Understanding Change Management: The Case of the Middle East
Whenever the topic of organisational change is brought up, it is normal to think about the Middle East and how this region has recently been managing change.
The Middle East has not only been dealing with the wave of change affecting the world as a whole; it has planned its own transition roadmap from oil-based to service-based economies, with a focus on addressing the needs of citizens. This is already in progress and is set to be achieved within the next few years.
This transition is allowing Middle Eastern countries to be less reliant on oil and venturing more into technology, education, finance and science. Moreover, the visions that the respective countries have set for themselves revolve around clear outcomes in the areas of human, economic, technological and environmental development.
Country-wide restructuring, in the way it has been envisaged in the Middle East, needs a total buy-in from the workforce, both in the public and private sectors, in order for it to be successful. Accordingly, each organisation must implement significant change management procedures to make sure that employees are on board and ready for change – and in the least disruptive manner. This is especially true in forward-thinking organisations that view restructuring as an opportunity for adaptation, agility and growth. This allows them to completely rethink their own vision, in line with the wider country vision, and to revisit their operating models, organisational structure and people engagement.
So what can we learn about change management from one of the most fast-moving regions in the world? How are organisations embracing change within their structures, and encouraging their teams to be part of the change?
Jill W Paine, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at IE Business School, explains that to remain viable and competitive, organisations need to adapt to changing demands in their external environments. For her, change is driven through empowerment – the encouragement of each member to proactively engage in the pursuit of the objectives of transformation – rather than suffer the burden of top-down mandates.
This starts with understanding why change is necessary, followed by where the organisation is heading when the transformation is complete. The vision of leaders for the desired state should vividly demonstrate that the future state is better than the current one and is worth the cost of change.
Thirdly, teams should understand how the organisation will move from its current state to its desired future position. This can be articulated through a strategic plan of action.
According to Jad Bitar, Managing Director and Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), for change to happen within an organisational structure, transformation needs to transpire across three main levels: the organisation as a whole, key departments and key individuals.
Once key players are identified, organisations can then implement a structural redesign to align capabilities, power and information within the targeted strategic objectives – using this approach to drive organisational change, among other available levers.
Saad El Hage, Director of Business Development Middle East and Africa at Headspring, explains that when addressing, or even initiating, change within organisations, it is normal for many people to adopt the idea, while others fight it and the rest just follow. This is as true in the Middle East as elsewhere in the world. Most companies commit the mistake of initiating change within their organisations, where the learning and development function takes a risk by relying on early adopters to make change happen.
For Saad, a better approach is to create and synchronise a change mindset in all people in the organisation, delving more into the cultural and communicational aspects of the organisation to shape the real environment and serve as fertile soil for embracing change.
BCG’s Jad Bitar makes clear that encouraging teams to adopt change is one of the most challenging aspects in a transformation. Culture and individual changes are hard to implement, compared to structure and policies, which are relatively easier to change.
For him, transformation begins with the individual. When addressing people change, organisations must consider the benefits for every team member and clearly outline their future role, pre- and post-transformation. The end goals of the transformation need to be clear and resonate with the values of the individual. Moreover, individuals will need to be equipped with the tools to allow them to navigate the change.
Leading with purpose
A purpose-driven organisation is one that is looking to have a conscious impact beyond its products and services.
Headspring’s Saad El Hage suggests that leaders must be prepared with clear answers on the purpose of change and how it can be done. Through transformational and influential leadership, organisations can be very effective in implementing change with purpose-driven mechanisms and tactics.
Jad explains that arbitrary change is often ‘value destructive’ and destabilising for teams. Adding purpose means standing one step ahead of the curve.
“For change to be successful, its purpose must resonate across the organisation as a whole, and that includes individual team members too,” he adds.
According to IE Business School’s Jill Paine, an organisation’s purpose is to be found at the intersection of the organisation at its very best and the role it plays in the world. It needs to be authentic and meaningful to all of stakeholders and consistent with an organisation’s core values.
While purpose rarely changes over time, many evolving visions of change can serve the same purpose throughout an organisation’s lifetime. For Jill, purpose and change go hand in hand when they are aligned.
“However, leading with purpose is not a magic wand that works with all employees,” Jad argues. “It is an important tool that will work with some employees. As such, it is vital to engage in a robust stakeholder map to develop the right tools for each group.”
Cultivating a sense of ownership in employees will empower them to have control over how their roles are performed and how this will affect change.
Jill argues that senior leaders may articulate the ‘big picture’ aims of the organisational transformation, and show progress toward major milestones. Organisational members will take ownership of their own role in the transformation effort once they understand their team’s and/or department’s role in the change.
For Saad, one of the keys to success in the implementation and execution of the stages of change in organisations is the aspect of ownership. Leaders need to adopt a culture of sharing mistakes and be open during conversations. To him, this is the most effective way to learn and grow within teams. In that sense, leaders and people in organisations will be eager to take ownership instead of having concerns about being penalised for failing.
Jill explains that ownership, in turn, can promote creativity and innovation, as each team member can be empowered to be proactive within their own role in the change. “When members of the organisation feel a sense of ownership in the change, they can be proactive about how to best serve change objectives within their role, level, team and/or department,” she says.
Saad clarifies that performance is not a choice based on a reward system. It must be complemented with existing supporting organisational systems, tools and leadership. Many people within organisations try their very best to get rewarded for their performance, but neither the system nor leadership have the right tools and characteristics to support such a process.
“Organisational and people performance are two opposite faces of the same coin,” explains Saad. “In many cases, companies achieve high financial performance, but this does not mean that the people are performing. Rewarding performance systems, as they are mostly related to KPIs, should have clarity, people development strategies, and achievable benchmarks. If these do not exist, not only will proper change management be compromised but also the entire organisational performance.”
According to Jill, rewarding performance that is tied to transformation efforts reinforces the behaviours that support change. Recognising and celebrating short-term wins helps to generate momentum and energy to continue pursuing the change.
However, she continues, it is important not to celebrate quick wins as absolute victories. Instead, they are better served as progress markers to demonstrate to employees the progress that is being made toward the ultimate transformation objectives. This is an effective way to make long-term visions appear as a series of challenging, but manageable, steps.
Last, but not least, never stop training and developing people. When managing change, everyone needs to be on board and ready to adjust to different environments. In this case, knowledge and skills should not be pain points obstructing people’s performance of their jobs or preventing them facing new situations.
For Jad, adapting to change is a delicate balance. If the adaptation is too slow, change might not occur, while choosing the fast lane might lead to unpredictable behaviour. Therefore, each organisation has to find the pace that works best for impactful change.
He explains that speed and adaptation will not be experienced in the same way by everyone. Some individuals will need to adapt to change early on while others will be likely to linger. Uniformity is not a strength in this case, but time is, says Jad.
According to Saad, training and developing people through specific customised programmes is the best way to adapt quickly to change. From top-down and down-top, there must be coherence in the development programmes with clear purpose and goals. Emphasising customisation programmes in developing people is key to adapting quickly to change, because such programs put the focus directly on specific success strategies that are unique to each organisation and its own challenges.
Organisational change is something that every organisation will constantly have to go through, some at a faster pace than others. For it to go smoothly, it is important to understand that people must be prepared to embrace it, plan for it and be involved in it. Middle East organisations are already showing they are capable of organising and coordinating ambitious visions of fundamental change. But wherever in the world an organisation operates, each organisational taskforce has to be aware of the purpose of change. Only then will every individual be on board and ready to make an impact from their own level.