Internal and external forces are driving change in the profession, with a host of new options and requirements surfacing almost every day. Uncertainty often lingers even among the most experienced partners and IT leaders. How a firm navigates these changes will predict its success, and there is no better time than now to take a step back and examine how to be most effective at change management.From my perspective, I see multiple definitions of change management:

* A control mechanism.

* A body of knowledge.

* An area of professional practice.

* The task of managing change.

Change as a control mechanism typically results from standards, policies and processes. Technology is often part of this form of change management.

The body of knowledge consists of methods, techniques and tools. Few would argue that this body of knowledge is growing and becoming more difficult to manage. There is also a high degree of variance in how the body of knowledge is managed among firms, but technology invariably plays a key role.

Change as a professional practice is broad and involves consultants who serve as change agents, manage change for clients and have change-management practices. Many accounting firms provide change management services to clients (even though they may not use the terminology). Providing change management services does not ensure successful internal change management. Most accountants are used to giving, rather than taking, advice.

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Three types of IT leaders have emerged within our industry, and each manages change from either a reactive or a proactive position.

* The functionary keeps the operation running and does not waste time or money (reactionary).

* The transformer leads change and redesigns business processes (proactive).

* The business strategist interacts with end users and develops IT-enabled systems (proactive).

Change management is not for the rugged individualist; it requires a team with specific skills such as analytical, political, people, systems and business acumen. No one person is wholly qualified, which mandates a collaborative approach.

There are a few basic decisions that a firm should make regarding change:

*1. Does our firm have the culture for change?

* 2. Does the firm need and want to change?

* 3. Who is responsible?

Only by first seriously answering these questions can your firm move ahead and implement processes that will enable it to become more effective in change management (internal and external).

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?

Careful consideration and planning are critical to change and change management. The majority of partners in most accounting firms do not attempt much thought about the firm. Instead, they focus solely on their clients and solving client problems. This is not a criticism — just a fact. When it comes to the firm, they worry, rather than think. This tendency often results in the “seagull” form of management: Fly in, crap on people and leave.

In order to effectively manage change, your firm must spend time in serious thought and contemplation. Thinking changes feelings, and feelings create action. Great thinking produces the foundation for great results. With a great foundation, firms position themselves for increased potential and growth. Great results tend to produce more great thinking, which eventually becomes part of a firm’s culture. In contrast, a lack of thinking can result in a spiral of defeat and despair.

HOW WILL YOU GET THERE?

Unsuccessful people focus on survival, and average people focus on maintaining the status quo. Successful people focus on progress, but not perfection. The key to success is knowing what you want and being willing to pay the price.

Great thinkers share the following characteristics:

* An interest in reading and learning;

* A yearning for progress and improvement;

* The desire to develop others;

* A process to document thoughts and ideas; and,

* Accountability.

An annual firm summit and quarterly accountability reviews are tools that successful firm leaders are utilizing to focus and accomplish positive changes. The following areas are their most oft-cited priorities:

* Development of people;

* Succession; and,

* Innovation and growth.

MOVING FORWARD

The following steps will get you started on a positive path.

1. Start today by developing a clear and concise mission.

2. Build a team of peers — not partners.

3. Ask for volunteers.

4. Select people with high energy and relevant skills.

5. Toss out old paradigms.

Take time to explore the many resources available on the topic of change management. I recommend The 7 Levels of Change by Rolf Smith. The seven levels he cites are:

1. Effectiveness — do the right things.

2. Efficiency — do the right things right.

3. Improving — do things better.

4. Cutting — eliminate things.

5. Copying — best practices.

6. Different — think differently.

7. Impossible — Do things that can’t be done.

The first four are internal, and most firms have at least experimented at these levels.

REDUCING HEADACHES

You can significantly lower stress levels during change by coming to a better understanding of yourself and those around you. There are numerous tools to do this, but one we have found most helpful is the Kolbe Index. Each person has unique, innate abilities and tendencies. Knowing how others are inclined to think and act reduces time and politics while fostering a positive culture. (For more information on the Kolbe Index, you can contact Sandra Wiley at sandra.wiley@boomer.com.)

The choice is yours. Will you be proactive and position your firm for future success, or will you be reactive and spend more time worrying than thinking?

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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