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Mismanaging Change

Clare Elliott, 6th December 2017

Why do so few change programmes develop their expected results? Bain and Company reckon that change programs only have a 1-in-8 chance of hitting their target objectives and that 38% of companies that launched major change programs saw them fail to deliver, producing less than half of their expected results.

We asked Stuart Jansze for his take on why organisations so often get change wrong.

Q What are some of the reasons why change programs fail?

Change programmes fail for myriad of reasons, though often the main stumbling blocks include poor planning, apathy/lack of sponsorship from the top, incapability of those leading change, lack of communication, drifting agendas and a gap between strategic vision and successful implementation.

Sometimes it’s obvious from the start that a program is going wrong, the leaders are out of their depth because they don’t have the experience. Other times, it’s not so obvious. Further down the line, programs may have been put in place but there’s a gradual realisation that the business is ‘burning money but not getting anywhere’. Then what? The sensible course of action is to bring in an external resource to undertake a ‘reality check’, to diagnose what’s happening and whether things should in fact continue. The same issues come up time and again, but that’s because of the nature of human behaviour. Resistance to change is often innate.

Mismanaging change usually comes down to the same things in companies, i.e., wherever there are people. Are the right people in situ? Do they need upskilling or mentoring? Do they need to step aside? Every program is different, but there are some common issues.

Apathy from senior levels and / or a lack of project sponsorship. This is a common issue. Senior executives, even at board level, are often resistant to change because it might threaten their own fiefdoms. So even if they nod in agreement, they don’t really believe in it. Getting over this hurdle is a key test of the political, communication and influencing skills of the ‘change leader’.

Lack of skilled change leadership. It’s often said that operational management is a very different thing to transformational management, but it’s one of those cliché’s that is absolutely true. Someone can be a brilliant day-to-day operational manager but have very few of the skills required to lead transformation. The inexperience or plain unsuitability of the people who are supposed to be driving change is one of the prime causes programs fail.

Poor communication. We see this one time and again. Communication is the oil that lubricates change. Without it, everything will grind to a halt.

Drifting agendas and poor planning. When there’s a gap between the strategic vision and the organisation’s implementation capability, or when the practical steps required to put that vision in place are not properly understood or modelled, a program is likely to under-deliver or fail entirely.

Too much, too soon. People get overwhelmed by the pace and scale of change and this overload impacts productivity and leads to the program getting bogged down. Prioritising when everything is a priority is tough but necessary. What we find is that one of the keys to making a program work is increasing the organisation’s capacity to manage change and building up its resilience and agility.

Q. Why do organisations often source interim talent into change teams?

We’ve already touched on the difference between operations and transformation leadership. Our clients often have very strong operational leaders, but transformational leadership is (unsurprisingly), a much rarer skill in established businesses.

Even if an organisation does possess an internal change management capability (and that’s especially true of larger companies), specialist interims are often parachuted in to handle ‘hard-to-deliver’ change or help with critical programs where it can be easier to get things done as someone who is an outsider.

We initially used to avoid using the word ‘interim’ because it had some pretty negative connotations. Traditionally, the perception was that an interim would come into a company at a senior level, get paid an extortionate day rate, turn the company on its head, then leave after six / 12 months – after which time everything would revert to how it was before.

In reality, the ultimate goal of a good change practitioner is to make themselves redundant because they have instilled an ongoing capability in-house. They want to make sure that when they leave the business, it is set up for success and is stronger than when they started.

That’s also very much our goal at WBMS, which is why we deliberately sit between the old, out-moded, transactional interim model and higher-end consulting. The key is our trusted network and knowing our clients inside-out. We want to build longevity and leave a legacy, it’s not just about matching clients to names on a database.

Q How do you identify the right ‘transformational’ talent

The process is quite intuitive but it starts with knowing both your clients and your interims exceptionally well. You need to be able to assess whether an individual will be a good cultural fit for a particular organisation and whether they will be able to work with key stakeholders (the CEO, COO, CIO, CFO, etc.). It’s no good, for example, trying to hire someone with a background in agile, horizontal start-ups in an organisation with an old-school hierarchical management structure, it just won’t work.

Of course, if the culture is the very thing you want to change, you have to be even more careful, so we have people who specialise in cultural change and the softer side of change who tend to be fabulous diplomats and influencers.

Q What are the skills and competencies that mark out transformational leaders?

Change is about people. SO first and foremost, they must be ‘people people’ with exceptional communication and influencing skills. Everything grows from this. Communication is one of the most important aspects of any change program. Done well, it is the lubricant that makes change work. Done poorly, it can be a recipe for disaster. The best people are natural communicators and influencers – they don’t really have to try.

The best change leaders often exhibit a ‘restless dissatisfaction’ with mediocrity and they understand that successful change means aligning technology, culture, people, sponsorship and internal communications.

They also have real empathy, they understand and can get under the skin of the business. They all, bar none, have fantastic stakeholder engagement skills and persuasiveness and are able to get people on their side. So diplomacy matters. They’re open to exploring possibilities and opportunities but they’re not afraid to close these down if they prove to be the wrong avenue. Taken together, this amounts to ‘leadership’.

Having said that, not all transformations are the same, some are more about cultural change, getting from A to B, redesigning the people piece, etc. (which might mean upskilling / cutting dead wood). Others are far more IT or systems-based. And these obviously require different skill sets.

Competency wise, it’s all about delivery. They need a demonstrable track record of delivering change. But the key, which is where we come in, is putting the right person, or team, in the right place.

Q. We’ve talked about agility, but do companies understand what ‘being agile’ looks like?

Broadly, no. Typically those that get it are smaller, fintech-types. Larger companies do tend to be slower and more process-focussed. Even if their senior management recognises they need to be more agile, they aren’t able to do much to achieve it because they are hamstrung by organisational inertia.

A common reason companies look for external help is because they want to instil more agile ways of working and don’t have the internal capability to do so. But process-focussed or regulated businesses like the big banks are quite a way behind here and still have a long way to go.

Stuart Jansze, Partner WBMS

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