What is Change?

What is Change?

This is the question Professor Jeff Ford posed to us during our first class. Most of us took a stab at answering and the usual responses surfaced–a process of making something different than it was before, an equation of addition or subtraction, a state of transformation. No single answer seemed to entirely encompass the definition of “change.” And like most philosophical questions, the concept seemed to slip through our fingers like fine sand as we tried to wrap our arms all the way around it. I knew immediately that I was going to love this class.

During the second 7-week session of the first semester, all 1st year MHRM students take Organizational Development & Change with Professor Jeff Ford. The course is structured around a series of short cases that we explore each week. We are given a simple question that we work together to answer. The first week, we defined change. This past week, we talked about how to identify–exactly– what we want to accomplish and how, specifically, we would know if we accomplished it.

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Professor Ford’s teaching style is exactly what I envisioned of a graduate-level class. He challenges us to tease out the essence of what we are saying. In undergrad, I felt it was much easier to get away with saying a bunch of pretty words and hoping my main points and ideas would materialize for my audience. But, when forced to focus on word choice and detail the way Ford urges, I find that stripping away all the excess is the best way to solve any complicated problem. He doesn’t lead you into the answer or finish your sentences; he waits for you to distill your message down to the very essence. I think it is so important to practice thinking like this in a world littered with so much information to sift through.

Another unique feature of Ford’s class is that his wife, Dr. Laurie Ford (an experienced consultant), sits in on class and contributes her insights. This is fantastic–Laurie shares real-life examples of how she has initiated change from diagnosis to implementation in organizations she has worked with. With a concept as cloudy as change, I’ve found it is tremendously helpful to have access to multiple perspectives to help us apply what we are learning to real cases that we analyze from start to finish. I also think Laurie’s involvement is such a palpable example of how Professors at Fisher (and their spouses in this case!) truly invest their heart and soul in their students.

Last week, we studied an example of a utility company struggling to complete installations accurately according to the specs provided by the engineers, leading to delays and complaints. We were asked by Professor(s) Ford to get into small groups and provide recommendations for what we would “change,” how we would change it, and how we would know if we succeeded.

Many of us fell victim to the “action imperative”–doing too much too soon and all at once. We suggested lofty ideas like streamlining the communication systems, instituting various task forces (what are those anyway?), implementing and training and project managers, relationship-building among the installers and the engineers…all of which could have worked, but they very quickly became too abstract and unmanageable. Then we started to think about how we would know if our changes worked. Increase in revenues? More timely installations? And how would we implement the changes? Company-wide training initiatives, team-building, eLearning…at a point it began to feel like we were vomiting every HR-related word or phrase we had ever heard in a desperate attempt to hit the right answer. It turns out, we were overcomplicating things.

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This case study was actually a client that Laurie had worked with. She encouraged us to think about the “lines” that represent the connections between the different players. The issue clearly became the communication that was (or wasn’t) happening between the installers and the engineers. They weren’t speaking the same language, and directives were being lost in translation and leading to mistakes and delays in the work orders. Upon further discussion, we discovered that the work order template hadn’t been updated for over a decade. The simple solution was to update the template. Brilliant.

My takeaway from this class so far is to keep it simple. Change can be an intimidating concept for many organizations that need it, and so it is best to change as little as possible that still allows you to accomplish the goal. Tread lightly, and don’t rock the boat if you don’t have to. I’m sure these will be important lessons to remember after grad school when we will be brand new HR professionals trying to make our mark on the world. It will be a tough balance to strike, but I already feel more prepared to tackle it.

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