Last week, I spoke to an engineer laid off from the consulting firm where he had been employed for the past 18 years. Unfortunately, his layoff was the direct result of a recommendation contained in our management audit of the firm. Raw labor had to be cut.
The fact that he, an Associate of the firm, got selected, when in the past the firm had always cut from the bottom (if at all), was part of a painful cultural change process essential to the firm’s survival.
Implementing change is rarely pleasant for those inside the firm— much less for those left out. But change is a necessity for firms adapting to a dynamic environment. Show me someone who is a successful leader in an established A/E/P or environmental service firm, and I’ll show you someone who understands how to implement change in their company.
Why do change initiatives in A/E and related professional firms so often fail? For one, the agents of change often neglect one of the first phases of successful change— which is to “unfreeze” existing behavior. You must either build the desire to change by clearly painting the picture of how great things will be if the change occurs, or create so much dissatisfaction with the present situation that change has to take place.
Unfreezing behavior in the typical professional service firm is easier said than done. For one, it has to start at the top, and by and large, the principals of A/E/P and environmental firms are not dissatisfied. In fact, according to our 1991 Principal’s Survey, 64.2% of principals consider their careers “very satisfying” and 76.2% said that if they could start their careers all over again, they would follow essentially the same path. CEOs tend to be even more satisfied than other principals. I see many, many principals, especially those in second generation firms, who have exceeded their personal goals for achievement, status, and income. What does this mean? A lot of principals in design and environmental firms— and especially the leaders— are not motivated to change. The change process is doomed to fail.
Another major problem with change implementation: after change is made, it’s not reinforced. For example, a firm is dissatisfied with the quality of its work and puts in place a project quality review system. Shouldn’t those managers who perform quality reviews be recognized and those who don’t be sanctioned?
In our experience, firms do a terrible job in this area. We’re afraid to single out people with praise. We don’t grant on-the-spot rewards. We give out across the board salary increases, or make only slight distinctions for high performers. Our bonus programs are based more on hierarchy and overall company profitability than individual performance. By the same token, we avoid giving negative feedback to repeat offenders of the system. We can’t fire chronic non-performers. Often, we don’t follow through because we never really bought in to the need to change to begin with. Change initiatives fall flat on their face and management loses credibility with the staff, who think “this is just another program we’ll never follow through with.”
Successful firms— those growing rapidly and outperforming industry profit norms— have learned to overcome these obstacles to implementing change. Of course, you can choose to ignore the body of knowledge that exists on the subject of human behavior if you want to, and retreat to the certainty and predictability of your technical world. That’s your prerogative. But my bet is that if you do, then sooner, rather than later, your market share will be eroded by competitors who are more sophisticated students of human behavior and who know how to create change.
Originally published 5/15/1992