Sunday, November 29, 2009

What I've Learned About Organizational Change


According to recent labor statistics produced by the Department of Labor for October, 2009, only 21.7% of Americans with disabilities are participating in the workforce in contrast to 70% of all other Americans. This wide gap is troubling and unacceptable to most fair-minded Americans. There is little question we need to work smarter and in new ways to promote principles of universal design. By this I mean investing in policies and practices that benefit all and widen access to fuller participation in the workforce.

I am Co-Director of a new project called the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI). MEPI, in concert with its many public and private organizational partners, is working to increase the employment participation rate of Minnesota with disabilities by promoting and recommending more effective policies. Also, MEPI is working closely with the Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) to infuse emerging and researched practices to drive better employment outcomes throughout the State of Minnesota. Together, MEPI and MNTAT are working to promote a bold goal—we are proposing to double the number of Minnesotans with disabilities who are participating in the workforce by the year 2015!

This goal is exciting and our challenge is formidable. As illustrated by labor statistics cited above, current policies and practices are ineffective in producing competitive employment for a majority of working age adults with disabilities. Getting better results, therefore, will mean trying out some new ideas. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo and must work smarter and harder to introduce better practices, increase choices, and widen opportunities available to people. This is especially important in our support of Minnesotans with the most significant disabilities.

In practice, this means moving incrementally away from “disability silos” and working harder to connect people with disabilities to our workforce. Our goal is to encourage secondary and post-secondary education, workforce, employment, and disability service systems in Minnesota to move measurably in new directions to increase integrated employment outcomes over the next five years.

For most public and private organizations supporting individuals with significant disabilities, this means engaging person-centered approaches designed to identify individual talents and strengths. Also, it means identifying ideal conditions of employment for each job seeker and negotiating jobs with employers based on opportunities presented by these strengths. It means being a vigilant steward of financial resources and investing them in ways to obtain the best results possible. And finally, it means investing efforts and resources in public education and key partnerships most critical to attaining real change (i.e., working with business leaders, families, educators, policymakers, and others).

A couple of months ago, someone asked me about what I consider to be the most important factors to successful organizational change. There are many ingredients that contribute to successful change, but a few overlapping issues are absolutely essential. And they all must be present to drive any sustainable, measurable systems change over time.

So here’s what I’ve learned. First, I’ve learned success is intentional. It happens because we plan for it and work incrementally and with discipline to attain it.

Second, I’ve learned that living with a disability is not a tragedy but rather a naturally occurring human condition. And people with disabilities can certainly live full, satisfying lives that includes work when we change our expectations, use strengths-based employment strategies, identify the ideal conditions for customized employment, and deliver the job supports people need to reach their goals.

The third thing I’ve learned is leadership matters. Without a strong articulated vision and engagement by the highest levels of an organization, the necessary improvements are difficult at best and often impossible to achieve. Weak leadership will not get the job done no matter how excited an organization’s staff or key constituents are about change. For this reason, we need to invest considerably more time and resources in developing our next generation of leaders.

Although leadership is fundamental to making successful changes it does little good to have a strong leader and 99 followers in an organization employing 100 people. The most successful organizations have many leaders who are willing to work together and unselfishly to achieve goals much larger than themselves. In other words, leadership is both encouraged and abundant in organizations that have a strong culture for learning and pursuit of excellence.

The fourth most important I’ve learned is this-- real and enduring success is about developing and nurturing a strong corporate culture of change. This means empowering people with a purpose, goals, policies, knowledge, information, tools, and resources needed to get things done effectively and efficiently. As Michael Lacey, CEO of the Twin Cities Company Digineer, once said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

What Lacey is saying is strategy sometimes has the shelf life of bread. Strategy is continually reshaped by changes in customer demands, new and emerging ideas, development of new technologies, economic conditions, markeplace competition, and so forth. A healthy corporate culture needs to be vigilant to excellence and not embrace the latest idea dominating the marketplace. Furthermore, strategy is sometimes dimmed by a resistive or apathetic corporate culture where “buy in” is weak. Strategy demands a fertile corporate culture where it is nourished and executed with skill and passion.

An ideal corporate culture is one where everyone belongs and shares in a common bond and vision, has high clarity in its goals, is committed to excellence, is not bound by tradition but sanctioned to be creative, is self-directed in choosing its strategies, has adequate fiscal resources and expertise to achieve its goals, agrees to a division of labor to achieve measurable, well-defined outcomes, and shares collectively in the ultimate rewards of success.

Needless to say, corporate cultures are highly dynamic in nature and sensitive to internal and external influences, changes, and factors over time. For this reason, a healthy corporate culture requires attentive leadership and an ongoing process for renewal and self-improvement to sustain high performance over time.

To summarize, success is intentional and requires a good workplan. A majority of people with disabilities can work and be integrated into the competitive labor force when jobs are crafted around their signature strengths and responsive supports are actively engaged. Leadership matters and is critical to establishing a vision and plan for real organizational change. Finally, a forward thinking, engaged corporate culture is a critical ingredient to making successful, sustainable changes in both service directions and outcomes. When these core factors are in place, real organizational change tends to take care of itself.

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