In course of the last decades, the old business principle „the big eat the small“ has widely been replaced by other principles such as „the fast eat the slow“ or „the innovatives eat the ambassadors of the ‚we have always done it that way‘ fraction“. The ability to change, to adapt and to be agile and flexible is mission critical for any enterprise, which wants to survive in the era of globalization and digitalization and people are the mission critical element in this game.
The output of any organization is affected by various influencing factors such as management decisions, employee engagement & motivation, politics & turf wars between „little kingdoms“, inefficient business processes & IT systems, operational & personal failures or risks related to external factors. The following chart illustrates that the remaining output of the organization can be just a fraction of the possible output.
For organizations to change, quite a few factors have to come together. The people in the organization need to know where the journey is going, they need to understand what is expected of them, they need to accept this, they need to believe that the change can succeed, they need to have the necessary knowledge and experience to be able to implement the change, they need to want the change, their superiors need to allow them to participate in the change process, they need encouragement and sometimes also help. Only when these 9 essential conditions are met can the desired change occur.
This also explains why so many change and transformation projects run out of steam halfway through: people are individuals and each employee and manager can get stuck on a prerequisite for different reasons. For example, content communicated top-down is often understood differently than it is intended. The rumor mills and grapevines do their part to change the messages and often turn them into negative ones. In addition, there are various reasons why employees do not believe that change can succeed, e.g., bad experiences in the past or a lack of courage to „jump“.
With hundreds of employees, tens of thousands of individual patterns and sensitivities can develop and take shape across the nine critical success factors. And this makes it clear why change cannot be brought about by „one-fits-all“ methods. Ultimately, change can only succeed if you enter into an individual dialog with all those affected at all levels and meet them where they are individually. The communication effort required for this is extremely high, and in order to be able to conduct such individual dialogs in a way that is appropriate for the target group, you need experienced, empathetic change managers and leaders who are willing and able to put themselves in the shoes of those affected and invest enough time and heart and soul to move the individual roadblocks from the road.
But the employees themselves also bear a great deal of responsibility in this process, because only they themselves know where they stand, where they are stuck and what can help them overcome the hang-ups. And every now and then, you also encounter people who simply can’t or don’t want to (anymore) and categorically refuse to change, perhaps because of private or health circumstances and constraints that a company cannot influence. In these cases, too, it is important to find fair and respectful solutions.
Consequently, change management is a huge and important challenge for most enterprises and there are numerous methods and instruments for change management that are being used by change managers depending on the application, knowledge and preference. In its studies on change management, the management consultancy Capgemini regularly examines which instruments are known and where they are used. The following list provided by Capgemini includes the most common instruments for change management in order of frequency of application:
I am pretty sure this long list is not even complete and some of you have experienced in practice additional methods and instruments, which are not mentioned.
In addition, you will find numerous professional books on the matter of change management – from John P. Kotter’s Change Bible „Leading Change“, over „Harvard Business Review’s 10 must reads on Change Management“ to Alexandra Schichtel’s „Change Management for Dummies“ there is something available at the book market for every taste and level of knowledge (reading lists with hand-picked recommendations are provided e.g. here or here).
Since there is obviously already a lot of expertise available, I would like to focus in this blog on some more basic considerations including the important question which practical prerequisites must be fulfilled from an employee’s point of view before change can happen at all.
You probably know smart, simple and useful illustrations such as this one, which already highlights three important levers (ability, desire and permit), a leader has to consider, if he wants to manage change in his organization:
A second chart taken from Barry Newland’s “The four prerequisites for change” illustrates that various factors have to work together in order for change to happen:
A more sophisticated version with nine prerequisites of change is provided in the following chart, which I have assembled from various sources:
A third chart published by Gavin Webber under the headline „The seven stages of change“ illustrates that change is a long process and the success of the transformation is highly dependent on people and their emotion:
This important insight is confirmed by a fourth chart named John Fisher’s „Personal Transition Curve„, which provides an excellent analysis of how individuals deal with personal change:
Change means to think, to feel, to act differently than before. Sustainable personal change will only happen if your body, soul and emotions are in line. Change begins with problem awareness, understanding and acceptance of the need for change.
Unfortunately, we tend to resist change for many reasons and many of us are world class in finding arguments against change, as the following chart illustrates (source of the listed arguments is an article from the Indian Kaizen Institute under the headline „Time to change paradigms„):
The larger an organization is, the more stakeholders it usually comprises, who all have their own perceptions, desires or agendas: Other members of the Management Board, little kings in charge of business units, divisions or regional companies, middle manager, employees (and their families) or works council. If some of these stakeholders do not participate and cooperate, change becomes difficult or even impossible. Example: If a business unit head or subordinated department head, who is afraid to lose power and control, opposes change, it will be difficult, for his direct reports and staff members to contradict and implement change anyway.
What makes change even more difficult, are the „unwritten rules of the game“. In the 1980s, the British/American organizational theorist and management consultant Peter Scott-Morgan invented techniques that have since been widely applied to reveal how complex social systems behave and how associated systemic risks evolve. In 1994, Scott-Morgan published a bestselling book on his concepts entitled „The Unwritten Rules of the Game“, which have a huge impact on the behavior of stakeholders. The following citation is taken from my blog of the same name published on April 11, 2017:
- „Organizations consist of individual human characters and as executive manager you have to understand the ambitions, worries and fears of the individual human characters reporting to you, if you want to successfully develop your company.
- If second line managers are only focussed on the development of their own career and neither able nor willing to cooperate for the sake of the entire company’s success, take them out of their job rather sooner than later.
- Be aware that official rules and regulations always have (positive and negative) side-effects – particularly if they affect the reputation, promotion or payment of your managers and employees.
