No modern business needs reminding that it is operating in a period of rapid and possibly unprecedented change. (Not that that stops experts of various types from continually repeating the mantra.) However, it is one thing to acknowledge the need for change, quite another to do anything about it, and still another to live with the notion that – as those experts say – “the only constant is change.” Indeed, it is well documented that between half and three-quarters of change initiatives, depending upon complexity, fall short of their targets, or fail outright.
Part of this problem might be down to the fact that, as the Boston Consulting Group points out, determining the changes that need to be made is just “step one.” Most companies, it adds, do not even share a definition of what successful change management looks like. Noting that “most senior leaders say that their organizations struggle to bridge the gap between formulating change programs and successfully executing them,” the firm has set out some best practices for making a better job of bringing about changes. Perry Keenan, senior partner and managing director at BCG, says: “Among the key priorities are setting clear objectives that track success and ensuring that things stay simple. Initiatives that add new bureaucracy are less likely to hit their targets.”
It is also important that companies drive change at the individual level. And to do this they need to work out what their people do, and create the context that will drive the behavior they want. If correctly orchestrated with other initiatives, that individual change will lead to change throughout the organization, says Keenan. Bearing in mind the theme that change is constant, it is additionally worth companies building the infrastructure and institutionalizing the capabilities that enable change, its planning and its execution. Companies should not have to start from scratch with each change effort.
However, the role of effective leadership cannot be overestimated. Change starts as a vision at the top of a company, and engagement by the executive team can make or break an implementation effort. People need their leaders to be visible, especially during difficult times, says BCG. The most effective leaders during change initiatives walk around, are accessible and answer questions openly – even if they don’t have all the answers. Significantly, they also work with the next tier of leadership – the extended leadership team – upfront to engage them as leaders, solicit their ideas and ensure their active involvement in implementing the various change initiatives.
“Most companies point to executive involvement as the number-one factor leading to the success of a change program, but companies need to find ways to involve leaders meaningfully,” says Keenan. He points out how at one financial services company, the CEO and his entire management team went around to every office, listened to employees’ concerns and answered questions honestly. “The fact that the whole team – leadership included – was there boosted employee confidence,” he says.
Given that it is to be expected that rank-and-file employees will have lots of questions at a time of change or uncertainty, leaders need to be prepared to answer them. Keenan explains: “It falls on the organization’s leaders to convincingly address these questions – engaging their extended leadership team and workforce in general on the case for change, motivating them as much as possible while reinforcing accountabilities and driving performance to simultaneously run the existing business well while also successfully executing a typically heavy additional load of create the future business initiatives.”
The demands on senior leadership are “often excruciating,” he concedes. “You can’t do it all. In many cases you have only enough time to do about 30% of what most of the text books say!” So here are a few things he says the stretched leader should be concentrating on:
– Engage and activate your Extended Leadership Team, as much as possible and as soon as possible. “No senior leader is alone. However, all too often organizations going through major change efforts insufficiently engage their extended leadership team early on in the change process – these are the executives typically found at Levels 3-5 in large businesses and often have titles like Executive Manager, Assistant Director, or Senior Manager. There is real strength in leadership numbers.” Establishing processes and investing time to engage the extended leadership team helps ensure that complementary sets of brainpower are available to tackle critical issues that arise as a major change program is rolled out, as well as build much needed broader support and credible communication outreach ability, says Keenan. While sometimes a big change must be kept confidential until the last minute, it is still possible to have a well-planned process for involving the extended leadership team as soon as it is announced.
– Chart a clear course and get the right building blocks in place. “Change efforts should be unambiguous. There needs to be a readily describable case for change that clearly and succinctly defines what is required, why, how and what it means for employees and customers. Leaders can help maintain confidence and soften distracting emotions by explicitly spelling out the consequent implications and expectations for their teams. They should not be subtle about this,” says Keenan. Continuing to maintain exemplary performance in day-to-day business operations can be a significant challenge during major change efforts. More than ever, leaders need to ensure that, from the CEO to the most junior member of the extended leadership team, everyone understands the need to rigorously manage performance against operational metrics. This is where the ingredients for success mentioned earlier – having an established system for carrying out change programs and insisting on regular checks on progress – come in.
– Communicate, remembering the rule of “three and nine.” Keenan explains: “Although it is an over-simplification, we find that the rule of “three and nine” frequently serves as a useful rule of thumb in communication effectiveness. Tactically it is more helpful than saying ‘you can never communicate enough!’ Specifically, leaders should communicate three times more than seems instinctively reasonable to them in order to logically communicate during a time of major change. And employees usually need to hear a message nine times for them to realize that it really relates to and to understand what it means for them. Leaders tend to shy away from ‘over-communicating’, but repetition can help make a change initiative ubiquitous and in time a regular and accepted part of the new business as usual.” He adds that there are two common communications traps to avoid: “We haven’t got anything to say yet so it’s not worth wasting people’s time or worrying them” and “There is so much ambiguity at this stage we are better off saying nothing until things become clearer”. Falling into either of these traps inevitably requires far more leadership effort to get out of them than avoiding them in the first place, he says.
– Unlock the hidden power in your diary. “Leaders often underestimate the considerable power available through making forward-looking scheduling choices in their diary,” says Keenan. “Stepping back and objectively challenging how their time is spent and how it could be rebalanced over the coming six to 12 months frequently creates opportunities.” While a senior leader is unlikely to be able to engage directly with every change initiative that is going on in his or her business, there is an obvious premium in freeing up capacity for them to focus on the most complex and important ones, and in particular helping those who are identifying emerging risks to achieving their goals. He concludes: “The savviest will do so by driving performance results and helping resolve typically cross-functional issues. However, at the same time, they consciously address the people considerations in change management by actively listening, coaching, championing and acknowledging successes.”
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