Success with Change
Most of us know the saying “Change is the only constant.” But scholars and practitioners have only recently started, with gusto, to try to understand change dynamics in and around our institutions—with the intent to influence the direction and impact of change.
Organisation development, the discipline focusing on organisational change, is still emerging as a science.
In the meantime, fads and trial-and-error dominate our efforts to deal with the important and pervasive issue of change.
Admittedly, there’s much to learn about how to make change successful. The United States National Research Council, for example, published
a review of research findings that found lots of articles and studies but few based on what worked any why. For example, only 3 per cent of the
articles investigated the success of reengineering.But the area of “what works in change” is attracting more research attention throughout the world, and leaders can draw on some precedents with growing confidence. Important lessons are emerging to guide organisations in change. If you heed those lessons, the chance of costly failures and organisational trauma diminishes significantly
I’ll focus on five key lessons for implementing and sustaining change. I’m confident enough in the conclusions to say, “Ignore these lessons at your peril. Embrace them and succeed.”
Lesson 1: Be sure the change will add value
That seems obvious. Yet, there are many, many instances of changes that occur because they’re the latest fad, someone’s pet project, or technically brilliant or seductive – or they promise benefits that can’t be achieved with the proposed solution.You should ask several questions to test the potential real value of a change.
Will this change make us more successful in our environment? In the 1990s, the financial industry went through a major shakeout worldwide.Services of all kinds – saving, investing, borrowing,banking – began to come together in single institutions., Likewise, the healthcare industryexperienced a shake-up globally, facing new pressures to focus on health improvement and cost management versus just taking care of the sick.The financial and health-care institutions that made fundamental changes in their core competencies succeeded. Those that didn’t make such changes failed. Some institutions tried to make only superficial changes. They restructured,downsized, brought in new leaders. But those
peripheral changes weren’t enough.
The opposite is also true. If the environment doesn’t require and won’t support major new directions, then making core changes (in strategy,
core competencies, and such) may fail. One look at dot.coms makes that clear. Markets didn’t have the skills or desire to support the changes, and so –demise. That doesn’t mean some dot.coms won’t be successful in the future; perhaps they were an idea before its time. But their failure does mean that a severe mismatch with the environment is a recipe for disaster, a match is a formula for success.
Will this change make work more successful while reducing the effort required? Will it provide truly better customer service or product quality? Will it have a positive impact on people at work – their status, the meaning of their work, the ease of work,the elimination of barriers to success? It’s not enough that on the surface the change is a good technical, financial or political idea. That may matter to executives and technical people. But if the chan compliance with the change. That doesn’t mean avoiding the pain of change and learning, but it does mean ultimately there must be something better for key stakeholders affected by the change.
Will this change really improve performance for our overall organisation? A change that’s positive for part of the organisation might not be positive for the organisation overall. One interesting study found that in 11 of 15 reengineering situations,there was cost improvement in the redesigned process, but the improvement didn’t translate to the business as a whole. There are no statistics on the amount of time,money, and anxiety we can save by testing the potential real impact of a change before we try to implement it.My guess is that more than half of all change projects shouldn’t be introduced at all. In South Africa, with so many changes happening at once to compete globally and redress past wrongs,initiative overload is a big change challenge.
Lesson 2: Match change process to the challenge.Some changes are complex and unpredictable, such as moving into e-commerce or helping a former monopoly function successfully in a competitive environment. Other changes are relatively simple,such as shifting from one word-processing software to another. More complex and dicey changes generally call for new roles and power relationships, as well as changes in a variety of systems and processes. Simpler changes leave roles and relationships intact and just call for a few behaviour, knowledge, and skill changes.
Another dimension of change is whether there are role models, precedents, and tested guidelines to follow, and whether there’s expertise you can turn to for support and coaching.Complex and unpredictable changes require more resources for trial-and-error and for learning. They call for multiple changes in systems and processes,and for lasting and visible commitment from leaders who must provide vision and optimism until
results occur and the change is sustainable. Those more difficult changes also require increased attention to communication and the human side of change. Simple and predictable changes seldom need extra attention.
The nature of a change dictates the best method.One major review of research concluded that some changes can be done in incremental pieces, but those involving “changes to tightly coupled formal structures associated with strong power bases and deep systems of beliefs often require a forceful intervention and discontinuous replacement.” In other words, if the change is complex and doesn’t match your current culture, be ready for a tough road ahead. For example, an investigation of all of the major changes in the global semiconductor industry from 1985 to 1995 concluded that some industry changes were revolutionary and required a large amount of experimentation and resources, a loose structure, and broad involvement in planning.Other changes were evolutionary and could be efficiently managed traditionally, using standard project management methods.
Think of changes as transactional, transitional, or transformational:
Transactional changes (such as switching software) require only a few minor interventions—for example, training or changing the incentive system.
Transitional changes are complex and shake up roles, power bases, relationships, and systems but have expertise and guidelines; an example would be opening an additional plant in another country.Transitional changes require a much higher investment in change management than
transactional changes. If you want success, you have to set up detailed project plans, phase in innovation… address the emotional side of change.
