There’s a common adage—the best way to learn something is to teach it. While I have always experienced this in some form or another during the various workshops conducted in the past, I had an ah-ha moment recently when interacting with a group of second year MBA students during sessions on “Change Management”. The focus was on how to drive radical change in organizations.
Radical change is a large-scale, company-wide transformation
Radical change can result in an organization that differs significantly in terms of structure, processes, corporate culture and strategy. Some examples of radical change: when a company reconsiders the fundamentals of how it does business due to stagnant sales, slipping profits, or when merging with another company, or while deciding to hive off a part of itself including via business process outsourcing, etc. Since radical change is a large-scale, company-wide transformation, it often takes a long period of time to complete.
As part of my preparation, I found myself reviewing concepts and reflecting on the application of change management in real life. This reflection gave me a fresh perspective on past successes and failures. It is with this perspective that I am sharing some key insights around why organizations fail in driving and sustaining radical change.
Given the complexity of radical change, I surely cannot claim that the list will be exhaustive. However, what I can vouch for is that these are some of the critical failure points that I have seen or experienced across various change projects. I have also been able to correlate these with some sections of the vast body of knowledge around the subject of “Change Management”.
A common feature of organizations driving radical change is that they all define a “compelling vision”, a picture of the future. One of the key reasons for change not happening smoothly is that in many organizations this picture is either not well thought through or is arrived at within functional silos
. As a result, very few people “get it” and therefore it becomes difficult to gain people’s interest or understanding.
There are various aspects of the change that require communication, such as urgency for the change initiatives, co-creation of the vision, collaborative design of new processes, awareness of new standards, setting new expectations, sharing success stories, etc. Each of these subjects has the potential to make or break a change initiative. However, despite this criticality, communication tends to be limited to e-mails, Town Halls and a few steering committee meetings
Organizations fail to leverage the range of communication platforms such as newsletters, small group meetings, outbound sessions, performance reviews, skip level meetings, brown bag sessions, team reviews, Intranet, social media, etc. What results is a growing lack of clarity that finally leads to complete disconnect with the change vision.
Transformation by its nature requires an integrated effort across functions and levels from defining the vision, to driving the change, to reviewing milestones and finally to establishing the new culture. However, we find quite often situations where radical change is still largely defined and driven by a “Primary Function” or “Business Unit”
All other functions/business units become supporting actors with a limited perspective and hardly any voice in the change process. Change initiatives in such situations are like a government running with a divided coalition! Any change in such conditions will be met with roadblocks that kill the momentum of change and prevent it from setting in.
A common feature of change is the disruption it causes
. People impacted by the change initiatives experience new processes, sometimes heavier workloads (in the initial stages only!), new skills, new technology, etc.
Transition is the emotional transformation that people undergo as a result of this disruption. People move from anxiety to happiness to fear to depression to acceptance to finally move forward! To effect change, it is important to help people through the transition. There are key activities and initiatives that need to be planned along with large change initiatives to manage this human angle.
In reality, many organizations don't give people a chance to complete the transition cycle. They think that they are saving time by hurrying people, but actually all they are doing is leaving people with growing frustration, resentment and disconnect with the change initiatives happening around them.
Execution can fail at three levels:
- Project Management: This level includes project planning, efficiency and effectiveness reviews, and selection of change agents, sponsors, and supporting teams, adjustments for competing priorities, etc.
- Sponsorship: In many cases, organizations “put all their eggs in one basket” by driving change with the help of just one key change sponsor, normally a senior leader. No effort is made in developing sustaining sponsors at key levels across the organization. It is critical that senior leadership along with key leaders across levels regularly communicate the reason for the change and the importance of its success. The message needs to be convincing and consistent, across top, middle, and frontline leadership. This is what keeps the process of change alive and kicking right till the end.
- Rush to the Finish Line: Finally, transformation initiatives fail when organizations mistakenly believe the change journey is complete. A few early wins or positive indicators and leadership finds itself in a hurry to declare “victory.” We prematurely call off the troops and before you know it things are back to “normal”.
Given the variety of failure points that managers and leaders need to be conscious of, change management, like genius, is clearly a combination of some inspiration and lots of perspiration! And as they say, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen!
What’s your experience with radical change management initiatives? What other potential pitfalls should be avoided? Leave a comment and share your stories.