Change is still hard. The Harvard Business Review said so again in July and, while there is no reliable empirical basis upon which to justify the popular narrative that 70% of organisational change initiatives fail, the perception of change risk remains. In a world that is changing rapidly: where we are seeing whole industries being disrupted by convergence and technological innovation; where the emerging social adoption of technology across the internet touches almost every aspect of life; where fundamental structural adjustments are required for all major economies; we need to be able to change effectively and quickly. There is no safe market, there is no safe business and for many organisations the ‘Red Queen effect‘ has become the norm. It is reasonable to conclude that organisational change is, at best, challenging and complex.
Clearly, the ability to successfully effect change is central to both business success and leadership effectiveness. As an open system, every organisation needs to be skilled at adapting to changes in circumstance in order to achieve the outcomes expected by it’s stakeholders. Surely, with the stakes so high, we should be getting better at implementing the necessary operational, technological, behavioural and cultural improvements. What then are we to make of the frequently cited failure rate of 70% in change initiatives? Many explanations emphasise that change is becoming harder, more frequent and deeper in scope so if a change initiative has failed, by virtue of not delivering the benefits anticipated or creating the value required, there are likely to be many factors that contribute. Successful change does not occur in a vacuum. It is guided by insight, process, attention to detail and ultimately evidenced by outcomes of things having changed, preferably for the better.
Every change initiative is unique. There are different people involved, different histories, different environments, stakeholder expectations and demands. There is no simple prescription and while there is plenty of writing on the process of running a change program, it is the detailed, knowledgeable, pragmatic and relevant application of that process that is assumed, yet is prerequisite to success. As a foundation for the next few posts, here are five factors to examine closely that will improve the likelihood of success.
- Executive sponsorship – this should go without saying but it means more than benign oversight.
- Business understanding – you must know how a business functions today to create value before you start changing it.
- Program resources – tailor the process, content, collateral, and training to the business reality.
- Performance – feedback is a crucial tool that goes well beyond the change champion newsletter.
- Adaptability – change is a fundamentally human activity so don’t be afraid at adapt.
Strategy implies change and strategy execution is widely acknowledged as the most difficult aspect of any improvement effort. If something fails, it can be reasonably considered to have occurred in either the mandate, design, execution, resourcing or the skills needed for the change program. While many executives will lament the unwillingness of their people to change, they rarely consider the possibility that the overall approach was flawed. That is what senior executives are paid to ensure doesn’t happen.