Transformational changes require a redesign of virtually everything in the organisation – especially the fundamental beliefs and norms that guide decisions and actions. Organisations everywhere face transformational change as they adapt to the global business and terrorism environment. In transformational change, usually there are no or few guidelines so there’s a lot of trial-and-error and cost. You can set up projects to help guide progress,but the major effort must go into making the organisation more adaptable and flexible so that it can learn as it goes along.
All of that requires asking and answering some additional questions:
How complex is this change in terms of the number, breadth, and depth of the pieces and actions it contains?
For this change, are there obvious and clear solutions and precedents (it’s relatively
Is this change transactional (simple and predictable); transitional (simple but unpredictable, or complex but predictable); or transformational (complex and unpredictable)?
What level of investment will we have to make to ensure success (low for transactional, moderate
to high for transitional, or very high for transformational)?
Lesson 3: Provide management support Management has the tough job of guiding change.Some changes (the more predictable ones) thrive on more structure, traditional controls, and management nurturing. Others (the less predictable ones) require more decentralisation and involvement in planning and implementing.Designing and guiding an organisation for on-going change is another matter that requires transformation—not only of the organisation but of the leaders. Transformational leadership demands a blend of focus, determination, and empowerment that few leaders exhibit these days.The world’s research confirms what we know – that managers and leaders are crucial for the success of change. Leadership can, and often does, come from people without formal management responsibility.But the following messages are important for all formal leaders to hear and act on.
Be guided by clear goals and feedback.One detailed review of complex business process reengineering projects in Europe found that clear goals “were key.
Have a structure that optimally balances plans and flexibility. Built to Last and Good to Great author Jim Collins “Built to Be Great” found that 11 breakthrough change companies (from a group of 1435 organisations) combined a disciplined culture,in which key rules and norms were followed consistently, with rewards for entrepreneurship.Another study, which focused on large computer firms in three countries, found that “just right” structure was a key success factor. Poor implementations were either too highly structured or controlled, or there was no structure at all.
Invest the required resources. Don’t scrimp on the resources you need. If you needed to boil water, you’d turn the dial on the stove up to high, not medium; you’d put in the energy to achieve the goal.One team studied 100 companies involved in reengineering projects throughout the world. In the most successful redesigns, managers were generous with resources over a period of years.They also invested a significant amount of their own time. Collins’s research drew the same conclusion: The 11 companies that broke away from industry norms to high performance showed rigor and focus in budgeting. They decided what to fund and funded it fully.
Create frequent wins. Some changes take a long time and involve difficult personal and organisational transitions. Things may also get worse before they get better. In such an environment, it’s easy to give up before the change can gain traction. Thus, it’s important for leaders to keep up optimism and energy by finding and publicising the small steps forward. When people see improvements, that inspires them to more
That was a clear success factor in one large study of changes in hospital patient care. You can achieve the same by implementing in phases. An in-depth study of quality improvement programs in eight unionised plants in Ireland and the United States showed that success is more likely when it’s implemented in phases. The end of each phase creates a sense of moving forward—a kind of small win. Related to that, the U.S. National Research Council’s review of the organisation change field concluded that continuous and small changes and improvements are more effective than massive change programs—perhaps partly due to the smallwins factor.
Lesson 4: Prepare the system for change.A recurring theme in the world’s change research is the importance of adjusting various aspects of the organisation so that the change can take root and thrive. A change may require minor or radical shifts in processes, technology, tools, information flows, skills, structures, facilities, and so on. The important lessons follow.
Be sure work processes are supportive.An intensive study of change failures at IBM found,for example, that one commonality was the lack of coordination of process changes between departments. For local changes to succeed, the larger processes they’re part of have to change.
Another study found that successful reengineering changes didn’t focus on functions and departments but looked at all activities and events involved in delivering a product or service, regardless of whose responsibility they were.
The questions that arise are what, if any, work processes will be directly or indirectly affected by this change and how to align them.
Create change-enabling managers.Many studies point to an obvious but infrequently adhered to rule: Be sure your managers and supervisors actively support the change. When supervisors personally use the change practices taught in training, employees are more likely to
also use the new practices. Gallup polls of more than 1 million employees and 80,000 managers discovered that the supervisor is a key factor in the success of any effort. It makes sense to focus on managers. They help make up the glue that keeps an organisation together. They can also keep people’s feet stuck in the past. The lesson? Ask what managers at all levels need to do to supportthe change and how we can support them in their roles and actions.
Align the HR system. Many of the studies conclude that human resource practices such as selection,career movement, performance management, and pay and reward are critical success factors in change. HR practices must support the change or long-term success is unlikely.
That idea must be catching fire. A study of 3500 organisations worldwide found a dramatic increase in emphasis and investment in HR practices and innovations globally. Another investigation of 2800 organizations concluded that HR practices have more impact on a firm’s performance than improvements in the quality of its business strategy. A large global study determined that when changes in HR practices accompanied
technical changes, a significantly greater performance improvement occurred over technical changes alone. Success requires asking how HR
practices support or impede the change and what we can do to get the HR system alignment needed for success.
