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Low business confidence a factor of ‘change’ fatigue

29 March 2008, Skills Portal

‘Change fatigue’ could be a factor in business confidence indicators dipping to their lowest levels in seven years, business skills training expert, Liza van Wyk says.

Van Wyk, CEO of major national executive skills training organisation, AstroTech said that in 2001 international and local anxieties fuelled poor business confidence, “the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon in the USA on September 11 saw markets globally see-saw. South Africa was experiencing a new direction under President Thabo Mbeki and strike activity was rising".

"Again, we are living through intense global changes: there is a fiercely contested American presidential campaign, prime rate fears, climate change is impacting on political and economic thinking and Britain has a new premier".

“At home, there is significant uncertainty about political change, the economy is under pressure with electricity challenges and demands for improved service delivery. Change is a destabiliser. In South Africa and globally there are strong new directions emerging in almost every field of endeavour.”

“The challenge now,” Van Wyk believes, “is for us to examine precisely why we feel so unsettled and then actively plan how to address change, not just by accepting it, but actively looking at how to use it to develop opportunities".

"As an example, the electricity crisis is seeing dramatic growth in companies devoted to solar power and alternative energy production; ironically, it is in many ways forcing us to adopt the imperatives global warming demands.”

One of AstroTech’s most popular in-house course modules is Taking Charge of Change. Van Wyk says, “we already have more than 60 very fully subscribed public courses, but Taking Charge of Change is a course that is often best discussed with a team in the environment that might be confronting change".

"A good leader needs to provide an effective vision of change, but it takes a strong team around him or her to develop that vision into action. ”

She quotes, change management guru, John P Kotter who wrote in his best selling book, Transforming Organisations: Why Firms Fail: “Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.”

Van Wyk observes: “In South Africa early mixed messages from Eskom and a lack of reliable load-shedding schedules caused confusion and anger. Instead of drawing in the public and big business to create a common mission to more effectively and thoughtfully use energy, there was often alienation, confusion and surliness from the public.

“Similarly, intense political contestation in South Africa’s main political parties has left the public wary. There is not a real sense of a stable hand on the tiller; too many captains seem to be running this ship".

"If we as a nation understand that we have shown exceptional resilience to difficult change and that we are admired globally for our capacity to negotiate and manage our way through difficulty that creates a powerful starting point.”

Van Wyk says the checklist for organisational change applies as well to individuals as it does to government structures:

• Continually improve
• Become customer obsessed – have polls or surveys to rate attitudes to progress or change. Consult
• Be more innovative
• Increase international appeal
• Respect and develop knowledge
• Make faster decisions and communicate them more broadly
• Be flexible and reliable
• Enhance positive attributes
• Make more alliances
• Improve the quality, flexibility and training of the workforce and public representatives
• Identify expected resistance and know which regions will be impacted differently – have an answer or solution ready
• Celebrate even short term success – this builds support and momentum for change

Van Wyk observes, “Even in our company we have had recent changes. The way we managed it was to inform staff before the rumour mill created incorrect conclusions".

"We created incentives to help those who felt they may have been disadvantaged by the change, but structured it in a way that none felt others were given preferential treatment. You will always get those who are slow to accept change, but an attitude of listening, discussing and a clear vision determines success or failure".

“We have gone into some companies where resistance to change threatens to wreck the enterprise, but every company, organisation or even country needs regular change to refresh, renew and create new ways of growing".

"Business strategy teaches us that companies often start dying 40 years after they are born – those that survive take significant risks to radically change certain aspects of their operational strategy. Every change is about risk, without it, we don’t move forward.”