It’s tempting to think that implementing a change across disparate locations should be a cinch. As long as it’s the same company, with the same corporate culture, same functions running behind the scenes, and roughly the same attributes in terms of staff and their management, who would think that twin change management implementations could produce significantly different outcomes?

As a Change Analyst with over a decade of experience, this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. Those of us who practice the Procsi® method of change management already know how much emphasis is placed on understanding where the affected employees are coming from – both geographically and emotionally – to predict how a proposed change will affect their outlook (and importantly, their job satisfaction and performance) over the long run. Only those who have experienced the challenges of disparate cultures among employee groups can really vouch for the mischief they can wreak on an otherwise airtight change management programme – and almost a decade ago, a particularly challenging case saw me firmly placed in this group.

Photo by Parker Whitson

Same, Same – but Different

Nine years ago, I was working for one of the country’s largest banks and was tasked with implementing a programme that was set to streamline various back-office functions by relegating them to off-site processing centres – all located within major metro areas. From telephony to product sales, account-opening services and query resolution, the idea driving the bank’s change of direction was simple; greater efficiency, less wasted time, and the standardisation and improvement of customer care were all high on the bank’s list of goals.

But as any change manager knows, no implementation goes very far without the buy-in of those stakeholders who feel its effects the most: the employees directly affected by the change. Though cost-cutting was not a chief priority for this exercise, it was expected that the shift in back-office functions would lead to at least one position per branch being made redundant. And with job losses ranking high on the list of factors that would create massive resistance, this news set us two steps back before we had even taken a single step forward.

The Critical Importance of Cultural context

So… What changed?

The physical proximity of the metro branches to the processing centres as well as to the bank’s head office naturally contributed to a smoother transition in the metro implementations. A caring corporate attitude and a good deal of guidance, reassurance, and positivity from these central authorities meant that the metro employees were far more comfortable with and informed about what to expect from the change, why it was being effected, and how their day-to-day lives would change as a result.

Without these supporting roles being filled, the non-metro branches’ employees’ were faced with a very different reality. With the assumption that their implementation would go as smoothly as their colleagues’ had, head office was woefully underprepared for the backlash of disappointment and fear that the change generated. Another unexpected point of resistance encountered came not from the employees, but from the clients they had served loyally for so long. Non-metro branches see fewer clients walking through the doors overall, and those living in the serviced areas had begun to think of the branch and its staff as family. Where there queries and follow-ups had been in-person interactions, they would now be expected to deal with the processing centre instead – possible not in their home language. This sudden disconnect only served to further increase anxiety and hesitation among employees and clients alike.

All our preparations – from change impact assessments and change readiness assessments, as well as the standardised approach we had used in the metro areas, – would need to be reformulated to make room for a difference in culture that was initially hidden from view.

The Big Takeaway: Never Neglect the Culture of the Environment

They say that hindsight is 20/20, and that certainly became the case here. From the disparate reactions of the two groups, we gained a new appreciation for the ways in which culture – both at home and at work – can throw a spanner into the works.

Though we modified our approach based on our findings to eventually secure a successful outcome, in many cases the damage had already been done. The lessons inherent in this case study have become part of every change implementation I undertake today, as well as being expanded on in detail and put into practice far more vigorously throughout the change management community worldwide. Knowing the various ways in which culture can affect your outcomes means that a standardised approach can only take you so far. It is critical to begin by assessing the culture of the people and areas impacted, and build your change approach around these findings. One size definitely does not fit all!