Platform for Change

Friday, April 1, 2011 - 08:27

How do you achieve change in an organisation and make it stick? A few golden rules make all the difference for successful change programs. By Michael Carman

Change programs are notoriously prone to being shrouded in fuzziness. Focused as they can be on woolly and conceptual goals - such as 'to engage employees' or 'to build knowledge' - that are handled by elaborate committee structures, far too many change program efforts end up consuming valuable time and effort for little gain.

Here are four planks of successful change programs to give your efforts impact and durability, with some tools that you can use along the way.

1. Focus on real business problems

To work, change programs have to solve the concrete problems confronting an organisation. As the authors of a Harvard Business Review article, 'Why Change Programs Don't Produce Change', rightly observe: "Successful change efforts focus on the work itself, not on abstractions like 'participation' or 'culture'."

Most change programs defy this basic requirement, and pay the price. They fail for the same reason many New Year's resolutions do: because their basis is disconnected from the real daily context in which actions are taken and decisions are made. Yet this context - the work itself - is the crucible for change.

Indeed, we could say of change what management thinker Peter Drucker said of innovation: that it has to be decentralised, autonomous, specific and micro-economic. It should start small and flexible, and it has to occur at the 'coalface', close to the real actions and issues.

Consider the too-familiar scenario of a large-scale change program that has been limping along for months with an array of executive-led committees built around unclear, overlapping objectives. Newsletters and management toolkits abound but without linkage to any dimension of organisational performance (so the effort can't be proved to be a failure!). There's a lot of process but little content to assist the organisation to achieve its objectives.

Contrast that with the Change Acceleration Process (CAP) implemented at General Electric under Jack Welch. Here, teams of people raise specific problems of their own that must be 'need to do' competitive necessities rather than 'nice to do'; they have to be unable to be solved by current methods, and must be large enough that they can't be completed during training sessions but require ongoing work.

Examples include turning around a business that had been unprofitable for five straight years, and reducing cycle times. These strategically important problems give the change effort relevance and ensure it impacts the workplace rather than withering after training sessions or workshops have ended.

2. Secure senior management support

While change itself has to relate directly to real business problems, it has to be mandated at senior levels and have ongoing, visible support. Allowing a change effort that started with much fanfare to trail off into oblivion because of lack of interest and commitment is worse than having no change effort at all since it erodes management credibility.

Commitment is necessary for success in any endeavour, and change programs are no exception. Turf wars, political barriers, inertia, and multiple and competing priorities are part and parcel of organisational life. Change efforts - where there are winners and losers - are particularly vulnerable to being derailed. High-level clout is necessary to provide oversight, open doors, and implement recommended solutions (maybe even knock heads together), if change is to succeed.

Successful change programs combine this high-level senior management support with the bottom-level relevance that a focus on real, concrete business problems (discussed earlier) brings.

3. Analyse and mobilise stakeholders

Change efforts need to identify and encompass all the players, map their agendas and garner their support, or at least neutralise their opposition. As mentioned earlier, change efforts create winners and losers, and no change effort exists that will leave everyone happy.

There are many effective tools for identifying stakeholders - their interests, their level of influence and their interrelationships - and for developing strategies to mobilise their commitment.

Where the business problems that are being addressed centre on stakeholders - such as how to merge different groups into a new organisation - stakeholder analysis can be used not only to mobilise commitment to change, but also to structure and solve the actual problem at hand.

4. Develop and monitor metrics

The old dictum 'if you can't measure it, you can't manage it' is true for change efforts as for any area of management. All change efforts should have clear performance indicators specified ahead of time.

These metrics fall into two categories. On the one hand there should be metrics for the change effort itself, which indicate the degree of employee take-up or acceptance of the program, project milestone completion, awareness, buy-in and so on.

On the other hand there should also be metrics indicating the 'business as usual' performance of the organisation, which would be measured and monitored in any case, but in the context of a change effort will highlight the impact of the program on core performance (such as financial results, cycle times, defect rates and customer satisfaction results).

Ensure that time is set aside to regularly review and properly analyse the metrics once they're gathered so that any necessary adjustment can be made and, of course, any victories celebrated.

Tools for change

  • Intuitive and easy-to-use problem-solving tools are valuable additions to the manager's toolkit when change efforts are focused on real business problems. A simple four-step approach to problem solving was outlined in the article 'Creative Solutions' in the June 2010 issue of Management Today. Cause-and-effect ('fishbone') diagrams are also useful.
  • Collaborative tools for analysing stakeholders and their agendas include: identifying stakeholder criteria for organisational performance and their views of performance against these criteria; plotting stakeholder interests versus power on a two-by-two grid, and mapping stakeholder goals and bases of power.
  • The performance-management cycle is useful not only in relation to performance metrics, but also in structuring change efforts more broadly. Performance scorecards and dashboards are useful ways of representing change-program metrics and communicating these to managers, employees and other stakeholders.