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Leading change

Creating a high-performing organisation

“Change? Aren’t things bad enough as they are?” So responded British Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, when approached by an assistant about the need for change. We're not being political here. These are words that sum up how many of us feel about leading change – surely one of the more difficult challenges facing leaders. 

How do you feel about leading change? What beliefs do you hold about your ability to lead change? What beliefs do you hold about the capacity of your organisation to change? Why would you bother? Is there even a problem anyway? What’s the opportunity you want to seize and exploit? What’s the cost and what are the benefits?

The reality is most leaders step into a more senior role with some sort of change agenda whether it be large or small, explicit or covert, conscious or emergent. It could be about leading from under-performance and creating a high-performing organisation. It may be about building on existing good levels of performance and stepping up into excellence. It may be about addressing an emergent crisis – change can be imposed at short notice and with a significant impact.

So, you have a change agenda – it may be yours or it may have been given to you. Where do you start? How do you go about leading effective change?

Designing a change initiative

Successful, effective, systemic change can be fiendishly difficult to enact. So often, there is an over-simplistic approach to addressing organisational performance gaps. Organisations often respond to a performance challenge, such as falling market share or poor performance against KPIs, by initiating a re-structuring to take out cost or by introducing a new IT system or a package of new processes. The solution implemented is responding to a symptom rather than a root-cause problem. 

A lack of clarity of purpose, strategic drift or inattention to alignment will undoubtedly generate a plethora of negatives routinely attributed to change (staff attrition, a drop in performance, siloed behaviour, staff disengagement, change weariness) and the intended benefits aren’t realised.

Change statistics 

Before we begin, let’s look at some of the prevailing difficulties. High failure rates of change management interventions are well documented. McKinsey1 state that some 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support. Boston Consulting Group2 estimate 70% of digital transformation efforts don’t deliver the hoped-for results. Put another way, only 30% of initiatives achieve their intended outcome despite the cost and pain involved. That’s not a great return on investment.

John Kotter, in his 1995 article 3 attributes failure to the following:

Let’s stay ‘cup half full’ and hold the belief that the careful, clever and deliberate designing and planning of a change programme will mitigate against these risks.

Organisation analysis

Current State: How can you go about finding out what’s really going on in your organisation?

At this very first step you’ve a decision to make. Are you going to gather and analyse data (from 1:1s, employee engagement survey data, performance statistics, trusted advisors etc.) and implement a top-down change programme or engage your employees (using large group interventions such as Open Space, World Café or Future-Search methodologies) to co-create an understanding the current state and the shaping of the future? Either way you’re making a choice about the style of the change initiative – in this example a top-down or inclusive approach. 

Future State: What’s the future state you foresee? What’s your Change Target? What are you trying to achieve and why? Gaining clarity on the Why is essential and needs attention at the earliest stage – purpose is king and absolutely central to employee engagement, buy-in and commitment. Without it, your change initiative will run into the sand and be part of the 70% failure statistics.

The Why messages have greater resonance, the What tends to draw people into unhelpful debate and generates dispute and anxiety. My advice is to start with Why5 and maintain a focus around purpose as the practical implications of the resultant changes are worked through.

How to go about leading change

Nohria and Beer described two archetypes that underpin the assumptions of executives about why and how change should be made5. Theory E is based on economic value where shareholder value is the measure of corporate success. Change usually involves economic incentives, downsizing and restructuring. Theory O is based on organisational capability. The goal is to develop corporate culture and human capability through individual and organisational learning – the process of changing, obtaining feedback, reflecting, and making further changes. The authors point to both the inherent tensions and potential benefits of employing these approaches simultaneously.

Leading change is inherently a complex leadership activity and there’s no simple solution. There are, however, good frameworks available to guide your thinking and action that are useful when used in combination:

Successful, effective, systemic change can be fiendishly difficult to enact and programmes often fail to achieve their goals. Systemic change programmes require a deliberate and careful approach to design and planning to realise the intended benefits of the vision and mitigate against these risks. Understanding the current and desired future state, maintaining a focus around purpose, and the adoption of key frameworks will guide your thinking and action. Like many related leadership matters, role-modelling, effective team working and engaging employees is critical. 

If you’d like help to realise effective and sustainable change within your organisation, let’s talk. With over two decades of experience encompassing organisation analysis, leader and leadership development and coaching, I can help you design, plan and implement a successful change programme.

 

1 McKinsey (2019). Why do transformations fail? 10thJuly. [Online video]. Available from: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/transformation/our-insights/why-do-most-transformations-fail-a-conversation-with-harry-robinson. [Accessed: 1st November 2023].

2 Forth et al. (2020) Flipping the odds of digital transformation success. Boston Consulting Group. [Online]. Available from: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/increasing-odds-of-success-in-digital-transformation [Accessed: 1st November 2023].

3 John P Kotter (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review. [Online]. Available from:https://hbr.org/1995/05/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail-2 [Accessed: 1st November 2023].

4 Simon Sinek (2009. Start with why – how great leaders inspire action. TED talks. [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA [Accessed: 1st November 2023].

5 Nohria and Beer (2000). Cracking the code of change. Harvard Business Review. [Online]. Available at: https://hbr.org/2000/05/cracking-the-code-of-change [Accessed: 1st November 2023].

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