Seven Steps to Sustainable Change
It may be a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true: the biggest challenge facing most businesses is how to adapt to a changing environment. It’s one thing to know what changes you’d like to make to your organisation, but it’s another thing to make them a reality.
As part of the preparation for a recent client change programme, I reviewed a number of their previous programmes – some successful, others less so. From the learning reviews, there emerged seven consistent themes whose absence was linked to major issues, and whose presence was identified as an important factor in success. The themes were:
Having a compelling reason for making the change is incredibly important. As is the way it’s articulated. Some people are “towards” people – they respond best to a picture of the future they want to achieve. Others are “away” people – motivated more by a desire to avoid the bad than to achieve the great. All organisations include a mix of these types, so the most compelling rationales include both perspectives: this is what will happen if we don’t change, and this is what we could achieve if we do.
Clear leadership is essential for decision making and direction setting. Some underperforming programmes saw a step-change in their delivery with the advent of clarity, often through the arrival of a new leader. Unclear decision-making was one of the most common barriers to change, and was often explicitly linked to large steering groups or stakeholders with unaligned expectations. Leadership needs to define the ultimate goal and the immediate priorities. Without the first, there’s no rationale, without the second, the business will default to delivering day-job.
Big change is hard and it doesn’t happen without commitment. Not just personal commitment, but organisational commitment. One of the clearest indicators of success in all of the change programmes was the rapid set-up of a small team, solely focused on developing and initiating the changes. It’s not easy to justify extra headcount, but a small group of dedicated people can achieve more in a month than a part-time team can in a year. Every change programme needs to build up a head of steam, and actions speak louder than words. If you’re serious about delivering real change, don’t wait for the value case, put a few good people on the job full-time and empower them to start things moving.
One of the toughest calls in delivering change is how much to bite off. Businesses with a tight agenda deliver more effectively. In the same way, change programmes that keep the number of live projects limited, starting new ones as the first ones complete, seem to move through the gears faster, creating more momentum than those that try to eat the elephant all in one go.
Whilst some programmes delivered successfully without changing incentive structures, many that struggled identified a conflict between the change agenda and the performance incentives for the people on the ground. The most successful programmes either modified their delivery to align with the organisation’s incentive scheme, or modified the incentives to align with their delivery.
All of the successful change programmes put lots of effort into making their progress visible across the organisation, whilst the less successful ones tended to focus just on the leadership and key stakeholders. From choosing pilot areas with vocal sponsors and high likelihood of success, to weekly newsletters and bulletins, the successful programmes set themselves up, not just to communicate, but to generate lots of early content to fuel that communication.
Ironically, change lands best in a stable environment. Changing too many things at once creates complexity and interdependency, and the risk of failure increases exponentially, especially when the changes involve people. A critical group are those with high levels of organisational knowledge. Change programmes often lead to people with long service leaving the business, and this isn’t always a bad thing. But change programmes can come spectacularly unstuck when these people leave, taking their huge knowledge stores with them, before the majority of the changes are landed. One of my client’s most expensive failures was the replacement of its core systems – a two year programme bisected by a major reorganisation with voluntary redundancies. Both the systems programme and the reorganisation unravelled as the old system knowledge took a big cheque to exit the building, only to be asked back in on a consulting basis to keep those systems running as the change programme, now chronically under skilled, ground to a slow and tortuous halt.
To add further irony, the systems programme had a very large budget to develop and maintain “redundancy” – spare capacity to reduce the risk of critical failures. The organisation redesign had a similarly large budget for redundancy, but in this case, it was to pay for the removal of “spare capacity”, thereby increasing the risk of critical failures.
But that’s a topic for another article...
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