Delivering Change to the Last Mile

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In the telecom industry, "The Last Mile" refers to capacity restrictions as data downloads from big pipes with up to 20,000,000 megabytes per second to copper wires with 3 megabytes per second. Connecting the Internet to individual homes is like drinking liquid through a tiny straw. Last mile restrictions dramatically reduce the richness of the Internet.

In organizations it's the same. Most organizations have plenty of richly designed programs, but few programs actually improve business results. More often deliverables end up in project binders collecting dust on a shelf -- deliverables that deliver nothing.

These large-scale improvement programs are often designed at the top. Headquarter design teams construct detailed process policies to address as many "what if" scenarios as possible. Their assumption is that a perfectly designed program will work ... perfectly. Removing employee discretion is an important step towards perfection.

When the program is finally designed, the headquarter design team sends it down the organizational hierarchy in hopes that employees will understand the rationale, deploy it without revision and change their daily patterns of behavior. But that rarely happens.

The richness of well-designed programs is lost when they cannot traverse the last mile and change behavior. It is important to remember that if a program does not influence people to do something different when they come to work, the program creates no value to shareholders, customers or employees.

But that's all too theoretical. Let's get practical.

Example 1: Redesigning a Sales Team

A sales organization wants to up its game. The executive management team spends months with a top consulting firm to design a team-based sales approach. After numerous iterations and thousands of PowerPoint slides that describe behaviors for virtually every conceivable situation, the deck is sent down the hierarchy. But nothing changes. The sales operations department, sensing failure, reacts with a three-day training program to explain the process maps and the new policies. Still nothing happens.

Problems: The first problem with this scenario is that the headquarters team was looking for perfection -- an A. But successful changes begin with a B. A's are typically too complex for Version 1.

Keep Version 1 simple. Let each sales team modify the program to fit their member skills and their customer situation. When you let sales teams customize -- when members have a chance to argue through every point -- they will truly understand how the team will operate and each member will feel personal ownership for the change.

The second problem is that the corporate design team tried to manage people through process maps and policies -- if you send out a policy, behavior will change. But, policies can't manage people; people manage people.

Think of the New York Yankees. Year-after-year they produce extraordinary teams. The Yankee's team culture is very strong. Every team member knows precisely what is expected. And violations are strictly enforced by peers.

Solution: Bring the entire sales team together to customize the new approach. Simplify the new approach into four to six major process steps and ask, "How are we doing on step one? Who owns step one; how should we measure and manage it; and what is the expected contribution from each team member?" Document each step. Then revisit and modify every month until the new behavior patterns solidify. Add additional process detail at each monthly meeting until you earn an A.

Example 2: Repositioning HR to provide enhanced business value.

A large company's HR organization spends more than one year to "transform" its HR generalists into HR Business Partners. The design team defines each new role in detail. They attempt to cross the last mile with a training class on how to be a strategic partner. But it doesn't work -- business leaders see no improvement in HR's business value.

Problem: Training classes work well for knowledge transfer (e.g., how to use computer programs), but are close to useless in driving behavior change. Distributing documented role profiles is even less effective.

Solution: First, replace all HRBPs who do not have the leadership, influence skills or analytical capacity to provide advice to senior leaders. Don't try to develop DNA.

Then, for remaining subordinates, schedule a facilitated conversation with their manager. A professional facilitator will ensure a quality conversation with documented agreements.

The facilitator begins by asking the incumbent how the role represents his daily behavior and also what he feels are his strengths and weaknesses to the new role. She then asks, "What do you need from your manager to be successful in your new role?" Next, she turns to the manager and asks similar questions. The output of this session is a document with all agreements and a date for the next meeting to check and reset agreements.

Delivering the last mile won't succeed by headquarters decree. It occurs on the battlefield with hand-to-hand combat. The principles are:
  1. Start with a B. Starting with perfection is too complicated.
  2. Let incumbents/teams customize the new process to meet their individual skills and customer needs, then follow-up until the behavior changes.
  3. Involve key stakeholders throughout the project. Management by policies does not work. Management by managers is better. But the best is management is by peers.
  4. Give lots of recognition. You remember freshman psychology. Any movement toward the right direction is rewarded. It works with animals. It works with children. And it works with adults.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (www.humancapitalsystems.com), a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.