Symbal Communication

The trap of stuffing square pegs into round holes.

One trap that’s pretty easy to fall into is when the change you want to make hasn’t been properly prepared. In other words, you haven’t done your homework.

In recent decades, many companies have been pushing forward, expanding at a rapid pace, and generally seeing the world as their oyster. Many companies have grown through new acquisitions, for example by acquiring their local competitors. In recent years, digitalisation of business and operations has accounted for much of the change initiatives that are being implemented.

Initiatives to expand through acquisitions and digitalisation often face their biggest challenge in the existing corporate culture, which can hinder the push forward that one strives for.

What is the trap of stuffing square pegs into round holes?

To illustrate, we’re going to look at a company that made its way into Europe from their beginnings as local Scandinavian manufacturers.

This company moved into the European market and became a European company through the acquisition of several other companies. Over the course of a decade, they went from having a few hundred employees to having a few thousand. Although the effect was not intended, after a few years – and a few CEO changes – they got stuck with a huge melting pot of cultural differences, suspicion and change fatigue.

There are many different explanations as to why this didn’t go as well as they’d hoped. Some blamed it on fierce competition and new consumer goods. Our conclusion was somewhat blunter.

Firstly, they didn’t compare cultures to judge how big the differences really were between the Swedish company and the companies they’d acquired. Target group analysis and general planning for how to manage a company’s most important resource – people – rarely gets the attention it requires. And it certainly didn’t work out in this case.

Secondly, the integration of people through involvement was non-existent. Attempts were made to stuff square pegs into round holes without inviting employees to participate in the continuing changes.

These are two mistakes made by many enterprises that, with the support of financiers, bought too many companies too quickly. In this case, it didn’t work mainly because of how upper management perceived and involved the employees and operational managers, both in the parent and in the acquired companies.

Swedish managers, engineers and salesmen would come in and show people how things should work, with the goal of total integration of work and IT processes, organisational structures, etc. Because of this, the problems for each newly acquired company grew exponentially; There were cultural clashes, clashes in views and in general ways of working.

Unfortunately, if we relate the ‘square pegs in round holes’ trap to today’s business world, we still see that new working methods and technological solutions are being rolled out with the same ‘overly optimistic expectations’

Practical tips for the change communicator

For this tip, we’ll focus on the ‘educational battle’ that you as a communicator might need to take on to deliver value to the business.

It’s a tough one. You might not have been involved in the decision making yourself. The expectation on you is to help make change happen. To be of high value to the business, you have to defend the truth, in particular the truths about human psychology and behaviour. A change communicator should be the translator of the sender’s directives, and the spokesperson for the receivers – both at the same time.

This means you need to work with what you know about the receiver’s ability to change and match contemporary science on change. You need to work on your business case for the change work ahead; assess the cost of input (leadership, communication and learning activities) vs. output; take into account the probable effect on people’s ability to change their behaviour and to stay productive at the same time.

If you haven’t properly considered the actual differences between daily activities and what you want to change, you will quickly face strong forces of resistance. This resistance won’t really be about reluctance, but rather about a lack of competence, motivation and clear expectations.

Out in the marketplace, the need to adapt your initiatives to reality becomes even clearer: if the customer doesn’t see the benefit of your new product, they won’t buy it!

A useful tool is the change curve (by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross). If the human change pattern applies on an individual level, what happens to a whole organisation when people spend time in the valleys of denial and confusion? What is the cost of lower productivity? How can we minimise the depth and the duration of the drop in productivity? The answers lie in proper management, leadership and CHANGE COMMUNICATION.

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