Change management programmes, as reported in the literature (e.g. Kotter, 2007, Palmer, 2014, Song, 2009), have a high degree of failure. Indeed, it’s disappointingly easy to find lists of colossal failures. In my own experience developing tactics to overcome resistance in managing change for our clients, one of the key things we often need to take into account is individuals’ previous experiences with failed change projects, whether they involve information technology, restructures, or cultural transformation.
It seems to me also, and this is again supported by studies, that change rarely sticks beyond the project completion date.
To understand why this might be so, and determine therefore what can be done to make change stick, it is worthwhile considering what people go through in a major change. For this article, I’ll focus on an IT implementation, being one of the more common efforts organisations make in managing change.
Allow me to categorise the changes at an individual level as being either what people have to either (1) learn new, or (2) give up, as described so well by the Bridges Transition Model.
Things to Learn New
One of the chief lessons learned from failed Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementations seems to have been that you don’t customise the software to fit your processes, you instead change your processes to fit the software.
This means that as well as learning new screens and possibly new terms, people have to learn new processes. It is equally likely that the new system will capture and use data in a manner that obviates the need for many process steps. In addition, with the new software directly capturing much more data from those processes which can be easily and cheaply stored and manipulated to analyse process efficiency and effectiveness, there is likely to be more continuous process improvement. At least, one would hope so.
The manner in which data is captured and delivered back to people so they may make informed decisions may also change. Data may be stored in physical, digitised, or electronic formats. It might be captured by scanners, or delivered and manipulated via mobile devices or tablets.
In addition to learning new processes, people may find that a reorganisation occurs to take advantage of reduced effort in old processes and new opportunities provided by the functionality of the technology. The new opportunities often revolve around more informed decision-making being pushed lower down the organisation structure, or even out to the organisation’s clients or vendors.
This means that people often have learn how to make new decisions and have to learn to build new relationships. In managing change, we have to help them.
At the leadership level, there are many more new things to learn in addition to those everyone else has to learn.
There will be resistance to change – there always is – and therefore leaders have to learn how to deal with that resistance. During change there are always periods of ambiguity when the final structure of a changed system or organisation is not known. Leaders have to learn to deal with that ambiguity themselves and yet communicate clearly, openly and positively during those periods of ambiguity.
Leaders often also find that they need to learn other new behaviours (Human Synergistics, 2014), which is in itself a difficult task. They may need to lower their need for a certain level of perfectionism in themselves and expectation of the same in others. Or, they may find their drive for achievement outstrips their people and find themselves increasingly isolated too far in front of their ‘troops’. Conversely, their need for affiliation may make it difficult to drive through difficult decisions which will have a potentially negative impact on their people.
They may also find they need to learn new ways of communicating, and new topics. For example, in modern times they may need to be adept at using internal social media in addition to face-to-face and email. They may need to become adept at communicating not only the ‘what’ of the change, but also the ‘why’. If that isn’t enough, they’ll also need to understand how the ‘why’ plays out in various “what’s in it for me?” contexts for the diverse range of people that report to them.
They may need to overtly change the attributes of culture prevalent in the existing organisation. For example, they may need to change the stories told in the organisation.
They are also likely to need to know and be able to work with, at least at senior levels, the rigours of programme management for the duration of the project; in addition to the business as usual tasks which remain and are often complicated by the very project which ultimately make them simpler.
Things Given Up
The flipside of learning new things is what people have to give up. They have to give up, to a greater or lesser degree, elements of comfort or power which can lead to a diminishment of their feelings of self-worth.
For example, people who have been the ‘go-to’ person for making the old system work, no longer hold that power of knowledge.
Or, in many cases people lose the familiarity of blindingly progressing through screens, making decisions intuitively on the fly, as they are now forced to think about what they do and the decisions they have to make. The discomfort only lasts for the time it takes them to become familiar with the new system, but any actual issues with the system are magnified through the lens of this discomfort and can cause significant derailment of the change effort.
Alternatively, people have to give up relationships when a restructure occurs. That may be with peers, their direct supervisor, a charismatic senior manager, vendors, trainers, or other support staff. The worst occurs when there are redundancies and those remaining experience survivor’s remorse.
Leaders often give up their ability to influence the nature of work completed in their area and the manner in which it is conducted. The loss of this source of power makes it difficult for many leaders to feel in control of their day-to-day tasks. Add in the disruption to business as usual that comes from the project itself and many leaders feel a loss of control.
