Organisations invest much time, effort and money in bringing about change, often through large capital projects. But do the returns justify the investment? Are we really getting what we want when we set out to change things? Many case studies and much research on this topic would suggest not.
A major root cause identified in this regard is a lack of attention to change management. Plain good sense and even casual observation would support this – we can’t expect people to commit to change when they don’t understand why it is necessary, how it impacts on them and what is required of them. In response, most large organisations have come to take change management rather seriously. While significant focus on change management was the exception two decades ago, now it is rare to find a large organisation willing to embark on any large-scale change without some form of change management.
Change management has emerged from the wings and now occupies centre stage. Indeed, with little doubt, as you are reading this, somewhere in the world, in some project room, a project team member is at this very moment looking up at her colleagues and saying “business resources are not attending our sessions – it’s a change management issue”. But is change management really the cure-all that many seem to have come to believe it is? We seem to be throwing change management at almost any project issue, resulting in change managers bending over backwards to get the desired results, and (a happy consequence) an almost exponential growth and maturation of the art and science of change management.
But why is it then that organisational change still often fails to deliver to expectation? Does this perhaps mean that there has been more amiss than just change management all along? Even worse, is it possible that change management – like pain medication – may be masking more serious symptoms that could lead to longer-term damage? Let’s explore these questions, and see what we can discover by considering some real life examples:
To get more change, you sometimes have to change less…
Some years ago, a large South African manufacturing organisation experienced an increase in safety incidents, coupled with a dip in capital project performance and a worsening of organisational climate. This organisation had a hard-driving culture, forever striving to improve and to do more with less. However, the emerging issues were of great concern and upon investigation, the leadership team decided to implement a very rigorous process for project prioritisation and initiative overload prevention, effectively shielding their core business from the effects of trying to do too much with too little. Safety statistics soon improved to reach and even better previous benchmarks, organisational climate improved, and there was more actual change delivery than before – by reducing the number of change initiatives, this organisation achieved more change.
When project budgets are slashed without a concomitant reduction in scope, or scope is allowed to increase without reconsidering project timelines, or when too many initiatives are attempted at one time, the practical implications may simply overwhelm project teams and the organisation.
It’s not the vacuum salesman who cleans the carpets…
The CEO at a well-known printing company wanted to turn his old-fashioned, inefficient organisation into a high-performing, class-leading innovator. The young CIO had great ideas on how to harness technology to help achieve this, ideas that were apparently eagerly accepted by the rest of the leadership team. Vendors were then invited to propose their solutions in support of a high-level vision developed by the executive committee. Soon the company headquarters was awash in consultants all focused on delivering their part of “The Solution”. From the outset, the CEO and the steering committee for this initiative (comprising largely of the executive committee) held the project team (comprising of the CIO, a few other internal resources and a large majority of external consultants) responsible for delivering the promised benefits. Of course, the project team had little authority to effect real change – this authority lay with the executive team, who were very much part of the original problem themselves, and who sat back in their high-back executive chairs and watched the project run out of steam and slowly start sinking. The CIO was held responsible for the failure, external consultants became convenient scapegoats, and the CEO was eventually forced to leave. Beyond that, there was precious little real change – the system very effectively maintained its status quo.
The scenario above is quite extreme, but the general pattern is nonetheless clearly recognisable in many organisations. The demand for change should be placed on organisational leaders, not on the project team. When this is done correctly, the role players who have the power to bring about change are also clearly assigned the responsibility to make it happen. It then follows automatically that the project team will be positioned to assist with this instead of striving in vain to meet the unrealistic expectation that they must make change happen without having the authority to do so.
Focus on the marriage, not the wedding…
Just as it is patently obvious in our own personal lives that the marriage is more important and requires more sustained focus and effort than the wedding, it is abundantly clear that the most change management effort should be expended in the period after major organisational change has been implemented. However, this is rarely the case. For most large change initiatives, there is always a sharp “ramping down” that may start even before the changes have been fully implemented.
Several personal discussions with leaders in large organisations across a diverse spectrum of industries seem to suggest that there is a strong realisation that it makes abundant sense to “focus more on the marriage”, and an almost universal awareness that “we fall short on follow-through with our projects”. Yet, this awareness does not reflect in actual behaviour – in most large organisations, wedding follows wedding, with little time, money or focus allocated to making all of the resulting marriages work. A major contributing factor to this is the strong emphasis given to metrics relating to project execution and completion, coupled with an apparent neglect of proper benefit realisation processes and metrics.
Too many initiatives fail simply because they were not designed not to fail – when building a highway overpass, how many engineers would design a structure that is just barely strong enough? Yet this is what happens daily with large change initiatives – budgets and timelines are pared to a minimum, and an entirely illogical “just barely enough is good enough” approach seems to inform many project decisions. Projects that deliver on pared-down budgets and within very aggressive timelines are deemed to be a success at project conclusion, often with very little concern for a sustained process of benefit realisation or longer term metrics in this regard. This is the equivalent to thinking that if the wedding was a success, the marriage will automatically be great too.
If any change project has an acceptable ROI, then the benefits should outweigh the costs to a very significant extent. How sensible is it then to compromise the larger figure of the expected return by trying to save a few percent on the much smaller figure of the capital costs of the initiative?
While change management can – and does – make a major contribution to the success of large change initiatives, it may be a serious mistake to attempt to use change management as a cure-all. All of the examples cited above have root causes that lie outside of change management, yet when the inevitable problems that result from these surface in projects, it often becomes a “change issue”. We should take a long, hard and honest look at how initiatives are run in organisations, and address areas of weakness at the source – including but not limited to those briefly covered in this article.
The primary focus of change management should be to help stakeholders and organisations deal effectively with change. If we continue using change management inappropriately, to partially address issues that have an entirely unrelated root cause, the issues will remain unresolved, initiative outcomes will continue to fall short of expectations and we would be doing the organisations and stakeholders we serve a grave disservice by not delivering on the full promise of what good change management can offer.