Other research tells us about the importance of removing barriers to the change and making enough changes to ensure success. Ask what
organisational barriers could defeat the change and what to do about them. Also ask, As we review our change plans, how confident are we that we’re making enough supportive changes to give birth to and grow the change successfully?
Lesson 5: Help people align.The first four lessons focus primarily on the technical aspects of a change. Focusing on that alone may be enough for transactional (simple and predictable) changes. But for any other kind of change, the people side makes or breaks success.The world’s research provides guides.
Honour the psychological contract. That’s the implicit and explicit agreement about an organisation’s and employees’ commitment and
behaviours toward each other. There may be agreements about employment continuity,development, being a family, and the relationship
between performance and continued work. The traditional relationship focused on loyalty of both sides. Some of the newer contracts focus just on the immediate exchange of work for pay. Research tells us that how you implement change must be consistent with the psychological contract or you’ll pay a high price of prolonged survivor bad feelings and general ill will.
Ask, What does our current psychological contract imply about how we’ll manage this change? If you find that you want to manage the change in ways that break the contract, be ready to deal with the
consequences—and plan to change the contract for the future. Be scrupulously fair and trustworthy.
People can accept changes that affect them adversely if they believe the change is right and procedural justice was followed. Decision makers
must work hard to be objective and fair to all affected parties, and they must communicate about the change and their decision process. One study found that, regardless of whether people felt a change was positive or negative, they expected to know the rationale for how the change was
implemented and why some people were more affected than others. It’s important, then, to ask what decisions might affect people adversely and
how to make those decisions fairly.
Find the positives. The first lesson (be sure the change will add value) tells us how important it is to pick changes that will make a difference. Here the emphasis is on communicating the value of the change. The world’s research confirms that people will support changes that make sense—that make work easier and more effective, that make customers happier, that improve product quality.
People also have to believe that the change is achievable. One research group discovered after a comprehensive literature review that people
commit to change for these reasons:
to be like others they admire
to support a change they intrinsically believe in.
The latter produces more lasting commitment. The key question is what are the critical short- and long-term positives of this change for the
organisation and its people?
Involve opinion leaders. Some people have more influence on what employees do than others.Successful change efforts draw on the expertise
and energy of opinion leaders, who often aren’t the formal leaders in the organisation. Success with change may hinge on the answer to this question:
Who are the opinion leaders that people listen to?How can we involve them?
Communicate effectively and over the long-term.Sadly, by the time executives approve a change project they’ve often lost interest in it. The
decision to make a change is only the beginning of an intense and on-going communication process that may last for years. Research tells us that it’s important for managers to find the mental and emotional stamina to keep talking about the same message over and over again. That’s especially true in organisations where people’s trust is low.
Successful managers keep this question in front of them: What are the main messages I need to stand for – over and over – until this change is
Involve people appropriately. Research tells us that when people are involved, they’re more committed.It’s also clear that decisions in the current complex business world require broad involvement and input. But involvement won’t save a change that doesn’t add value or is implemented unfairly.
Involvement must have a purpose. If it’s just a way to manipulate people and has no potential impact on decisions, don’t go through the motions. That only breeds cynicism.
Researchers who are famous for their studies on the effects of involvement on goal achievement conclude that people don’t have to participate to
be committed. But they do need to trust the people setting the goals, believe that the goals will lead to greater performance, have access to feedback, and have control and ownership of the steps and actions for achieving the goals. Successful changes always involve the people affected because they have important contributions to defining or implementing the change.
Other research highlights the importance of ensuring that people have the skills they need for implementing and sustaining the change. It’s also
crucial to align incentive and pay systems,especially if the change isn’t naturally rewarding and motivation is low. Ask what skills people need
to implement and sustain the change and how to help develop those skills. Also ask what desired behaviour won’t happen without offering
It might not be possible to manage change, but we can influence it. Although change leadership is evolving as a discipline, world research is filled with useful lessons about what actually works. The findings and resources cited in this article are not theory. They aren’t fads. They are major and recurring themes related to successful change efforts worldwide. Managers and change agents reviewing these lessons may rightly make a few conclusions.
One, implementing and sustaining change requires more than a dream and a goal. Although these are important, when you embark on a major
organisational change be sure it will matter and be worth the effort. Be ready to put the resources and
time into making it happen.
Two, pay attention to the systems and people issues. 65 per cent of all changes are considered failures. A large per cent of the rest fail to meet
expectations. If you’re not ready to put the energy into make a change successful, it might be better to cancel. Certainly, most organisations could
dramatically reduce the number of change initiatives and thus find the resources to do a few things well.
If the environment requires lots of change, that’s the management challenge. Just be sure that what you decide to do is in the organisation’s best
interests and that you’re ready to answer the questions and take the actions that the world’s research says are key to success.
email@example.com |Knowledge Economy Zambia | Issue Five, May 2012