Lessons from the Book of Change
The Flaws in Standard Change Management Methods
Companies today are facing more change and it is accepted that it is coming thicker and faster because of the convergence of many technology and economic trends. As a result, many organisations have an array of fast paced changes occurring simultaneously. The tide of digital, bots, AI and Chat GPT is just beginning to impact internal operations, so there is more to come. Change Competence therefore, becomes an essential strategic capability.
Unfortunately, successful change seems rare. When discussing recent change in companies we hear phrases like, “the benefits were never clear”, “training was poor”, “it was rushed”, “the change didn’t stick” and so on. All are indicators of change failure. These change failures produce results such as digital platforms being under-adopted by customers, front line staff using CRM systems inappropriately, workflow systems adding complexity and structural change that create silos and reduces flexibility. This paper will discuss four common causes of change failure, and how to address them with an effective and proven change process.
Four Core Change Issues That Illustrate Why Change 101 Often Fails
Organisations recognise the need for change management, but the accepted methods often fail. The following phrases are descriptors of change processes often lacking substance: “we need to get buy-in.”, “we need a Stakeholder engagement plan”, “we have a detailed RACI matrix”, “we have a detailed comms plan” and “good governance is in place because the steerco gets a pack each week”. All are good and necessary in large multi-faceted changes. However, these well-intentioned change methods are not enough because they don’t get to the heart of why change often fails. The real issues that need to be addressed are:
The breadth of change and multiplication
The breadth and impact of change is often under-rated, under-stated and misunderstood by leadership. It’s hard to assess the impact of any change from the lofty perch of head office and the executive suite. The leaders are removed from the detail of the work and don’t experience the breadth of change. We often wonder if there is an Aussie bias of “She’ll be right” in our corporate culture. The least successful changes we have seen are expansive, for example, asking staff members to change physical locations, merge teams, work under a new people leader, undertake a new IT system, operate in new ways with customers, and change all those things simultaneously. The urgency of change and a bias to action expands the scope and breadth of change in this way. However, this breadth of change requires significant change investment, that often isn’t made. The risk of failure mounts with each addition of scope because all these change dimensions need change strategies that unify. Failure to manage the change for any dimension can undermine the whole change.
Tacit leadership and culture Often, we hear that operational areas have gaps or a lack of experienced team leadership. This results from a combination of factors: leaders are hard to find, staff turnover and the Peter Principle (people promoted intro roles for which they lack the skills). What this often means is that areas have a tacit leader, just not the one appointed by management. This means each team has its own ground rules
and ways of working and change threatens the implied power of this local leadership which produces resistance to change. This can be further exaggerated if changes of structure or location create new leaders of teams who are not established in the old cultural norms and informal rules. This tacit leadership can be a major threat to any change.
The forked tongue
Companies often say they will be open and communicate well in change. But in many situations, change starts as “a secret squirrel” project with a code name and with an approach and plan developed without consultation. So, the reality is that this change is not open and communicated – it is closed and directive. This can set up initial message dissonance and lose the trust of those staff impacted by the change right from the start. This can play into the hands of tacit leaders as they can use the dissonance to their advantage by undermining subsequent attempts of communication.
The fearful truth
It is important to be clear on the real change that is happening. Often companies avoid communicating the reality of the change and the impact on staff numbers or roles in the misguided hope that staff won’t notice. The efficiency goals of most change is often not clearly communicated. Staff see through the messaging that doesn’t communicate the real goals. The core idea of transformation for company benefit is already well understood by staff. They understand that companies change to reduce costs. So, in short as Sherlock would say “the game is (always) afoot”. Five strategies to address the four issues
Change strategy 1: Real involvement
Our best change advice is to form a mixed team of younger, older, conflicted and or enthusiastic team members to be involved in defining the new model and operational practices within that new model. This moves some change responsibility to the staff, involves them, communicates with them, and engages them through implementation. The design team can become credible change champions and help their team members through the change. Running phases like piloting and embedding signifies that the business wants the teams to be involved and is willing to give up some control of the outcome. But this can’t be about a “lip-service” pilot or working group. Leaders must be ready to make amendments and fine tune the solutions based on the input of these front-line staff.
