Change, Choices and Commitment

In the world of change development and performance improvement, we know it all starts with Commitment; that is, commitment to the change effort. It might be commitment to empower people to function as teams to empower in order to generate great continuous improvement ideas It might be about the changing role of supervision and choices about how we manage. It might be about embracing new technology and making it work for us. You know the picture!

As an OD Consultant and Trainer celebrating 15 years in business, I know everything begins and succeeds were commitment exists. I work every day ensuring the success of my business, Delta Systems. Paying my dues to professional organizations (like ASTD), volunteering in the community, and speaking to entrepreneurs, are all commitments I make to market my business to decision makers. Each commitment I make is a deliberate choice which will help me achieve my professional and business goals which are centered around positive change.

Assessing Commitment

I expect the same of my clients. Assessing their level of commitment is not always easy, but I start the process at the initial contact. The telephone interview begins with a few questions, such as, "How did you hear about Delta Systems?" "How can we help?" I try to find out a bit about the client organization, their product or service, how many employees, and what the potential client thinks they need. The red flag starts waving when the caller begins with, "How much do you charge?" This probably means the client is shopping by price alone. Not a good starting point to build commitment from!

Usually, at the start, we both make some choices. I may refer the potential client to someone else more appropriate for their needs. Or, if I am the best consultant for the job, we can negotiate. The client can provide some of the services in-house, such as, printing and secretarial support. The contract can be paid in installments. Some of the work can be deferred into the next budget year. Sometimes, for a small company, training can be shared with another similar small client, or offered publicly through a manufacturers‘ association.

At the "Scouting" meeting, I continue to explore the level of commitment from management. Sometimes the client knows what they want, such as, supervisory skills training or more teamwork. This implies they want a change in behavior. Since there is more than one way to accomplish the change, I offer choices to the client.


Choices might include offering a variety of training modules covering the usual must-have supervisory skills, such as Interpersonal Skills, Giving and Receiving Feedback, Facilitating Meetings, Performance Coaching, Team Building, Conflict Management. They may want everything presented in one week, or one module a quarter.

Their reaction to the choices suggested helps to determine the level of commitment. For example, a client said to me, "I want several half-day modules, spread over time, like every other week, with an application meeting in between." Music to my ears! They are committed to taking the time to doing it right to ensure transfer of training, and that ensures my commitment to their success.

Working with other members of the company helps identify how deep the level of commitment goes. In this same case, I would meet next with the supervisors being trained to determine their needs. Fortunately, I can usually find a way to provide the training they think they need, while delivering the content my assessment shows they need. Involving the participants helps to improve their commitment to the transfer of training.

Next I return to the company with my proposal with recommendations, timeline and fees. Here again, I offer choices or options for number of half-day modules, scheduling options, and long term options. For example, the company wanted to start with supervisory skills and then perhaps implement a teamwork change effort involving all employees. By offering this action plan in phases with an evaluation at the end of each phase, the client has choices and is less resistant to begin. The client will commit the resources for Phase One to begin immediately, while not committing to the entire proposal.

Limited Commitment

Sometimes, the client himself does not know where he is going when he asks for an Employee Involvement (EI) change effort. This was the situation in a school district which included a joint labor-management task force to improve communication. Our contract continued along through the phases fairly well; contracting for union involvement, meeting facilitation and problem solving training, and the usual group dynamics of forming, storming, norming, performing, and transforming. However, this one stopped short of actually transforming the organization to a higher plane of commitment to EI, by the superintendent (the client) himself. In his own words, "on a scale of 1 to 10, in improving communication around here, we have moved from a low of 4.0 to a 6.9 and that is great! Renée your work here is complete. Thank you for doing such a great job." My assessment was that he was surprised at the level of employee empowerment and this was too much for this basically autocratic manager. Seeing his employees functioning as self-managing teams was too threatening for him, even though he very much appreciated the improvement in communication and

reduction of the adversarial climate which had existed before we began. His choice was to limit the degree of employee empowerment.

Sometimes the top management is only satisfying the requirement of a valued customer to training to supervisors in teamwork. There may not be any effort of the part of management to be involved with the training. Also, there will be no process in place to facilitate the implementation of problem solutions or continuous improvement suggestions which is usually necessary to ensure a positive change takes place. I have noticed that in this case, those supervisors who value employee input and prefer a participative supervisory style welcome the team building training and apply it immediately. For the others, there will be limited application of training.

Occasionally, there are minor signs that the commitment is superficial or not really understood. In one manufacturing plant where I facilitated the teamwork and process improvement change effort, the signs were subtle. Teams were identifying and implementing excellent cost savings by removing non-valued added work and bureaucratic red tape, and improving cycle time. "We are all equal participants on the same team" seemed to be more than a slogan. Then I noticed a couple of things. The paper towels in the restrooms were of different quality. The paper towels in plant restrooms were brown and rough, while those in the office area were white and soft. When I spoke to my client, he agreed the paper towels should be of the same quality (presumably white and soft). The purchasing agent had done as he always had in the past--putting cheaper towels in the plant. It never occurred to him this might be an application for being "equal team partners." This gave me the opportunity to mention also that dispenser coffee in the plant cost 30 cents and in the office, only 25 cents. It would appear old habits die hard.

