• Opinion
  • August 20, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

Why change fails — and what we can do about it

Opinion: Creating change is like a game of Jenga — it can quickly come crashing down

This opinion article was written by Martin Stanley, editor of Understanding Policy Making and former UK civil servant. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


Does this sound familiar: Under pressure to cut costs, your senior management mandates an efficiency drive which successfully reduces the number of employees by 15 or 20 percent.

Rather pleased with themselves, they turn to other problems only to find — a year or so later — that managers have found reasons to recruit, headcount has started drifting up again, and all those efficiency gains are being lost.

Or maybe your managers are worried about “silos”? Important parts of your organisation don’t talk to each other or coordinate their activities. So they implement an exciting internal communications strategy using newsletters, a Yammer network and a regular Knowledge Café featuring a communicator of the month.

Six months later, the newsletter is overdue, Yammer is mainly used to organise parties, and Knowledge Cafes are sparsely attended, and not attended at all by senior managers.

Getting it right

What is going on? Well, the organisation is doing what organisations always do, which is to revert to its original shape once external pressure has been removed.

The external pressure at first appears to work and the organisation appears to change, but this creates unseen internal pressures which assert themselves once the external stimulus has been removed. The answer — the only answer — is to address all the key elements of your organisation at the same time.

It sounds daunting and it requires serious planning, but it is the only way to achieve a reasonable chance of success.

What are the key elements? They can undoubtedly be described in a number of ways, but these “Six Cs” works pretty well:

  • Capacity
  • Capability
  • Communications
  • Culture
  • Compensation
  • Constitution

Let’s look at each in turn.

Capacity

This one is straightforward:

it is the organisation’s resources, and in particular its staff numbers. It is an easy and obvious target for efficiency gains. The equally obvious problem is that the remaining staff will need to work harder or in different ways. Which leads directly to the next element:

Capability

This could also be referred to as competence.  This encompasses staff skills, training, experience and motivation.

It lies at the heart of any change program because,  obviously enough, if you don’t improve – or at least alter – the capability of your team then they are very unlikely to be capable of working effectively within a more challenging environment.

Note in particular that improvements in capability must be more than just cosmetic. A change of title plus a bit of e-learning will not cut it. There needs to be a serious training program and/or supervised further experience followed by rigorous testing.

Very few change programs achieve their full objectives, and many are complete failures

Staff motivation can be particularly resistant to change, if only because most humans do not like being taken out of their accustomed comfort zone. There is extensive literature on how whole organisations can lose confidence when faced with the need for change, and this needs to be understood and allowed for. This, in turn, requires high-class communication, hence the need to also focus on the next element.

Communications

This includes both communications whilst the change program is ongoing, and also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented.

The methods you choose to use to communicate within the change program must be specifically designed for your organisation — and indeed for individual parts and levels of your organisation. But the messages to different audiences must be consistent if they are not to be discredited, and must be capable of persuading the cynical and disaffected as well those keen on change.

And, afterwards, more open, fast-moving and less hierarchical communications styles (if that is what you need) will need to be reflected in changes in the organisation’s culture:

Culture

It can be extremely difficult to develop new internal relationships, attitudes to innovation, and attitudes to customers.

These improvements are often driven by changes in compensation/remuneration — as I outline below – and reinforced by employing more experienced and better-trained staff, which speaks to the Capability element above.

Indeed, this is perhaps the area where change programs most often begin to fall apart when change managers fail simultaneously to address all six elements listed in this note.

Compensation

If you are aiming to employ fewer people then you will almost certainly have to reward the remainder rather better, even if this limits your cost savings.

The same applies if you want staff to work more independently and/or innovatively, or to demonstrate better interpersonal or customer-facing skills.

Constitution

Last, but not least, very few of any of the above elements will respond to pressure for permanent change unless accompanied by changes to organisational structures, reporting lines etc.

These sorts of changes administer severe jolts to any organisation because they are hard to reverse and lead to both managers and staff re-evaluating their roles and responsibilities.

It can be hard to know when to introduce these organisational changes. They will feel premature and unnecessary if introduced before much else has changed. And they will be too little, too late if the other changes have already begun to degrade.

In short, very few change programs achieve their full objectives, and many are complete failures.

It takes a lot of thought and time to plan a program which simultaneously changes all of the key elements of an organisation which are listed above. But the effort is well worthwhile if you are seriously focussed on success. — Martin Stanley

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)

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