key momentum and urgency, characteristics that are needed to sustain a change effort.

If it’s so important, why are structural obstacles not removed by leadership? Here are some of the main reasons:

  • Accustomed to one basic organization design that’s been used for a long time, leadership can be blind to or uncomfortable with alternatives.
  • Once a structure is in place, people are soon invested in it, including building personal loyalties and expertise; thus, it’s not easy to simply change structure.
  • Senior managers might see the need to change structure but will often avoid it in order to avoid conflict with peers or middle management.


2. Training

During the transformation process, hard work and commitment to the vision can only make up for a lack of skills for so long. Eventually, employees who have experienced changes to their work will get tired because they don’t feel equipped for their new tasks. This fatigue eventually leads to frustration with the overall effort and thus training can be an obstacle to empowering broad support for the new vision. It’s wise for leadership to plan for and provide training, considering the new knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will be needed as the changes are put into effect.

The barriers related to this lack of training fall into three categories:

  1. Not enough training (i.e., the company provides a training course at the beginning, but has no process to follow up with issues that arise over time).
  2. Only technical skills (i.e., the company’s training focuses on the technical skills needed for the work but provides nothing to help employees adjust socially or to have the right attitude for success).
  3. Unrealistic expectations (i.e., the company expects five days of training to change habits that have been ingrained from years of practice).

Once again, if training is an obvious way for leadership to empower people across the organization to support the transformation effort, why isn’t it always provided? There are two main reasons:

  1. Leadership doesn’t think through carefully what knowledge, skills, and attitudes will be needed when changes are initiated, and therefore don’t recognize the type and amount of training that will be needed.
  2. Sometimes leadership does recognize what training is needed but when that is translated into time and money, it’s too discouraging to move forward.

Ultimately, training is worth the investment because it can quickly and effectively show employees that their support for the change vision is needed and valuable. In other words, employees feel empowered. The message that leadership communicates by providing the right type and amount of training is, “We will be delegating more, so we are providing this course to help you with your new responsibilities.”

A few last thoughts on training:

  • Sometimes no training is better than bad training.
  • A big budget for training is not always needed.
  • Smart design of training can be more effective in result and in cost.


3. Systems

When do people resist change? When they don’t believe it’s in their best interest. When do they support change? When they believe the change will be for their long-term good.

When considering whether your organization’s systems create obstacles for empowering people broadly, here is a list of some of the key systems that need to be aligned with the vision:

  • Performance evaluation forms
  • Compensation decisions
  • Promotion decisions
  • Recruiting and hiring systems
  • Management information systems
  • Strategic planning: is it focused on market/competitive analysis?

Barriers associated with an organization’s culture are very difficult to change until the end of a transformation effort, when performance improvements are clear. Until then, systems are easier to change, but the main consideration is:  which systems?

The guiding coalition cannot change every system nor fix every inconsistency between the organization’s existing systems and the new vision. The process of aligning systems must be gradual; therefore, the leaders of a change effort need to focus on the systems that present the biggest barriers to the vision. These are often HR systems — anything with big, built-in incentives, especially if those incentives are not aligned with the vision, they need to be changed to fit its goals.

Kotter states in his book that in successful transformations, he often sees that it takes leaders in HR who are willing to boldly change systems to fit the new vision, even amidst pressure to maintain the status quo from line managers or colleagues.


4. Supervisors

If powerful people who have not bought into the vision are not brought on-board early (i.e., in Stages 1-4), it is at this stage where problems will arise. The reason for this is that Stage 5 is the first stage of the transformation effort where visible changes to an organization’s structure or systems take place, and if people with power or influence don’t agree to the changes, they can bring the entire effort to a halt.

Ultimately, when there are influential people who oppose an organization’s vision for transformation, there are no easy solutions, especially because people like this have often been positive contributors to the organization. However, the best solution to this kind of problem is rational and honest dialogue. Leaders can communicate a message along these lines:

“Here’s the situation with the industry, our company, our vision, the support we need from you, and the time frame in which we need this. How can we help you, help us?”

In most cases, this dialogue will lead to one of four results:

  1. The person changes their view and decides to help and is capable of doing so.
  2. If the situation is hopeless and the person needs to be replaced, this dialogue will make it clear.
  3. If the person wants to help, but feels blocked, the discussion can identify solutions.
  4. If the person wants to help, but doesn’t have the capability to help, the clear expectations and timetable can make removing them (or moving them to another area) less contentious.

Approaching the problem with rational and honest dialogue is difficult, but has many benefits:

  • It removes guilt if the person is reassigned or let go.
  • It reduces political risk (the powerful person won’t be likely to launch a “counterattack” against leadership or the change effort itself).
  • It gives the person a chance to rationally discuss and consider why the transformation is a worthy effort, without it being threatening.

Many executives regret not confronting inflexible managers, not only because the issue grows with each stage of transformation, but when employees observe that such a situation is left unaddressed, they lose confidence and get discouraged.


The Power of People in your Organization

No matter which of these four obstacles is blocking progress for your organization, discouraged employees create significant problems for change:

  • They don’t build short-term wins that are vital for transformation efforts.
  • They don’t help manage the large number of change projects needed in a transformation (instead, they give up long before you have reached the finished line).
  • They never help enterprises make the necessary changes in a globalizing environment.

On the other hand, with the right structure, training, systems, and supervisors, the people of your organization will provide the support necessary for a successful transformation.


In Summary: The 5 Keys to Empower Supporters

  1. Communicate a sensible vision to employees: if employees have a shared sense of purpose, it will be easier to initiate the actions to achieve it.
  1. Make structures compatible with the vision: unaligned structures block forward progress.
  1. Provide training that employees need: without the right skills and attitudes, people feel disempowered.
  1. Align information and personnel systems to the vision: systems should encourage and support behavior that furthers the vision.
  1. Confront supervisors who undercut change: nothing disempowers people like a “bad boss.”

Topics: change management

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