People and solutions are chosen specifically for familiarity, consistency and constancy. Challengers to the status quo are avoided. When we take this approach out of the business world and apply it to the natural world, nature quickly gives us its answer: extinction.
We are always impressed when it comes to stories about transformation. We marvel at the before and after photos of a house renovation, a beauty makeover, a weight loss transformation or something similar. The media bombard us with images. TV shows dedicated to change, grab viewers’ attention with unfolding stories, pending the big moment of revelation.
Why is it then that in the world of business, we witness and participate in failed or mediocre change initiatives? What can we learn from broader observations to better initiate and execute change?
Observations from the real world
Companies initiate change for a number of valid but often overdue reasons. The indicators they use to gauge performance often lag behind the dynamics of competition and innovation.
Some change projects are initiated to deal with nagging risks which could cause damage should the risks be realised. Rather than wait for the proverbial ‘heart attack’, some organisations prefer to deal with the issue upfront. Others wait so long, that even after the ‘heart attack’ occurs, they still don’t act.
To cite an example, a large company was warned time and again about chronic underinvestment in its main datacentre. For years, the warnings went unheeded and investment was diverted away. When the inevitable happened and the datacentre suffered a major outage, the responsible manager was criticised and then forced out of the organisation.
The argument used by the executive management was simple: it was the responsibility of the manager in charge to raise the issues time and again, no matter how difficult or unpopular. This was just like a doctor telling a patient to change lifestyle or risk a major health incident. When the incident occurred, the doctor was blamed and then replaced.
This type of corporate procrastination results in staff 'battle fatigue'. It harms the very people responsible for raising issues and protecting the organisation from itself.
People need to understand the change, internalise it, or they will resist and resent it.
People and modifying behaviour
During a change programme to implement a new financial system, it was discovered that the sponsor had been misled about the timeline. His own people had proposed an impossibly short shorter transition. When the sponsor found out, he was slow to act. He was advised to replace those who had misled him as there was clearly a competency/capability gap. His reluctance to replace the people cost time and money. Ultimately the people were replaced but the damage was done.
Regardless of the reasons for change, reducing cost by forcing people to do more with less is a common approach. This rarely works for long. Instead, genuine change and innovation should be the focus e.g. partnering models, outsourcing, new technology, etc. People need to understand the change, internalise it, or they will resist and resent it.
Our innate aversion to change or risk, is mirrored by a perverse fascination and satisfaction when observing the failure of others. In German, it is called Schadenfreude. It reflects the relief we feel when misfortune occurs to someone else, narrowly missing us in the process.
We ignore these human behaviours at our peril as they can doom any initiative.
Transformation is a culture, it is continuous, it is ongoing. It is not a special process or a project.
Management faults and learning from nature
The biggest mistakes occur once executive management votes for change. Choices are made, often politically motivated, which promote corporate or industry inbreeding.
People and solutions are chosen specifically for familiarity, consistency and constancy. Challengers to the status quo are avoided.
Hiring and procurement processes reflect this blinkered approach, preferring people with years of similar experience within the same industry. So called ‘best of breed’ solution selection also limits itself in the same way and ends up being a contradiction in terms.
When we take this approach out of the business world and apply it to the natural world, nature quickly gives us its answer: extinction.
Why make a choice where transformation and innovation has not been demonstrated time and again under different conditions? It's akin to forgoing the fitness professional or personal trainer and asking an unhealthy friend to help you out with health issues. We wouldn't accept it in our personal lives and yet we do so in our professional lives.
This twisted logic was exemplified to me during a team meeting where an overweight manager was trying to persuade us of his health and fitness wisdom. The logic was, as an overweight man who had tried and failed to get healthy, he knew what didn't work. By a process of elimination, he claimed he knew what would work, despite evidence to the contrary.
In the natural world, success depends on a species ability to quickly adapt to changing conditions. Successful adaptations are incorporated and unsuccessful ones are either suppressed or ejected from the gene pool. All life relies on this approach in order to succeed and extend its footprint. The speed with which a species responds ultimately determines its success. The most successful species expand beyond boundaries and survive in very different environments, often simultaneously.
The speed with which a species responds ultimately determines its success. The most successful species expand beyond boundaries and survive in very different environments, often simultaneously.
Why is success is optional?
The identified management problems often result in change projects being re-baselined and re-phased. They frequently deliver a fraction of the original business case. This fractional change is then magnified and sold back to the business as significant change.