We have found that having known change opponents such as the “crossed arm” resistor involved in this process helps. It’s wonderful to see a resistor suddenly change and come on board after many years of poor change. The lightbulb goes on and they say, “you know, this may just work”. That kind of change ambassador is more valuable than a RACI or complex comms plan. Many companies don’t think of co-design in this way. It’s crucial and creates advocacy for change but it does mean freeing up staff to assist and trusting their opinion through careful facilitation.
Change strategy 2: Co-Design the “how” of change
We run a change model called the “book of change”. This imaginary book is open on a page with one
side blank and the other has the change details and what needs to happen. Staff are aware they can’t stop or divert the change but involving them in how the change takes place gives some control back to them. In many instances, the business doesn’t really care about many smaller details of the change, for example, what the seats are like, how things work during the day, whether the change starts on Monday or Wednesday etc. If the staff can design and implement key practices in the change and control facets of their work, the change will likely be more successful.
Change strategy 3: Significant change pillars and events
In any change it’s important to focus on some key details of the change that are important to the staff. In one case it was the screen location, in another it was the way of displaying daily workloads. In the popular television series Ted Lasso, it was the water pressure of the showers. At some point signifying events occur and staff judge whether “this is in my interest” or not. So, in any change we try and clarify which aspects of this are trying to make “my job” and, or customers lives, easier. This helps staff get to the “This could actually work” moment. Locate and attack the biggest bug bear of staff if it’s within your remit. In one case we couldn’t un-deploy a major system, but implementing a series of bug fixes, identified and prioritised by the staff, made a huge difference to acceptance.
Change strategy 4: Walk the talk
Managers need to: agree with the change programme, anticipate and manage change resistance, solve issues with the team and update regularly. In this they need to be clear about real objectives, communicate honestly about how it’s going, admit stuff ups and reinforce positive outcomes. The messaging must be consistent with the actual change and process. This is harder than you think with a lot of unconscious bias and passive resistance showing up in manager behaviour. On one implementation, we were frustrated with a manager’s resistance so went and had the coffee conversation which went something like this: “give us some runway, if it works, you will be a hero, if it doesn’t, you can blame us”. This created some breathing space for change processes, the change worked, and guess who was on the first company newsletter declaring victory?
Change strategy 5: Kotter’s big three
No discussion of change can be complete without John Kotter’s inestimable contribution. We always reflect on the first 3 points from the famous Harvard Business Review 8 step change model – they are more important now than ever. In the initial phases and during the change, ensure the “big 3” are met:
Have a strong force that is backing, supporting and promoting the change all the way to the CEO (throw out the comms plan and get the CEO to do the barbecue), Have a clear artefact led picture of where you are going (screensavers on every computer) and communicate a sense of urgency (our customers need this, or X will happen). Even with these three strategies staff can be involved in the change. We routinely throw the problem of naming the project to a staff cohort group and get them to come up with a logo and name and objective for the entire project. This can be acknowledged with leadership announcing the name and rewarding the name creators. That is another way to give staff some control of the change.
Effective business leaders today know that effective execution rather than ideas alone is critical to delivering value in organisations. Good design is only half the story, as making it work is essential. So change is crucial today and can be a career breaker. One of Henry Ford's great sayings was "Strategy without execution is hallucination", well said. The strategies we have advocated are built on understanding key elements of psychology such as the need for control. Design of a change strategy that uses these five elements to work on the power structures and psychological implications, will be more effective. Involve the affected people in the change and the design and communicate openly. The high-level governance, stakeholder management and comms is great but don’t forget to get down in the nitty gritty of the human factors.
If you’d like more detail on any of these techniques, please feel free to get in touch at email@example.com or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438 652 396.