- The same applies to statements of executive managers in public. A statement such as „matrix conflicts only occur, if I have the wrong managers in place“ will definitely not stop matrix conflicts between Business Units and Regional Units but most likely lead to subliminal disputes which can paralyze the cooperation within your organization.
- The worst thing you can do as an executive manager is introducing a complex organization with (partially) competing or even contradictory goals for your Business Units and Regional Units. Keep the organization as simple as possible. Most of your staff members are not able to cope with complex rules and regulations anyway and the likelihood of undesired side-effects increases with the complexity of the organization and its rule sets.“
Important are in this context not only the individuals, but as well their relationships to each other as well as group dynamics, which can play an important role – particularly in intercultural environments. Prominent examples, where these mechanisms may have a significant impact, are programs centrally developed by German Corporate Departments and intended to be rolled-out in the U.S. or other regional companies.
The next potential pitfall is human communication: What individual „A“ says, is not necessarily, what individual „B“ understands, because the message receiver „B“ has usually a different level of knowledge or interprets specific terms differently than the message sender „A“. Human communication is another huge area covered by numerous professional books, to which I would like to refer to at this point.
According to the „Four side Model“ developed by the German psychologist and communication scientist Friedemann Schulz von Thun, which is also known as „Communication Square“ or „Four-Ears-Model“, every message has four facets though not the same emphasis might be put on each. The four sides of the message are 1. Fact, 2. Self-revealing, 3. Relationship, and 4. Appeal.
The classic example of Schulz von Thun to illustrate his model is the front-seat passenger (e.g. a husband) in a car who tells the driver (e.g. his wife): „Hey, the traffic lights are green“. The driver will understand something different, depending on the ear with which he will hear, and will react differently. On the fact layer he will understand the „fact“ „the traffic lights are green“, he could also understand it as „Come on, drive! .“-„command“, or on the „relationship“ could hear a help like „I want to help you, or if he hears behind it: I am in a hurry the passenger reveals part of himself „self-revelatory“.“ The emphasis on the four layers can be meant differently and also be understood differently. So the sender can stress the appeal of the statement and the receiver can mainly receive the relationship part of the message. This is one of the main reasons for misunderstandings.
I hope, that I haven’t discouraged you so far by illustrating the diversity and complexity of the influencing factors, which have a significant impact on change.
However, there is good news as well …
At first, it’s nowadays for example much easier for Managing Board Members or Change Management Program leaders to get in touch with staff members and communicate mission critical content of change management programs directly to the entire organization (e.g. Webcasts, conference calls, Social Media, email, Messengers). As a consequence, the flow of information and communication cannot as easily be interrupted or prevented by unwilling middle managers as in the past. The same logic applies upwards, since the hurdles for staff members to get in touch with the Managing Board Members or Change Management Program leaders are today much lower, than in the past. However, to what extent these technical opportunities are being utilized directly depends on the question, how the Managing Boards Members
At second, if we look at change from an employee’s perspective – particularly the the question „Which practical prerequisites must be fulfilled before change can happen?“ – we come to a comparably simple and manageable number of nine factors or levers, which have to be properly addressed by the management:
Please note, that there is a big difference between knowing, understanding, accepting and believing in. Things, which are crystal clear from a top manager’s or change manager’s point of view are not at all clear from an employee’s point of view.
For this reason, a differentiated communication concept has to be set up and systematically applied, which considers various stakeholder groups and their particular interests (official and hidden ones). The likelihood to succeed with a „One fits all“ approach is rather low.
Not less important is question, if the staff members are able to apply the new direction, which has to do with skills, methods, tools or processes, but as well with mindset and experience. An individual, who has been highly successful in selling products is not necessarily equally successful, when it comes to selling services or solutions. Change often requires fundamental paradigm shifts – some illustrative examples as basis for your own considerations are provided in the following chart:
As already mentioned above, successful change usually requires a long transformation process comprising many potential pitfalls and aberrations, which need to be followed and proactively managed until changes becomes sustainably and irreversible. Change is not a one time action, but a continuous transformation process over long periods of time, where you always have to cope with setbacks and make new attempts to reinitiate the process e.g. by taking care, encouraging and supporting your staff members.
If you have to commit cruelties in course of a change management program, communicate this openly and honestly right from the beginning and implement the related measures as quickly as possible. Personal disadvantages due to changes cannot always be avoided. However, the least your employees deserve in such situations is a respectful, honest and fair treatment.
I would like to end this blog with a remarkable citation from Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker: „The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate“.
This logic applies as well – if not particularly – for managing change. The more important it is, to understand change, as what is it: A comprehensive and complex challenge, which requires intensive and continuous management attention with an adequate „tone from the top“. Even the world’s best values and codes in combination with world class targets and strategies – defined, noted down and continuously communicated to the employees – will not lead to the desired change, if the corporate management and the leadership of the company do not exemplify it through their one’s own life, reward positive behavior of the subordinated levels or sanction negative behavior of the subordinated levels. In this context a consistent and authentic behavior of the corporate management is of vital importance – indeed not only at the company’s annual „business conference“ or general meeting, but as well in the daily cooperation with the company’s leadership and employees.
Additional thoughts on the question „How to successfully change a corporate culture“ are provided in my blog of the same name published on June 10, 2017: https://kubraconsult.blog/2017/06/10/how-to-successfully-change-a-corporate-culture/.
My blog „The Chief Information Officer’s ultimate reading list“ published on May 18, 2018, comprises a list of my most important publications, which are not only relevant and interesting for CIOs and IT experts, but as well for other interested parties: https://kubraconsult.blog/2018/05/18/the-chief-information-officers-ultimate-reading-list/.