Why bother with a case for change?

A mallet above small stones that are being laid as part of a path.

Today’s business environment is characterised by disruption and uncertainty. In response, organisations, and the leaders at their helm, need to adapt their processes and systems, in order to stay ahead of the curve. From full-scale business transformation, to a shake-up of the leadership team, companies across the board are in flux.

To understand more about why making the case for change is critical to the success of any change project, we spoke to Anna Davis, Managing Director and Founder of Crossing Jordan® Limited, an independent change management consultancy. With specialist expertise in change management, organisation design and strategic capability development, she works with senior leaders across a range of industries and cultures to deliver high performance.

If you are leading change in this space, your task can feel somewhat daunting. Therefore, before setting things in motion, it’s crucial to draw together the evidence you require to engage stakeholders and convince them to come on-board. You need to build a case, which will map out the road ahead and create the foundation for your success.

Moving effectively from A to B – and beyond – hinges on your ability to fully understand your vision and its implications. Where are you now and where do you need to be? What is it you’re going to do and what will it take to achieve it?

Why change projects risk failing

Research shows that about 70 per cent of change projects fail – and the top two reasons are poor communication and planning. To avoid a project failing, the process needs to start with having a strong case for change.

So what does it mean to build a strong case for change and how can we demystify the term? Let’s start with the word “strong”. A strong business case is one that withstands scrutiny. This doesn’t mean you know the answer to every question and exactly what needs to be done when. The strength comes from having a change mindset and building your case collaboratively. You should think of your organisation as a system, taking into account external factors and, given our understanding of the need to be agile and responsive, it is especially important that the planning be iterative and responsive.

The case for change

The case for change is not the reason why you need to change. It includes this but it also has to include what it will take to deliver it. To create a case for change you need to know what you want to achieve; the change goal; the vision. You need to have worked out what it will take to deliver it, what has to change in your organisation and, potentially, who you need to influence externally, in order to deliver the vision. And finally – an area that often gets overlooked – what is the culture and health of the organisation? This will influence your success.

All of this takes effort but it is necessary. It provides a firmer foundation for you to then start your change planning and you have better information to inform the content of your communication – and not become part of the 70 per cent.

So while you may be keen to get going straight away, taking the time to plan and scope your change project will greatly increase the likelihood of turning your ideas into reality.  Let’s look in more detail at the context for change and what it takes to scope the work required to deliver it.

The context for change

The first thing to do is to ask yourself: what is it we’re seeking to achieve and why? What are the benefits and what impact will the change have? Clarity of vision is absolutely crucial – without this, it’s very difficult to scope out your change properly. Consequently, you end up picking up the pieces further down the track.

A good way to approach this is to imagine you are creating a story for your stakeholders, which has a beginning and an end – where you are currently and where you aspire to be. Your next job is then to flesh out the middle of the tale – how will the narrative reach its conclusion? 

Ultimately, you want to make an impact; to drive your organisation forward in a disruptive environment.

Fully scoping the change

Once you’ve established your vision, you need to consider how you will deliver it. What will you have to do across your organisation, in order to have the impact discussed above? Consider how the change will affect the following:

  • Your organisation’s structure.
  • Your people – those in your department; those external to your department; and your clients and customers.
  • Technology.
  • Your organisation’s processes.

Having a picture of what those areas need to look like is hugely helpful – although it’s important to remember that implementing change is an iterative process, and not a linear one.

This processdoesn’t lock you down or encourage you to throw away the keys of common sense. Rather, it creates a certain mindset, which says: what is it we’re trying to do? What is it going to take? Are we thinking about all the people involved, as well as how we will deliver the change itself? In what way is our culture going to help or hinder us in delivering the change were trying to deliver? Are there some key behaviours that will help us to be more successful? Answering these questions will give you more of a chance to actually achieve the goal you are aiming for.

This last point about culture is worth dwelling on, as it has the potential to be overlooked. While organisations are likely to review their culture when tackling a culture-based project, the same may not be true when dealing with, for example, a technology-based project. So you might ask: what is morale like in your organisation? How are people going to see this change? What has been their previous change experience? What kind of behaviours do you need to make the change successful – and how do you embed these? The culture of your organisation really will determine the success of your change project.

Overcoming challenges

Having clarified your vision, and planned and scoped your change, you will be able to see the actions that you need to take. And, as a result you will be able to identify where the challenges lie. For instance, perhaps you have determined that you need to grow from 10 to 50 employees, in order to deliver the impact you envision or senior level expertise to drive the transformation. The change effort is the recruiting of these people or the development of the expertise.

It’s also important to ensure you are involving the right people at the right time so that you don’t lose perspective on where you need to be. Becoming too isolated in your thinking will likely create problems.

It’s also crucial to ground your project in data. You should make sure you’re using reliable sources and that data is informing your decisions. Whether these data sources are internal or external, you should keep up to date with them, to ensure you have the best possible information at your disposal as you build your case.

Delivering change

When it comes to delivering change, preparation is essential. Although it can be tempting to dive straight in, especially as there are so many conflicting pressures on businesses today, it’s really important not to panic or to enter fight or flight mode. Investing the time and effort into mapping out your vision, scoping and planning how you will achieve it, and finding solutions for any obstacles in your way, will give your organisation the best chance of being successful and of achieving the impact you want to have.

Building a case means you have fully thought through the change in hand and what it will take to deliver it, which is great – but we have to remember we are delivering change into living, breathing organisations and we only deliver change through people.

Outside of a specific change project, we have to create the culture and capability in organisations where doing new things – change – is part of the DNA. To survive, organisations need not only to help people get on with change as no big deal, but to also develop and recruit people who thrive on change, are motivated by it, and are innovators. Fortunately, this does seem to be more commonplace in the generation now coming into organisations and we need to help them reach their potential.

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