Why Force Change?

There is a small yet oft-quoted pearl of wisdom suggesting that change is healthy for an organization, and that most organizations are ripe for change every three to five years. That statement, of course, presumes that the“right reasons” drive such change. Continuing in my role as skeptic, I believe that we frequently affect the wrong change, even if it is for the right reason.

Why do we make the wrong change? As Stephen R. Covey points out in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we should“begin with the end in mind.” When we implement change with only the beginning in mind, we are asking for trouble. For instance, why and when should we choose to abandon a successful zone maintenance program to return to the traditional centralized model? Alternatively, what are the real and valid reasons to change from a working centralized model to a zone maintenance program? Do I fully understand the essential reasons for outsourcing certain functions historically performed by in-house staff — or, to go back the other way? Any of these changes are devastating to staff, and lead to confusion for the “customer.” Changes on a smaller scale, if done for the wrong reasons or done wrong, can be equally devastating. Here are some of the “wrong” reasons, or rationalizations, I have noticed.

1. I went to a seminar and learned something new.

2. Everyone else does it this way.

3. It is time to stir things up, to keep people off-balance.

4. My boss wants me to do something different, although s/he is not clear on what that means.

5. This is the only way I can “right-size” that troublesome employee out of my hair.

6. Even though it was working just fine, I do not want to do it the same as my predecessor.

7. It is a responsibility that does not belong to Facilities. Someone on campus has to do it, and the administration decided that we are it.

8. It will look great on my résumé, and I plan to move on in a few years.

9. It will very quickly save a lot of money. Let the next manager worry about the consequences.

10. This is how we used to do it where I came from. It feels more comfortable to me.

Sometimes we implement substantial changes in order to improve customer satisfaction (their perceptions of how well we are doing). I have always felt that if I truly wished to reduce the number of complaints, I could have chosen to spend more money on cosmetics and housekeeping, along with the maintenance of thermostats. Give them a clean restroom that is void of odors, keep their spaces clean, and we will receive very few complaints. That would be a shortsighted change implemented without the end in mind. Perhaps that explains why I never did it that way.

Even if we are lucky or smart enough to make the right changes for the right reasons, we can still screw it up by not sticking to some common sense practices. Do not:

    • make a big deal out of a contemplated yet controversial change and then wait months (or years) to implement it, or worse yet, never implement it;

    • keep waving it over people’s heads;

    • neglect to involve and inform the individuals who are directly impacted by it;

    • risk the likelihood that the rumor mill will spread the word about change before you are ready to make the announcement, and that it will be at least partially correct;

    • invite confusion by forcing much excitement about a proposed change in front of people who are not impacted by that change (i.e. talking with custodians about new software acquisitions for project management); or

    • be afraid to collect input from individuals with “institutional knowledge.” Perhaps there actually was and still is a valid reason for not doing it this way.

A university president stated recently that universities, in many ways, are stuck in the Stone Age. They have a terrible time implementing change, even if (intellectually) they recognize the need to do so. Facilities organizations tend to be equally static, and will often change only when the fear of not doing so is greater than the fear of change. It would be wise to make sure that this sense of fear does not lead us to make changes and decisions that will lead to avoidable sorrow and regret later.

Yet, we cannot afford to be left behind, either.

Pete van der Have has recently retired as the assistant vice president for Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is working as an independent consultant. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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