March 16, 2018

From Change Management to Change-Ready Leadership | Leading From the Library

Steven BellLeading change management is a critical task for leaders. In a constant change environment, leaders need to do more than manage change, they need to create a change-ready culture.

Perhaps it was the particular sessions I attended at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting, but the one thing I heard discussed again and again, even in several Future of the Library Symposium programs, was change and how library workers are responding to it—or not. There’s no escaping the fact that rapid change, whether internal or external, is impacting libraries in every sector of the profession, directly or indirectly. For library leaders, that means more of their time is dedicated to thinking and acting in order to adapt staff to change. In some of the discussions, change meant rethinking organizational structures. In others it focused on establishing mechanisms for change management and providing staff with practical change strategies. In every session the dilemma of change resistance emerged as a universal challenge. Leaders have a plethora of resources to aid them in strategizing for change management, and I have my own favorites. Lately, however, I am thinking less about change management and more about change readiness. Here’s why.

Static Change is Over

The pace of change is now accelerated to the point where we exist in a constant state of either adapting to it or anticipating it to stay ahead of the curve. Kotter’s Change Model is a widely accepted approach for managing change, yet its first step is to create a sense of urgency about the need for change. That could apply to a large-scale change, for example, a library realizing its aging library management system needs replacement. But if change is constant, is change management still relevant? Do we still need a sense of urgency to motivate us to change? In their Harvard Business Review article “Four Ways to Know Whether You are Ready for Change,” Musselwhite and Plouffe write, “The organizations most likely to be successful in making change work to their advantage are the ones that no longer view change as a discrete event to be managed, but as a constant opportunity to evolve.” I support a variety of methods for change management but am increasingly convinced that it no longer makes sense to manage each change situation as a standalone situation. Instead, I advocate for adopting a new mindset of constant readiness that addresses library change as a holistic process, a cycle of activities with which we stay engaged.

Ready to Be a Change-Ready Leader?

If you are ready to adopt this new mindset too, what does it require? According to Musselwhite and Plouffe, “Change readiness is the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.” They suggest four ways to assess whether you and your organization are in the right state to achieve change readiness:

  • Assess for Current Change Awareness: The organization is ready to adopt change as a holistic element of operations. Change is no longer a thing it prepares to do and then figures out how to get done. Instead, staff is in a constant state of change acceptance and is skilled at adapting for change. At ALA Midwinter I went to several “get ready for the future” sessions, and all repeated the mantra of environmental scanning, identifying trends, and planning for the future. In essence, the message was “be change-ready.”
  • Staff Agility for Pending Change: Thinking about change and having ideas for change certainly help, but a change-ready leader empowers staff to have work flexibility and the capacity to shift resources to quickly meet new needs. That makes the difference when the library implements an innovative new project. Leaders, in addition to modeling a change-ready mindset, also need to put into place the conditions for executing on agile change.
  • Rapid Change for Crisis Response: No matter how ready the organization is for change, it will encounter a crisis for which it’s unprepared. A change-ready leader typically thinks ahead about the risks involved in a crisis that unexpectedly forces the organization to change. That means going beyond the typical emergency response plan. Change-by-crisis is hard for any organization, but a change-ready library staff is better poised to work through that situation.
  • Well Defined Mechanism for Change: Change typically involves going through some process of goal setting, integration with existing systems, and assessment. Being change-ready means being well experienced in these mechanisms for achieving a successful change process. What leaders want to avoid is having to constantly re-engage with a multi-step change management routine in response to any new change. Instead, the change-ready leader has an organization and staff able to adapt to change on the fly.

Change Ready Culture

Library workers are legitimately concerned that their leaders may seek change just for the sake of change or blindly follow the lead of other directors and deans. Those are poor reasons to advance the need for change. The other unattractive option is to change only when it is painfully obviously that change must happen because there is no other choice. Forced change often leads to a rushed, haphazard process that can result in chaos and organizational dysfunction. Just as we create cultures of assessment or openness in our library organizations, leaders can challenge staff to develop a mindset that readily accepts change as an integral part of our library work. If library organizations shift to a culture of change readiness, rather than the status quo culture of change avoidance, I believe that we’d all find change easier to accept and support. Two things never seem to change in our libraries. First, everything is subject to constant, unpredictable change, and second, there is resistance to change. It’s up to library leaders to instill a culture of change readiness that alters the status quo of change resistance. And if it’s the library leader who resists a change-ready staff, maybe it’s time for that leader to move on.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Joneser says:

    So much more constructive and respectful than “change agents” (remember them from before 2008?) and “disruption”. None of us have the time and energy to deal with chaos.

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