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Flexibility key in today's changing business world.

Organizations that fail to change, and change quickly, face certain death.

Today's organizations must constantly change in order to survive. Every year, competitors deliver better products faster and cheaper than before. Strategic planning, once the hallmark of top-caliber organizations, has taken a back seat to how well and how quickly organizations can adapt to change.

Countless authors and consultants make small fortunes helping organizations focus on the need for speedy transformation.

In this quest for flexibility, it's easy to lose sight of how people within organizations change, and why, in many cases, they resist change. To get an organization to change the way it operates, there must be a critical mass of people willing to take a risk. This can't he dictated. Understanding this critical mass for change often determines the difference between a successful transition and chaos.

Creating a constancy of purpose among employees is often a leader's biggest challenge. Constancy of purpose is number one on W. Edwards Deming's 14 points for management. Singularity of purpose can he empowering and overpowering.

One thing is certain: due to misunderstandings about what change requires, once change has begun, an organization's course can be difficult to redirect.

My work with a number of organizations revels a glimpse of the nature of critical mass. Each organization implemented a new way of doing business. Some organizations used an employee-involvement, team-based approach. In others, a total-quality-management approach with a team element accomplished the goal.

All of these organizations won a critical mass of people over to the cause before significant progress toward the objective began. In the majority of cases, when the organization announced basic systems changes, only about 10%-15% of the people accepted the idea.

These percentages remained constant throughout the organizations' various levels.

The perceived lack of support didn't result from the active resistance - the 10%-15% who oppose any change at all. Rather it came from the silent majority - the nearly 70% who took a wait and see attitude. This group, while not opposing the changes, did nothing to support the new initiatives.

A combination of small wins and education played the key role in those organizations that succeeded in bringing the silent majority on board. The resistance to change decreased greatly after some departments made a modest amount of progress toward their objectives using the new system.

These groups then testified to the still uncommitted groups. Training sessions explained the changes, what they would mean and how they would work. An outside group was responsible for conducting the training.

Organizations having the most difficulty showed a tendency to expect a quick fix.

When the majority of employees didn't immediately rally around the empowerment flag, a disappointed management declared the change a trust. Successful organizations had management personnel patient enough to allow time to sell the silent majority.

In Fortune magazine, April 5, 1993, John Huey quotes William Bridges, who says, "Fifteen percent of the people don't need anything to get them ready. They're just waiting to be turned loose. Another 15% will never learn the new skills. Today's managers have to concentrate on the remaining 70%."

Organizational change is highly unlikely without that 70%, the critical mass. Effective recruitment and hiring systems can shift the percentages to the right. However, there will always be a need to convince an organization's critical mass of the benefit of change. This critical mass enables the organization to truly effect a change.

Arthur G. Davis is principal of A. G. Davis & Associates, a management consultancy in Chicago, IL, specializing in quality and productivity intervention.

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