Executive sponsors feel politically pressured to oversell under performing transformation initiatives rather than admit mistakes and make corrections. This can result in point solutions which pave the way for more problems because they don't address the underlying issues. In the same way certain medicines mask the pain without treating the problem, thereby allowing the affected patient to carry on as normal until disaster inevitability strikes.
Learning from health
Just as we can learn from nature, we can also learn from medical science. Doctors and scientists have long studied how humans deal with change. These studies can give us insight into how we shape change for the best outcome.
A case in point, which is has been well documented and ongoing, is the human obesity epidemic. Despite significant investment in promoting change to improve health and well being, research tells us that the odds of sustainable change are not favourable.
According to a research study from King's College, London, the odds of achieving and sustaining a minimal 5 per cent reduction in weight over five years are thousands to one against.
In many similar related studies, researchers across the world also found that people consistently underreport their calories consumed. Is this analogous to the over-reporting of progress and success we see with corporate change initiatives?
Read more: Agility comes with maturity
It may seem strange to use this type of research and compare it to something entirely different, like business change. There are however, common and valid elements which bridge the gap between the domains: people and behaviour.
Analysing people and their subsequent behaviour in one area can give us insight into how things might work in another area. The findings behind why people fail to make health changes even in the most dire of circumstances can help us better understand how to make business change more effective.
Continuing the health analogy, transformation or change agents can be regarded like immunosuppressant drugs given to transplant patients. The longer the drugs are administered, the greater the chance the body has to accept the transplant. Once the drugs are stopped, unless the transplant has been precisely matched to the patient, the rejection process will begin and the transplant will fail.
Transformation or change agents can be regarded like immunosuppressant drugs given to transplant patients. The longer the drugs are administered, the greater the chance the body has to accept the transplant. Once the drugs are stopped, unless the transplant has been precisely matched to the patient, the rejection process will begin and the transplant will fail.
A few answers
Understanding how people deal with change will help organisations become successful at instigating changes which can lead to transformation.
Sir John Harvey Jones, the famous industrialist and corporate troubleshooter, observed that in Japan, successful rival firms spent a lot of time internally discussing their projects with all involved. He saw this approach effectively ensured that everyone was on the same page and understood precisely what was required at all times.
An executive at a major Australian bank once commented that we live our life forwards and understand it backwards. Acknowledging this fact helps us to optimise the process of retrospective understanding aka hindsight. We can apply this logic to change initiatives. Perfecting the balance between reviewing status and making progress is the key to gaining forward momentum.
Changes that lead to transformation requires constant focus. Transformation is a culture, it is continuous, it is ongoing. It is not a special process or a project. In order for change to take hold, it must happen incrementally, continuously and over time. Only then does change result in transformation.
We need to recognise and act quickly when change is required. Conversely we must avoid doing anything sudden and drastic as this carries an inherent risk. Also, the bigger the change, the less likely it is to succeed. Above all, change needs to be incremental, iterative and ongoing.
Regardless of when things occurs, people are involved. Understanding how they behave is the key to modifying behaviour and culture. Lasting change that leads to transformation can only be achieved via a change in culture. Affecting one person is challenging. but changing the behaviour and culture of an entire organisation, especially when some of the consequences may be job loss, is daunting.
Points to note:
· Have a clear and positive transformation purpose: People need to understand how they will benefit at an individual level.
· Key people need the ability to quickly adapt to changing conditions: Select the right change agents to lead by example.
· Senior stakeholders need to be visible and accountable: Lead by example and avoid using scapegoats.
· Transformation agents need to feel safe taking risks: Bold decisions can take time to yield benefits.
· Identify the storytellers in the organisation: Help take the people on the journey, especially when things get tough.
· Develop a considerate and flexible plan: Keep communicating the plan and how things are going. Things go wrong, transformation is hard. There is no perfect blueprint for success.
· Honestly understand the current culture: Identify what needs to be done to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
· Some people will leave and won’t endure the journey: Change is hard, it’s not accepted by everybody, and that’s normal.
· Focus, focus, focus… Institutionalise focus to maintain it beyond short term gains. Transformation is a habit that needs to be learnt by repeating new behaviours and embedding them in the culture.
We need to find better ways of making change effective in the corporate world. Ideas and solutions can be found in the most unsuspecting places. A wise engineering colleague once stated that today's solutions were only able to fix yesterday's problems.
Does your own change or transformation experience align in some part with the ideas and observations described?
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