Red Flag

Occasionally, the dilemma becomes, should we even begin at all? A "command and control" owner of a small tool and die shop with 15 employees called me. He wanted me to design and facilitate a 6-hour employee retreat. His goal was to "get employees talking about their job satisfaction" with the intent of improving teamwork. In my mind the question was did he really want to change anything? I offered the thought that this off-site would probably need to be followed with on-site coaching of him and perhaps some team building. He emphatically insisted this is a "one shot deal". Red flag! Managers, even entrepreneurs, have been known to use consultants to gather information from their employees they were not able to collect themselves and then potentially use it against the employees inappropriately.

If we could take the view that this was to be a pleasant workday off-site with pizza and an opportunity to learn more about each other, to share a fun team building activity, with no expectations of anything deeper, then it would be a "go." Since the event was to take place anyway, it would undoubtedly be better with a trained facilitator 's participation. There was no deeper level of commitment from either party.

So do we ever walk away from work? For me it is a philosophical question of "can I make a difference?" A client I had worked with previously called again with a new project. About 60% of my work is return work. He wanted a survey of his direct reports about his time management skills. He wanted me to interview each employee and then report back to him. Red flag again!

The danger here is he is using me as a sort of "spy" to gather data about how his direct reports think of him. Even if the data were consolidated to disquise the respondents, the eventual question would be, "Who said that?" There would likely be repercussions for negative statements. Of course, there is always the likelihood no one would be foolish enough to say anything negative, so most information would be useless. I have found it is better to suggest a facilitated meeting with boss and staff to discuss mutual time management needs.

High Commitment

Sometimes the Consultant feels she is leading a charmed life! I was the process consultant for a "greenfield " manufacturing plant. The plant manager had been with the company for a number of years. I met him when he was named to the new plant project. He wanted to replicate the change effort he had just completed at another plant. He did not know he had created what we now call "self-directed work teams" (SDWT). I presented my comprehensive proposal to create an all salaried workforce which directs its own activities, while producing high quality products in a cost-efficient and time-effective manner based on customer needs. After reading the proposal, his only comment was, "you mean there is a way to do this in less than the 4 years it took me?!" It was much work for all involved, but the excitement for the project sustained us all through the weeks and months until product went out the door. Our mutual success was based on the level of commitment from each and every one of us.

So gaining commitment and identifying the level of commitment is relatively easy. Not really, but it does take practice. I believe that when I am successful, it is because I live it!

The Whole Person

Commitment is the core of my marriage. This year, Richard and I celebrate 30 years together. We have really been through the changes in that time! That first blush of love served to get things started, but along came Vietnam, two beautiful daughters, their eventual degenerative illness and finally death, really put love to the test. Those eight years of their illness gives new meaning to the "bacon and eggs" joke. You know the one, "the chicken was involved, but the pig was clearly committed."

So life changes were forced upon us, but those of us who deal every day with resistance to change, and fear of the unknown, know there are always choices to be made. Richard and I chose to give our all to our children for the time we had--as all parents do. When it was over, we chose to renew our commitment to each other by renewing our marriage vows thus embarking on a redefined joint venture.

The birth of my company, Delta Systems, our move to the Irish Hills area, the physical and emotional changes we Baby Boomers experience, all require overcoming resistance to the change, identifying choices, and commitment to do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.

I am applying this same philosophy to staying healthy, but it is an uphill battle! My excuses for resisting the change to a regularly scheduled exercise plan are legendary! Fortunately, I am presently delivering a Change Leadership program for a client which includes Ruth Schelkun's wonderful instrument, the Life Challenge Inventory. One of the 16 scales is Physical Needs which includes the question, "Is it hard for you to exercise regularly?" bingo! The way I provide participants with an understanding of how to interpret their own scores is to be the example. I ask them to advise me. Since every time I present this program, I create an exercise goal, it has been necessary to commit to achieving it!

In a Nutshell

Changes, Choices, Commitment. Whether you are an independent business person, or work in a company, we all face the three C's. We do our very best to help others face the change and to overcome resistance by making the unknown known. Through coaching and consultation, we facilitate making appropriate choices using training and teamwork processes to empower themselves to be successful. Finally, we gain commitment to the action plan that will make implementation succeed.

To me, the process is always the same--taking advantage of new technology, going on the Web, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, the changing role of supervision, building high performance teams, initiating globalization, or whatever your work is and where ever your life takes you, you need to gain commitment to positive change, knowing that you have a full range of choices.

© by Renée Merchant, 1997

ASTD Article printed in "The Ann Arbor ASTD Newsletter" Issue 9, March 1997

Edited by Jennie Needleman



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