Organisations are in a state of change somewhere within the business at any single point in time. Examples of this include: technology improvements, people restructuring, recruitment campaigns, adapting to evolving external customer needs, etc. Change is probably the most common activity experienced by CEO’s, Exco’s and HR Leaders in their roles.

Yet change is probably also one of the hardest things to get right – there always seems to be a “curve ball” or unpredictable element when the change plan becomes reality. Sound familiar?

Indeed, Beer & Nohria, back in 2000, commented that: “The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail,” which became the “fabled” change failure rate over the last decade or two. However, there has been no factual source of this well-known figure. But what we do know is that change doesn’t “succeed” in the way we want it to, as often as we want it to, so what’s going on?

The most likely answer is because we have been “sold” the rational approach to change – an “amazingly slick” model of change that has sequential steps that we work through and “ta-daa” we supposedly have successful change. Or not as the case may be…

So many blockbuster airport books sold and so many wealthy authors.

More experienced CEOs, Excos and HR Leaders (let’s call them change agents) know that to be successful with change you have to think outside the rational model.  They use their own previous experiences and gut-feel to get change projects working. But why is this?

With the rise of Neoliberalism in the 1980’s, business leaders were sold the concept of “Evidence-Based Management”, where everything important could be measured or, if it cannot be measured, then you shouldn’t be doing it. We became convinced that management was about measuring in numbers (or ‘Management By Objectives’, another airport book!).

Think of a recent change that you have been involved in. How were you going to know if the change had been a success? Most likely there was a KPI or ROI (or another TLA – three letter acronym!) that had a number attached to it. Yet your change initiative was most likely involving humans – those weird entities that don’t react in a logical way. So, what can we do to increase the success of our change initiatives?

It’s all about the context. Looking at change from different perspectives.

Change is about “clarifying” exactly what needs to change and why we need to change it. It is then about gaining the “commitment” from those involved in the change and then finally, once these two areas have been completed, to look at the “capability” of the organisation to see if it has the skills and abilities to complete the change.

Recently, on doing a bit of research on the topic of change, I noticed most commentators found it easier to criticise change that doesn’t work through the rational models, than actually try to help change work better. So, from my investigations, I have summarised my own insight and taken the top 3 “lenses” that I think should be considered when designing a change initiative. And by “lenses” I mean looking at your desired change from the perspective of a certain idea or topic. By doing this it may give you an idea of where potentially your change initiative could fail and, therefore, give you more chance of success if you take this insight into account.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but the 3 “lenses” are as follows:

  • Who has the power?
  • Culture
  • Leadership

1)  Who has the power?

When we look at power in organisations, we often see it as a top-down, hierarchical, legitimate power that is in place. Change happens through our actions, the processes we implement and also communication to those involved in the change. Extensive communication happens, yet sometimes this does not yield the desired outcome from change leaders. Why could this be?

A more pluralist approach to power suggests that power can come from a number of locations. For years we have talked about the “grapevine” as a resistance to change. Co-workers you respect have a form of power relationship with you. You trust what they say. When this form of power becomes more relevant to you than the positional power of the organisation, then you start to believe your co-worker more than the leaders of the organisation. The grapevine starts to win the communication battle in the organisation.  

Now add in to this the affect of the rise of social media. A powerful co-worker can now reach many other colleagues in one message rather than a small handful. Likes, sharing and reposts happen faster than the official channels of communication. The power of the collective conversation of employees is now greater than the formal communication. Change slows as fewer employees “come on board” emotionally with the change as we see change failure happening.

Therefore there needs to be recognition that social media is an accelerant to the grapevine, meaning we have to create dialogues at much lower levels in the organisation with a view to listening and adapting to the needs of the individuals and teams as well as “broadcasting” change communication from up high and expecting everyone to buy-in to it.

2)  Culture

Between the rational structure, processes and goals of the organisation and the individuals’ values and emotions of the employee, lies the culture of the organisation. Most change initiatives work at some level to shift the company culture towards a desired set of behaviours they want their people to work with as part of the overall change goal. Another area where change can stutter is in the obtaining of a “long-term” shift in this culture. Often employees will start to behave differently initially during change but, as soon as the change project is completed, they revert back to previous undesired behaviours. What’s happening here?

