Whenever I am asked how to manage effective organisational change I always go back to the old adage that ‘’organisational change will only happen when the people in the organisation change’’. Whether you are implementing a new strategy, changing processes, launching a new product or introducing a new structure, unless the people in your organisation do things differently nothing will change.
This may seem very simplistic but it is so often overlooked. A few years ago I met a board director who was tasked with implementing a new commercial strategy that would require a new structure and new ways of working to be adopted. He had previously been a partner with McKinsey and had spent the best part of a year developing the strategy which, not surprisingly for someone with such an excellent consulting pedigree, was incredibly well researched and thought through.
When it came to implementation however, it was clear that all the effort had been put into developing a great strategy with little thought into how to manage the change process. A series of briefings were put in place to communicate the new approach but little effort was made to engage the workforce in the need for change. The leadership team, who had been immersed in developing the strategy over many months, assumed that people would simply accept it after a few briefings. They assumed that because the company was having problems that everyone would readily understand that change had to happen. However, it was soon clear that the workforce didn’t really understand the situation and were fearful of the changes.
As is often the case in such situations people saw it as a choice between sticking with what they knew well, even if it hadn’t been delivering great results, versus adopting new approaches that they were unfamiliar with and felt uncomfortable in doing.
After six months the new strategy was failing. The organisational structure had changed but the majority of people had not yet adopted the new ways of working. Many were still not totally clear as to the reasons for the changes. Disappointed with the progress, the Leadership Team decided to take action by tweaking the strategy and introducing some new changes. These were introduced with even less engagement than before and were met with equal scepticism. Dismayed that changes were being made so soon the workforce began questioning if their leaders knew what they were doing. Acceptance of the revised changes was even poorer than before.
The key failing was that the director saw the change as being organisational rather than personal. He told me that ‘’if you get the strategy right and the new structure in place people will adapt’’. Yet they didn’t, and I have come across many similar situations. Whether it has been a business restructuring or something as simple as a new training programme there are three clear barriers to personal change that must be overcome:-
1. A failure to SEE. The people impacted by the change must first fully understand and accept the need to change, and be motivated to change. Very often the leaders, who have been immersed in the process for some time, erroneously assume that everyone sees the world as they do. A burning platform can help but change can’t only be driven by fear; also consider painting a picture of a bright future.
2. A failure to MOVE. Even when people see that change is needed they often don’t move, because they either lack the skills or capabilities to do so or are overcome by the fear of failure in doing something new. I call this the choice of doing the wrong thing well versus doing the right thing badly
3. A failure to FINISH. If results are not immediately evident people can begin to lose faith and, without reassurance, this can often lead to change initiatives being dropped or altered before they are completed. Thus setting up disillusionment and a cycle of failure. It is critical to celebrate quick wins and continue to communicate progress throughout the process.
These barriers exist at a very personal level and apply equally to small changes such as developing new skills or introducing new processes as they do to large scale organisational restructures. Whatever change you are embarking on it is important to recognise this and plan carefully to help people overcome them. We will explore further strategies to overcome these barriers in a forthcoming blog.
By Robin Mar