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In seeking lasting change, tap people, not processes

Every leader of every organization realizes that the organization must produce results to stay in existence. So end results like profitability, quality and service are measured and reported on continuously. And there are intermediate results–such as costs, productivity and sales–which must be attained. Of course, in order to attain those results day to day and week to week, results must be delivered. So every day it comes down to producing results.
Yet very seldom do leaders and managers look at what really produces those results in an organization.
When a desired result is not being produced, some managers might be tempted to look for a way to directly influence its outcome, such as eliminating an expense or offering a new incentive to increase sales or productivity. The problem with this mode of operation is that it very seldom does what is intended, at best providing only a short-term improvement. Most managers will avoid this type of crisis management, realizing that they cannot produce results by working directly on results.
Instead, most managers will try to influence the way people work over the long term. They realize that only consistent new actions lead to long-lasting changes in results.
Managers usually will look first to institute new systems, structures and processes that will produce the result they want. Since such efforts provide order to the way people act, it seems reasonable to assume that by making a change here, long-term changes in results will happen.
Yet think about how many re-engineering efforts, quality initiatives and world-class service programs fail to deliver on the results they were designed to produce. Estimates say that well over half of these types of programs fail. Is it possible that some other focus by managers will produce substantially improved chances for change efforts?
I’m not saying that changes to systems, structures and processes are wrong. It would be impossible for an organization to work without these efforts. And they may need changing if they are not generating the needed results. But, since they are not the true source of results, it may be a trap for management to look there first.
If you’ve been around management long enough, you probably suspect that I’m about to say that people are the true source of results. After all, we’ve all heard that “our people are our most valuable resource” so many times that it’s become a mantra for management.
Well, yes, I could say that, but saying people are the source of results doesn’t leave managers any better off in their attempts to deliver results. Although people certainly produce results, it is collective and like-minded thinking that allows us to produce results effectively as a group.
What really delivers a change in results is an organization with a collective commitment to effect such change. That’s why both people and organizations often must reach a life-threatening crisis before they will change in any fundamental way. When the choices become perish or change, most people and organizations will choose survival.
Maybe this is why the thing called leadership seems to be such a mystical endeavor. Leadership requires work at the source of results; that is, how people think. Great leaders have the ability to focus the collective thinking of many people toward producing certain results.
Great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had no power except the power to change the collective thinking of people. In fact, they were so good at it that people continue to take actions consistent with their thinking long after their deaths.
Though it may be true that some leaders are born, it is certainly true that leadership can be taught. But learning how to be a leader requires a focus totally different from that used in management. Leadership requires a focus on the “soft” issues; i.e., people, how they think and how to change what they think, especially in an organizational setting.
Given that, you can understand why most managers much prefer to rely on their management training, which teaches them to work on changing systems, structures and processes. After all, these are tangible, hard issues with similar patterns and an order that is easy to redesign. People, on the other hand, are all different, and inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Yet, if you look at systems, structures and processes that aren’t working, you always find one common denominator: people with no commitment to results.
When you give people who have a commitment to producing certain results a flawed or outmoded system, process or structure, they will tinker with it or reinvent it until it works to produce the results. With no commitment to the end outcome, even the most brilliant effort eventually will fail.
So, the key to making the “hard” issues in an organization work is addressing the “soft”–or human–issues. Issues like culture, training, relationships, attitudes, common beliefs and mind-set. I would even say that they are the source of the results.
If you want to produce a change in results quickly, go to the source of your results. It is a mistake to assume that if you get the systems, processes and structures right, the “soft” issues will disappear.
Such thinking is what causes most major change programs to fail.
(Paul Fraser is president of PDF Associates, an organizational-development and management-consulting firm specializing in accelerating change for organizations.)

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