Leaders have accountability when confronted with the need for change to create an environment for change.
The nature of the environment they must create is dependent upon a significant early choice for revolutionary or evolutionary change.
Most leaders I have known who have opted for revolutionary change have, in twenty-twenty hindsight, commented that they should have done more, earlier and faster.
One exception that I know of was the restructuring of labour relationships in a petroleum storage, packaging and distribution facility.
The need for change was palpable. Poor management decisions over a period of fifteen years had left the packaging plant operating at an average of one fifth the productivity of the national average. Not one fifth less, one fifth of the average.
The causes were numerous. Bad investment decisions combined with poor labour relationships and poor measurement and rewards for performance were the key contributors.
At any time the plant could be closed and products transported in from another state over 2000 km away and the company still be more profitable. The union involved appeared intransigent at a state level with regard to change.
However, the distribution of more than 40% of the state’s bulk fuel supplies was at risk if a strike was called. The same union covered the bulk fuel filling facilities as well as the storage, packaging and distribution facilities.
Other unions at the facility did not normally support each other with strike action but often did if “brother unions” were seen to be under threat.
The mere threat of a strike affecting the state’s fuel supplies had always sent the state based management, the national board, the state government, motoring organisations and the nation’s media into a frenzy. Hence, nothing was ever done.
The situation needed revolutionary change.
Without detailing every event, let me translate the lessons we learnt from getting a revolutionary change right into principles of developing an environment for revolutionary change.
Voice a powerful call for change
Revolutionary change needs a powerful reason. That reason must be believable and imminent.
The powerful call for change was about choices for the future.
The packaging and distribution side would close some time. It could not carry on as it was. With change in labour practices which met the award, investments could be made in equipment and training to make the future more secure. Adequate productivity levels would create export opportunities and more work.
The choices were to work together and change conditions to match the agreed award as every other location did or close within twelve months.
Revolutionary change requires brutal honesty. Everyone must e clear about choices, consequences an the activities being undertaken. Rumours and misinformation kill change. Revolutionary change does not have the luxury of time to unravel misinformation.
Every question was met with an honest answer. We did this even when the honest answer was what we knew people did not want to hear. That rule applied for employees, supervisors, managers, politicians, lawyers, judges, board members and the media. Sometimes the answer was, “I will not tell you that”. However, answers were never fabricated to throw people off track of our plan.
Change the game
If you are attempting revolutionary change, do not do what you have already done. There must be a “shock” factor with revolutionary change.
We had tried the route of the arbitration commission many, many times. It always ended in compromise. We had always been the first party to call on the arbitration commission to make a ruling.
This time we followed a landmark industrial case in Australia, the Dollar Sweets case. We did not call on the Arbitration Commission. Instead, we made our position clear and asked for negotiations with our people and the union on how we might implement the outcomes that were needed. When the almost inevitable strike came we continued to talk directly to our employees by sending letters to their homes by courier.
When the strike continued and our premises were picketed to stop other unions from legally going about their work, we applied in the civil courts to end the illegal pickets, not the arbitration commission to end the strike.
Work at Speed
Revolutionary change must be completed at speed for two reasons. The cost of inaction to the organisation is too high. The cost of uncertainty to the people undergoing the change and their families is too high.
We planned what we expected to happen and the alternatives to our expectations as usual. However, where we would usually leave a week between making a request of a union member, board member, lawyer or politician and anticipating an answer, we had planned and insisted on time frames of days or hours.
People worked around the clock to make things happen at what appeared abnormal “working hours” speed.
One person cannot orchestrate revolutionary change. Roles must be allocated and adhered to. Roles are allocated based on competency and authority only.
We had a board that knew its role was to make decisions involving the national interest of the company, not the hour by hour minutiae. We had a full time professional communication manager and media spokesperson planning and executing communications, not the senior manager or the industrial relations manager. We had a team doing nothing other than contingency planning. We had a local management team with a clear mandate for making hour by hour decisions.
Plan for contingences
Unintended consequences sink many change programmes, whether they are evolutionary or revolutionary.
Whilst consequences may be unintended, they are rarely unpredictable.
Our contingency plan consisted of a decision tree going over ten A3 pages. Our preferred decision path was or the first decision of our employees and union officials being to enter into positive discussions
Our expected decision path was that the union would refuse to negotiate and make decisions to draw us into the arbitration commission. That path amongst the hundreds of possile paths was highlghted in red.
Every possible decision that could be made by any stakeholder had two or more responses by one or more other stakeholder. Every possible alternative had a response organised even though it was unlikely to be used.
The board, the management team and specialists such as the communications manager had a copy of the contingency plan. Whenever a decision was made, the alternative responses were clear and the probable future three or four decisions were also known.
The contingency plan was update daily for actual decisions made and detailed analysis of probable future decisions by all parties. It was republished daily.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Revolutionary change is by its nature, fast paced. Communication needs to keep pace, not only with the change being implemented but with people’s emotions, rumours, misinformation and preferred communication styles.
We had one-to-one meetings, telephone hook-ups, fax-outs and letter drops and interviews with broadcast media almost every day. All communication was vetted by a communication team to ensure consistency of message.
We never lost sight of who we needed to communicate with the most, our employees. We went to extraordinary lengths to be sure that we were always able to communicate with our employees, even when they were on strike.
History shows that we did have a six week strike. The other unions did not participate. We did however make the changes we needed to make. We did retain high degree of loyalty amongst our employees and confidence of the board as a result of adhering to the principles for revolutionary change outlined above.
The revolutionary change period lasted six weeks and then gradually changed to an evolutionary style.
Whilst I am not an advocate of revolutionary change, sometimes it is necessary. When it is necessary, change must be driven and the strong principles above adhered to.