Even more challenging for leaders can be the apparent loss of their ‘place’ in the power structures of the organisation, especially when other leaders are seen to take the change more readily.
Why do change efforts not stick?
As asserted earlier, change management efforts tend not to stick or result in outright failure during the project phase; being unable to cope with the issues that all staff face in adapting to new situations and adopting new processes.
The key attributes of failure, both from my experience and supported by literature (Keller & Aiken, 2008), comprise:
- Leaders create elements that provide motivation for change in their own image, and do not cater for the diversity of motivational factors in an organisation
- Leaders underestimate how much they need to change themselves
- Not enough attention is given to building the capability of all staff, the project team, and the leaders
- Not enough use is made of melding communication, change, and training efforts into a seamless whole, nor using the performance management system, measurement, and even audit as reinforcing tools to ensure the right environment is created to allow people to motivate themselves to change
What do we need to do?
So, if so many change programmes are finding it difficult to make change stick, what do we need to do to improve our capacity to make it stick in the context of having so many things to learn new, and so many other things to give up? Note: within this analysis, I am assuming that the change is part of an overarching organisational strategy and that appropriate governance is in place and the project team has appropriate skills. Getting those right may be the subject of a further article.
Identify stakeholder groups
We need at first to identify the stakeholder groups and their level of power and what their attitude towards the change is.
Those with high power who display support for the project need to be skilled and given the opportunity to become advocates. Passive supporters need to be encouraged and given an environment where they are motivated to become active supporters too.
Those who actively oppose the change and have high power need to be engaged to determine the root cause of their opposition and whether that opposition comes from a real difference in interests, or just a difference in positions. If the former is true, then the discussion needs to go back to the organisational strategy level. The discussion may result in a decision to part if agreement cannot be reached on the strategy being the right one or not. If it is the latter, principled negotiation should find a resolution.
Develop a managing change strategy
The change strategy must address the issues related to what people have to give up and learn new. It must recognise the actual issues being experienced or likely to be experienced by all staff and the leadership. The strategy must address the belief systems of staff and leaders such that despite their misgivings, they believe within their own context that:
- The change is one of the most beneficial things they can do for themselves – that belief will be based on very different contexts for different individuals including but not limited to their career, their family, the organisation, society, and the environment.
- That this change is going to be the norm and it is better to get on the bus early when there is a lot of support rather than being a laggard.
- That they have the capability in terms of skills and knowledge, authority and accessibility to data to make decisions.
- Baggage from previous change programmes do not limit their beliefs.
In addition, the strategy must move the leadership of the organisation at all levels through a situation where they understand and then care about the change through to where they prioritise and plan for the change and then implement the change. The best change strategies concentrate on making this transition through the five levels of engagement as easy as possible.
The object of the change strategy is to get a critical mass of stakeholders with power to support the change.
Communication is one third of the answer to getting engagement and driving the intention to adopt new practices and to adapt to a new environment.
The communication must be planned to get the key messages required from the most people with the most influence over the recipient for that particular message delivered through the most accessible and convincing channels enough times for it to be believed.
The topics of communication must not be restricted to the change itself, but also include more subliminal messages designed to change beliefs. Successful communication plans are often contain more subtle content than inexperienced change practitioners design in.
The second third of the answer is to train. The training design and model must be based on the desired learning outcomes to achieve the desired behaviour changes, of course, but it must also be designed with accessibility, learning preferences, and learning and training skills in mind.
The training model itself must not only address the delivery of classroom or technology-accessible training, but must also address ongoing coaching and learning back at the workplace. The model must concentrate on what is needed to transfer the learning requirements back to the workplace, not just the delivery of training.
The training model and the communication strategy often overlap and reinforce the changes in environment and capability needed to achieve the motivation required to change behaviours.
The final third is really, really important and most often ignored.
It is important for two reasons:
- We need to know what about the change strategy ,communication plan, and training model are not working, and change them based on the evidence we gather.
- If we are measuring results, it sends the message that that the elements of all of our strategies and plans – and the change itself – are important. It feeds into the belief that this is the norm and also the belief that people can be assured that they will be given the capability.
Change can be Successful
Change need not be a failure. It can be made to stick. It does however, take method, analysis, thinking, assistance for the business as usual in execution, measurement, and continued communication.
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