Staff frequently come up with the answers you need, says expert with an international track record.
Imposing change on staff is an old-fashioned approach. Encouraging ideas from the bottom up is a far more effective way of winning staff engagement and improving productivity, according to change management experts ON-Brand Partners.
The New Zealand company, which helps organisations tackle change and build a culture of collaboration, has just won a contract to help a large British supermarket chain update its image with customers and make it an in-demand employer.
The supermarket operation, which has 130,000 staff, has invested extensively in training and wants to convey this to its customers, says ON-Brand founder Paul Stewart. The chain is trying to convey its "brand promise" - connecting people with something that goes beyond basic food items - he says. "It is also very committed to building an organisation where people are highly valued - one of their goals is to be a number one employer."
The supermarket chain's new CEO wants his staff to look beyond making transactions and come up with their own ways of communicating with customers, says Stewart. "It's not a question of trying to impose an idea," he says, "it's giving them the scope and space to draw on their knowledge and ideas." The idea is that the staff will be able to deliver an experience to customers which will create a sense of belonging and community.
ON-Brand already has a strong track record in the Asia-Pacific region, helping large organisations - including HSBC, ANZ and Mercury Energy - harness productive ideas for change. Within three months, it claims, Mercury Energy achieved a 90 per cent improvement in sales conversion rates and a 6 per cent improvement in overall call quality.
Stewart, a former ANZ chief economist who also worked as director of organisational effectiveness for Baycorp Advantage, specialises in helping organisations give their staff a real voice and play a part in the required change.
"All the answers to your business issues lie within your business - you just have to get the people at every level to be talking about these issues and come up with the answers," he says. "To create is to own."
When introducing change, management's classic model, says Stewart, is to seek input through focus groups or online surveys. Where staff are invited to volunteer ideas, all the ideas generated are given to someone else to work on - the HR or IT departments, for example.
"Through ON-Brand we turn that on its head, getting functional teams within their organisation to focus, on a one-by-one basis, on ideas," says Stewart. "A lot of change programmes tend to be one-offs - what we are really doing here is developing a culture of change."
Teams are encouraged to take control of the way things work in their sphere of influence, he says. And with that comes power and engagement.
Working with HSBC Malaysia, from 2006 to 2008, ON-Brand found teams of bank staff came up with 7000 new ideas in the first 12 months. The response from staff, he says, was: "I have a voice." As a result, confidence and engagement increased. The ideas were on a range of issues, from delivering a good first impression with customers, to improving business efficiency, to collaborating with others. There is a huge increase in collaboration, says Stewart, and the normal silo constraints disappeared.
Once the approach to change is embedded, the leadership can use it in a tactical sense, he says. For example, as HSBC headed into the global financial crisis, the company produced ideas on how to talk to customers in tough times, and was able to reassure them their money was safe.
As part of his role, the ON-Brand Partners director has been coaching top executives and emerging general managers. "One of the unique things about the viewpoint of the CEO, is they are the only person in the organisation who knows how everything fits together," says Stewart.
"The CEO has to think about how it all glues together. They are connecting the dots, trying to bring perspective and not just worrying about the levels below them, but thinking about how to connect across the organisation. How what they are doing connects with everyone else."
Although ON-Brand is predominantly helping larger organisations, small businesses could also find its change initiatives highly relevant, says Stewart. ON-Brand has developed TakeOn! - a product that takes change processes into smaller companies and helps them turn themselves around, from the bottom up.
Transformation consultancy Blacksmith has the licence to use TakeOn! with New Zealand companies who want sustainable change.
"Small businesses don't tend to be constrained by processes and procedures; they are more adept at being agile," says Stewart.
Having people co-create their business is a great idea, says Blacksmith director Kate Billing. TakeOn!'s message is that small businesses are ultimately part of a community of businesses doing the same thing.
ON-Brand has set up an online platform, on2net.biz, for large and small companies which have become part of a community sharing ideas. Says Billing: "A 50-person business in New Zealand can be learning from a 5000-person business in Hungary. They can co-operate, communicate and collaborate with others."
Gill South is an Auckland freelance writer.