Image by Spencer Dahl

Hardware retailers are in a state of flux and uncertainty in the South African landscape, with long-established names in the local industry beset by challenges on all sides, including economic uncertainty, a sluggish property market and the arrival of bigger, better-resourced competitors – both local and foreign.

The organisation I was enlisted to assist was a mid-sized, family-owned and managed hardware distributor which faced drastic change as the result of being acquired by a global player in the hardware industry. It was the overseas parent company’s vision to transform the business from a distribution enterprise into a manufacturer, citing South Africa’s favourable cost-structure as the driving reason behind the new business strategy.

The main obstacle? This business had no manufacturing experience and was unprepared in terms of its practices, its people, and its premises. Though the imminent retirement of the business’s founders provided an exciting opportunity to make changes to the organisation’s long-term strategy, convincing the organisation’s staff of the positive benefit of such a disruption would certainly be a challenge. And as with many family-owned-and-operated businesses, a change of ownership was sure to lead to hesitation and uncertainty on the part of the organisation’s long-serving employees.

Although the company would continue to provide distribution services of its imported goods to the local market, the change ahead would be significant, involving a 50% increase in its staff complement (from 100-150 staff members), as well as the complete reconfiguration of its warehousing spaces, processes and systems.

The Challenge: Allaying fears and encouraging decisive buy-in at all levels

It was clear from the start that the business would be disrupted in a fundamental way. Though it was to remain a notable player in the same industry, the shift from distribution to manufacturing meant that most employees shared a concern that the transformation would be plagued with problems. Even the Management Consultant already working on the business’s existing warehousing systems was struggling to get her vision off the ground.

Photo by Jorge Vasconez

It was she who first contacted me, requesting a kick-off and ideation session that would reassure all stakeholders through clear communication and organisation-wide transparency. With this essential step, employees’ most burning questions could be answered, nervous minds could be set at ease, and the series of events that would eventually ensure a smooth transition could be initiated.

It’s been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. One could similarly argue that when effecting an organisational change that affects over a hundred people, the difference between success and failure comes down to the individual, and not the collective.

“Why is the change happening? How will our organisation be better equipped to compete? What will our new roles be, and how will we be enabled to fulfill them effectively?” These questions, so essential to obtaining the buy-in from employees, and central to the ADKAR change management process, would all be answered through our efforts. To achieve full buy-in, each staff member must know the answers to these questions, and be optimistic about the impression that remains. This understanding and optimism is a critical secret-weapon for change managers when (and it is when, not if) resistance to the process is encountered.

The Approach: People first, Processes later

Working closely with the soon-to-be-reborn organisation’s Project Sponsor – its local CFO – we created a change management intervention that would kick off the new business model while drumming up the support of its employees. Together with the CFO, we conceptualised a 1-day workshop with a simple objective: to create the operating model and the business plan of the business’s future. To add a sense of ceremony and emphasise the importance of the workshop, we also arranged it around the attendance of the COO of the global parent organisation that would be taking up the helm moving forward.

Using Results-Based Conversation™ methodologies, the one-day session was facilitated with 12 executive managers and middle-managers, as well as subject matter experts from the factory floor and the management consultant. Due to the critical importance of all participants receiving the same background information, introductions were followed by three “Tradeshows” or information-sharing sessions, where:

  • The CFO presented the financial history of the business and some projections for the future
  • The Global COO laid out the expectations he held for the new local head office
  • The global business model for the company’s manufacturing entities was explained in detail
  • I personally delivered a “soft skills” Tradeshow entitled “The Six Realities”, to offer the team some new ways of thinking in times of dramatic change.

In this way, a relatively short introductory session covered two important bases simultaneously: “What does the change mean for the company?” and “What does the change mean for the people?”

Following the Tradeshows, with the goal of determining levels of understanding and cooperation among staff members, the Delphi technique was brought into play. Participants were divided into three teams to answer two important questions:

  • What did you hear?
  • What does it mean?

With a more in-depth understanding under their belts, team members’ participation and interest were further encouraged by asking attendees to work on individual business models for the new company. The three team models were then democratically worked into a single, holistic model that would guide the overall approach.

The final activity was for each team member to “vote with their feet” and sign up to personally work on parts of the model over the following 30 days.

The Results: A Bright Future Ahead

As is outlined in any ADKAR-informed change management plan, the vocal and enthusiastic support and participation of senior leaders is essential to priming employees for a shift in their work environment. We kept this fact top-of-mind throughout the process as one of our chief priorities, but it proved to be one of our chief challenges, as well.

Following the wrap-up of our session, it came as a pleasant surprise to see just how receptive the executive management had become to the process we were undertaking. The local CEO (whom we later found out was initially on the verge of refusing to attend our workshops) personally offered his congratulations and praise, and was one of our most engaged and vocal participants of the day.

The ideation sessions gave us the opportunity to be truly results-focused in our mindset, engaging meaningfully in Results-Based Conversations™ to spearhead discussions with employees at all levels, and answering the most important questions: “What is it we are out to achieve?” and “What will the role of each participant be?” By keeping the conversation focused on the change we were trying to realise and the practical steps it would take to get there, we created a clear path to action.

The business at the centre of this Change Diary continues to thrive as a manufacturer and maintains a strong brand presence in the South African market to this day. Thanks to its agility and responsiveness to a changing landscape, it has been able to carve out a comfortable niche for itself in a crowded market, and it seems assured that its growth will continue, and its staff complement will grow even more in the coming years ahead.