Originally published here.

A comment on CEB Global’s white paper “Making change management work”

The statistics are well known. Measured by those who implement change over 50% of change initiatives are considered to have failed. It is not seem to be unique to an industry, country, type of change or size of the organisation. So if resources, culture and know how don’t make change successful what does?

In their whitepaper CEB go some of the way to identifying the route causes and helpfully look at what will work. They conclude that change must be owned bottom up, my experience would agree. As employees we do not expect to behave like a robot, we want to contribute, influence and feel valued.

CEB also note that the types of change we need to implement are becoming more complex. My operations perspective of organisations as akin to an organism, operating within an eco system, with one dependent on the other and yet able to influence it, would concur. Organisations must change to respond to the highly variable nature of todays operating environment and yet with deep subject matter expertise required in many industries (if not all) and increasingly interconnected social, political, cultural, functional and informational systems (Narayana & Nath 1993) how can we possibly plan and implement change with any certainty of the outcome.

So it is all very well to say change needs to be ‘owned’ but what does that look like and how to we shift our mindsets. Here are the 3 key things that I believe leaders need to support this type of thinking:

1. Boundaries or constraints and goals

The architect Fooi-Ling Khoo of OOF! Architecture was recently quoted as saying ‘constraints are the friend of creativity’. I believe this is true of the change management process too, however I have a caveat – if as a leader you apply boundaries be prepared for them to be proven invalid. How can we expect those who work for us to be creative with implementing change if we do not recognise when the status quo no longer applies?

The organic view of organisations allows for, and actually expects, the organisation to evolve. This in turn changes the boundary conditions in which and with which it operates. For example in reviewing travel insurance requirements personal items of high value can one day be regarded as a liability and with a minor change in technology, the next they become essential tools for emergency management.

I have always encouraged the teams I have lead to gently challenge the boundaries and assumptions on an ongoing basis. There is always one which has become invalid and you never know it might lead to the next break through opportunity for your organisation.

Goals are a different beast. As a leader it takes practice to articulate a goal without embedding the ‘how’. When you’re empowering a team they and you must have a mutual understanding of the goal and therefore what success looks like. I strongly advocate for intermediate goals to be defined too because this allows clarity of when progress has been achieved.

Not to mention without goals how will you know when to have cake to celebrate!

2. Be less rigid (and by that I mean entirely flexible) about the ‘how’

The end goal in any change is the ultimate determinant of success. Traditional change management places far too much emphasis on the howchange will be implemented.

Rigidity on how a change is to occur restricts those who, as CEB observe, hold the subject matter expertise and whom are rarely the leader themselves.

Emphasis predetermines what failure looks like. Being measured to these failures along the journey is demoralising and demotivating. Leaders need to let go of their own ideas about the ‘best way’ or the ‘right way’ and within reason, failure particularly along the journey, needs to be overlooked in preference for what was achieved.

Too often have I seen precedent and expectation be applied which to me is directly contrary to allowing people to own the process.

3. Reconsider timelines

CEB touch on the challenge of time in their whitepaper. I visualise the timeline for most change initiatives as a spiral – moving forward and narrowing towards the final goal, but often looping back over what feels like familiar territory.

Being comfortable with this spiral view of change is difficult for those used to operating with a traditional project management approach. It feels like rehashing, failing, or not getting anywhere.

But the reality is that the loops allow those impacted by the change to come on the journey, learn from it and embed the outcomes in their work. It can be likened to the Agile project management theory from the IT world where the project and its timeline are responsive to the environment around it. The looping also recognises that any change initiative is dealing with people and therefore is inherently unpredictable and will require frequent redirection.

4. Celebrate (and learn) from failure

I won’t rehash as I explain here why I have a passion for recognising, celebrating and learning from change and why I think it is essential to good leadership.

So all in all I agree with CEB, ‘traditional change management doesn’t work. But I do think there are some tools and exercises that with support any leader can implement to improve their chances of successful change implementation.

Find the CEB whitepaper here

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