By Stephen De Kalb
The science, or is it the art, of helping employees adapt to change is not new, with literature on the subject dating back nearly 70 years. Yet the majority of Change Management programs still fail. Why?
There are lots of experts, lots of studies, lots of opinions and lots of answers about why Change Management is such a hit-and-miss proposition.
From my own humble experience - helping organisations introduce enterprise-wide behavioural modification programs and to transition to new business models - I’ve seen Change Management endeavours from both inside out and outside in. And what I’ve found is that while Change Management is a broad, diverse topic, the reasons behind success or failure are not difficult to put your finger on.
Five components of organisational change
Back to the literature, researching and writing and speaking and consulting on the subject of effective Change Management is an industry onto itself. There is, however, broad consensus that the “cycle of organisational change” has five key gates, and I believe that at one or more of them you can identify decisions that determined the eventual outcome of every change initiative.
One: Recognising there’s a need for change. It’s usually a visionary leader or executive team that sees the need to respond to shifting opportunities or threats, or it can be a sales person, customer service rep or guy on the loading dock.
And while the ability of an organisation to anticipate the requirement for change (and why so many organisations never see the need in time) could be the subject of an entire essay by itself, let’s assume for the purpose of this discussion that senior management accepts there is a genuine need for transformational change.
Two: Defining the change that’s needed. Change may be inevitable but agreement about what’s needed is not. Nor is correctly determining the nature of response or committing to a course of action, and if senior managers don’t buy in why should anyone else? Again, for the sake of this exercise let’s say senior leaders all recognise the need for change, agree on what that change should look like, and they share a common commitment to the cause.
So, what could then go wrong?
Three: Developing the strategy to make change happen. Connecting the goals and objectives of change to measurable, mission-driven actions, taking into account all the issues of effecting change, is the next large minefield for change managers to navigate.
Here, in my experience, it’s not the brains or talents of the team developing the strategy that determines success. Rather it’s the time applied to the planning process given - and despite - all the pressures driving the urgency and cost of change.
That said, depending on the complexity of the change that’s required, strategy is often less about the amount of intense planning and more about simply communicating, clearly, so that people accept the need for change. And giving them the tools needed to adapt. That brings us to the pointy end of Change Management: implementation.
Four: Implementing the change. Even when leaders recognise the requirement for change, it can remain a huge challenge to convey the need, and the urgency, to others. That’s because change is often uncomfortable and almost always disruptive. But communicating effectively and giving people in the firing line the necessary tools and resources is what successful Change Management is all about. You don’t have to be schooled in behavioural or social sciences to know that if the implementation stage is managed poorly, a great many stakeholders will resist, complain or simply stay put to see whether or not the initiative fizzles out before they behave or perform differently.
Five: Assessing effectiveness of change. It goes without saying that like any business initiative, Change Management must be accompanied by clear, quantifiable measures of success. That said, assessment of the program’s effectiveness is very much after the horse has bolted, and may inform the reasons for the program’s outcome but cannot be attributed to it.
Avoiding failed implementations
If an organisation has correctly identified the need for change and has a clear picture of what change is needed, a lot can still go pear-shaped. Particularly in the areas of strategy development and implementation, with problems arising as the result of poor planning, lack of communication, bad employee engagement or support, ineffective alignment with the organisation’s real-world business practices, ineffective change sponsorship from senior leaders, and even traditions in the organisation that run counter to the change’s impetus.
That said, here are four areas that in my experience have been raison d'échec for failed implementations:
- Clarity of communication. Too many organisations fail to make the case for making change. There may well be a compelling reason that C-level executives and direct reports can see, but the benefits of change and the negative consequences of not changing are not adequately communicated to the rank and file. The results? Resistance, criticism and complaints, not active cooperation.
- Engagement. The degree to which affected people are involved in planning for change, designing it, implementing it and giving valuable feedback to it, good and bad, is directly linked to that program’s likelihood for success. In fact, a sure-fire way to ensure that change never really takes root is to make stakeholders feel it’s all happening to them instead of with them or by them. The solution is to remember that successful change is never about you. It’s always about us.
- Training. I’ve seen expensive change initiatives fail because management threw too little, too late at the training of employees expected to do things differently. The provision of training speaks volumes to employees affected by change about “encouragement”, “support”, and bosses putting money where their mouths are - and where the organisation’s assets are, its people.
- Leadership. I mentioned this earlier but the need for senior leaders to be visible, active participants in change being introduced can’t be over-stated. I can cite from personal experience a major change program that was torpedoed by, wait for it, one senior leader who blatantly ignored the same safety messages he lauded in meetings, on posters, in emails, even in clarion calls printed on payslips. As I’ve said many times, organisations, like fish, really can rot from the head.
The final solution: more time
There’s an old Murphy’s law that says “There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” Trouble with Change Management is that there’s never a chance, at least not a profitable one, to go back and do it again.
So, the key to making sure that one chance for change is all you need, organisations must devote the time needed to design strategy and fully implement tactics.
Here again, the things I’ve heard when change programs fail are “There wasn’t enough time to get our message across”, “It took longer than we expected” and “Important things were left to the last minute.”
Want to ensure success of your next Change Management initiative? Then damn the deadline and over-estimate how long you’ll need - especially in the planning and implementation stages - then double it. The successful programs I’ve seen are ones that took a long time to get right. Those that did not can, I believe, track every excuse back to the fact that not enough time or resources were dedicated by management to planning and implementation.
Speaking of time, much has changed in the 35 years since McKinsey & Company consultant Julien Phillips published his definitive Change Management model. In Australia today Change Management is recognised as a formal vocation with national competency standards and academic programs from diploma to masters, as well as Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) certification.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the increasing roll call of organisations, both public and private, reporting Change Management initiatives that are only marginally successful at best - or outright debacles.
I’m not sure if Change Management is a science or an art, but I do know that the practical, liberal application of time is the hallmark of effective, sustainable change.
And that leaders who think they can, or must for whatever reason, fast-track change initiatives are never happy with the result, and neither are their employees.
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