The question comes down to whether it is possible that culture can be changed by the leadership of the organisation or if it is “emergent” out of the beliefs of individuals. It might be about how “deep” you need to go into the psychology of the employee to affect long-lasting change.

Think about escalators on the Tube in London. On every escalator there are many signs saying “Please stand on the right”. Visitors to London notice the sign and then stand on the right to follow the rules. Each escalator they go on they stand on the right while in London. They stay a few days and then go home. Do they then stand on the right on escalators in their own city? They may do, they may not. It depends on local customs that the visitor has grown up with in their own country. Then think of residents of London. Do they need the signs to stand on the right? Probably not. Why? Because they have accepted that it is the “right” thing to do. They have seen the consequences of not standing on the right and have “bought into” the idea of two-speed escalators from their own experiences.

Bringing this back into the workplace, if top-down change communication is all that is needed to affect long-lasting culture change, then just put some signs up and the job is done (!). But like with the Tube analogy, to affect long-lasting change, you need to “connect” with people’s values to achieve a permanent change in behaviour.

Schein, in the 1980’s, took the work of Carl Jung on personality and proposed that to change culture you need to affect three things. Firstly, you need to create a shift in the “collective unconscious”, the unconscious shared norms, taken for granted beliefs and feelings of groups of employees. Then for change to be long-lasting you need to affect the “personal unconscious” of beliefs, values and habits by connecting personal values with the goals and strategies of the change. Then finally, link this to the impact of the overt daily narrative and actions of the “conscious mind” through visible messaging, challenging traditions, rituals and the language used.

This can happen through careful understanding of what these unwritten elements are and focusing communication of connecting these norms and feelings with the future state of the desired change. The best way to identify these often includes focus groups and interviews, but these are overlooked on the “rush” to get the change done. It is about focusing on the “clarity” and the “commitment”, rather than just the “capability”. Focusing on this at the start of the change project can often achieve overall success quicker than “jumping straight in”.

3)  Leadership

This brings us to the role of leadership in change. Not the leader of the organisation but the line manager demonstrating leadership behaviours. Leadership is all about change. When you develop one of your team, you give feedback, you achieve your goals, you have a team meeting, you are always aiming to get your team, or individuals in your team, to do something differently. Or in other words, you are trying to create a change of some kind.

Therefore, line managers are change agents. Yet too often we overlook the power that these change agents have in creating change. Think about the concept of power in point 1. The grapevine is powerful as co-workers who are respected communicate their vision to others. The line manager is often one of the most respected people in the organisation from the employees’ point of view. They look out for each other. Interact on a daily basis. How often do we hear of a great line manager leaving the organisation and then slowly the team moves on as well?

The line manager is the “secret agent” of change in organisations. And so often I see a lack of investment in the development of the leadership behaviours in line managers. We spend money on other people initiatives yet say there is little budget for line manager development. Connecting line manager development to increased change success therefore becomes important for HR and People Leaders in organisations.

The line manager has the ability of taking the top-down “change message” and adapting it into a narrative that is understandable for that team. Why? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, the line manager knows the individual values of each team member, which connects with point 2 above around culture change, but also, secondly, culture isn’t uniform within organisations. The marketing team culture is different to the finance team which is different to the HR team. Equipping the line managers in an organisation to be able to create narratives that connect with their teams is key to affect both the culture in a long-lasting way and also counteract the grapevine with a trusted message.

There are many other “lenses” that change can be viewed from that help give organisations an opportunity to be transforming their businesses to meet the ever-evolving pressures of the external world. Those organisations that look past the rational, sequential view of change and accept that real change emerges from teams of employees who connect their values to the goals of the change at a micro level will maintain their competitive advantage and continue to be productive and successful in their business environments.

How are you managing change? I’d love to hear your views.

Download our report: The Productivity Challenge: Understanding what CEOs and People Leaders need to do in 2020 and beyond, which investigates the topic of stalling productivity growth in the UK.