For many managers change is at the heart of what they do – change a process, change team roles/ capabilities, change/ develop individuals, change products/ services, change targets, change target customers; change, change, change. Change is often at the core of the biggest challenges we face at work and can help make or break a career.  

With organisational change being so important, how come change programmes are as successful as M&A transactions, with a failure rate of 60-70 per cent? 

Somehow, change has gotten mixed up with leadership and many think all you need is awesome leadership skills, a plan and it is all going to be ok. Others say you need to create an "event" or "burning platform"; to "burn the lifeboats" and force it through. The first is a recipe for failure, and the second will work with some people some of the time but generally they are going to be very unhappy. There is going to be a lot of blood on the floor (probably yours) and the quality of the outcome can be worse than what you had at the start.

You can read Harvard Business Review articles on change, but the most famous one could have been written by a first year business student. So, is there a better way?

The flavours of change 

From painful experience I have learnt the following. Change comes in two flavors: process change and behavioural change. Process changes, such as new accounting/ expense/ recruitment processes, are generally straightforward to do successfully. Interview the customers/ stakeholders/ administrators of the current process to understand the current situation and get agreement on the goal/ objective of making the change, and then create a plan. Communicate the change to everyone, train those that need training and "push" it through – and communicate the change again and again. Job done.

Anything requiring a change in a person's behaviour is a totally different ball game. Examples are:

  • We want our engineers to work differently (waterfall to agile).
  • We want the sales team to support our new brand position (less transaction selling, more relationship selling).
  • We need to provide better customer support.
  • We need fewer errors in shipping.
  • We need better documentation etc. etc.

This is a "hearts and minds" campaign, requiring a good plan with an awesome communications plan.  The standard model is: Experience > Values > Behavior > Outcomes – i.e.: if you want to change the behaviour of a person to change the outcome, you first need to change a person's values, which is done through new/ different experiences. 

Another way of looking at it is: you will never change someone's behavior, only they can, but you can help them change by creating the right experiences so they teach themselves. Only two problems – this regularly doesn't work at scale and doesn't work if there are underlying work culture issues. You can create thousands of experiences for people to learn new behaviours by visiting customers etc., but if the culture isn't right you are wasting your time and energy (think automotive manufacturing in the 70s, for an extreme example).

How change happens 

So, this is when it starts getting difficult. You need to influence the culture so people are receptive to learning from the experiences you design and change themselves. Changing a team, group, division or company's culture is one of the toughest management challenges. I fought against the answer for a long time as I didn’t want to believe it – culture comes from the single individual at the top. 

If you want to change a company, the CEO has to be supportive, live the new value/ behaviour and communicate their support constantly (if he/ she thinks communication is 90 per cent complete, it is rarely more than 20 per cent there). Similarly, if you are changing a team, group or division's culture, the head of a division, group or team must support the changes to the culture and "walk the talk" every day.  Only ONE slip up by a leader kills any culture change dead.

Ok, so everyone's onboard with your plan and you have spent 30+ per cent of the time on developing and getting CEO/ div head/ group head/ team leader support for the communications plan. How do you maximise your chances of success? 

The DICE change model 

Use the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) DICE change model to improve your chances of success (I have made a few small additions). Yes, the list looks simple, so use it and think about it every day. The model was developed from real data and not in an ivory tower (go and search about it on the web to learn more):

  • D = duration: (i) the longer your project, or longer the time between milestones, the higher the chance of failure, so shorten them! (ii) the longer the time between review meetings with the programme's sponsor and key stakeholders, the higher the chance of failure (more time you have for getting off track and others believing what they want to).
  • I = integrity: the quality of the team driving the change and the quality of the people being changed – i.e.: make sure you are working with the best people you can get your hands on.
  • C = commitment and communications: the more committed the sponsor and stakeholders are to change, the more likely you are going to be successful. Similarly, the more frequent and better the communications are, the more likely you are to be successful – i.e.: your job is to keep everyone engaged and on message.
  • E = effort: the easier you make it for people to change, the more likely you will be successful. It might take you an extra week to nail that first web page, but if it makes it easier to use, do it.

I believe a successful project with a behavioural component is one of the most rewarding and fun things to do at work (and an unsuccessful one is one of the more disheartening, miserable, time-sinks ever).  Good luck and enjoy the ride.

My experience with change comes from running a change team within Skype, working with a number of US and European-based companies of different sizes, and reading lots, as there isn't a single "how to manual" on change yet. 

If you want to learn more about: the different types of change – find Balogun's paper on Strategic Change; culture change – read Carolyn Taylor's excellent book Walking the Talk and the great Harvard Business Review article on the DICE model by BCG. 

An original version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn

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