Three Simple Ideas To Stop Change Failing

“The essence of transformation isn’t incremental. Transformation means ‘radical change’. And few companies truly countenance that because it’s, well…too radical.” – Anne McCrossan

Maybe we are being too ambitious.

Perhaps the hype of business change is becoming all consuming, leading us to aim for things our leadership can’t possibly deliver.

In my last couple of posts I explored the current failings of digital transformation and the rise of complexity – two things that are to my mind inextricably linked. The former was my most popular post for over a year and brought with it some great comments and follow up conversations.

What we really need to address is summed up by Anne McCrossan in her comment.

We have a skills deficit.

Transformation means acquiring new skills, new capabilities around data management, processes that support rapid, iterative design and collaborating more openly.

That’s just not happening.

The Myth Of The Complete Leader

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As Chris Bolton said –  it’s tempting to link the rise of overly complicated systems and processes to the creation of the MBA and a proliferation of Management Consultants. The inexplicable rise of leadership fads correlates with a sharp decline in productivity and a general disengagement with work.

Perhaps the actual practice of change is being complicated by a profusion of tools and ideas about strategy and management. 

What if we’ve got it wrong?  What if the management practices we hold onto – the leadership development courses we exalt – the behaviours we seek at recruitment – are not fit for purpose?

What if there’s another way?

Three Not-So-Radical Ideas

1 – Let the People Closest to the Problem Lead Change

Perhaps change would be better served if leaders and consultants stepped out of the way. After all – when you hire a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

As Stowe Boyd writes – change is often about transfusion rather than true transformation. A small set of not-particularly-revolutionary ideas transfused into the existing system, based on the implicit strategy of changing the business as little as possible.

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The people least invested in change (but with the most to gain by it) also have the biggest impact upon it. McKinsey report only a 3% success rate of transformations that fail to engage line managers or frontline employees.

If their role is that mission critical maybe they should have a commanding , rather than supporting, role in the design and implementation of change itself. Perhaps they would be braver.

Designing a form of governance to devolve responsibility to ensure executives and managers are unable to engage directly in these initiatives sounds radical. However – it is in effect no different to the strengths based thinking emerging in community practice.

Basically – change is best served when we devolve power, and the institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.

2 – Sweat The Small Stuff

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change and moved towards marginal gains. According to Steve Sewell  – most change programmes concentrate on modelling, planning or design work that takes months if not years.  People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

Staying below the executive radar and letting the small changes flourish through iterative design and testing sounds like rebellious behaviour but there’s much sense here.

The evaluation of the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab recognises this importance of looking for cheap and small ways to test ideas and concepts, breaking larger change down into small chunks.

3 – Rethink the Love Affair with Change

Perhaps it’s time to escape the idea of organisational transformation once and for all.

Zachary First points out the tremendous, if largely invisible, cost to chasing management fads. Instead of the constant call to keep pace in times of rapid change we might be better placed thinking how we can avoid the need for customers or colleagues to face yet another choice.

Our change programmes rarely answer the question “Why are we changing?” in a truly coherent way.

This – combined with our cultural bias for execution over problem definition – is why change often fails. We may solve a problem – just not the right one.

Really – none of this is that radical at all.

  • Recognising that a digital age requires new mindsets alongside skill-sets.
  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing slowly through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until you have evidence that it works.

That sounds incredibly simple.

And maybe it is.

  1. Spot on as usual Paul. I think the thing we need to recognise is that even big changes are actually made up of lots of small changes, which taken on their own are not scary at all.

    I have long advocated that organisations should recruit for mindset and attitude rather than skill. Skills can be learned, but mindsets are much more difficult to shift. I have experienced at all levels people who think that change is a threat to them, to their way of doing things, to their painstakingly acquired skills, to their position in the hierarchy, when they should be seeing change as a series of opportunities.

    Change is inevitable, and why people think they can resist it is beyond me.

    Reply

    1. Thanks John and goes back to Anne’s opening remark – how radical do people really want to be?

      If it’s really radical: Lesson #1–Resistance is inevitable.

      Reply

  2. […] 30 years later we find ourselves in the place where most transformation efforts fail,  or seem to be based on a strategy of changing the business as little as […]

    Reply

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