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Change management programmes and how to succeed

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Expert Opinion
March 15, 2022

Change is a constant in business today. Change management programmes – from re-organisations and strategy pivots to technological or cultural transformations – are often necessary if not vital for changing markets, pressures and opportunities. They also frequently fail. More than half prove ineffective or only partially succeed.

Why do change management programmes fail?

There are many reasons. Transformational change, in particular, is multi-faceted as well as far-reaching. It involves coordinating multiple systems, functions, organisational parts and teams, managing their inter-relationships, and anticipating how the change will impact them. But even smaller-scale or adaptive change that is incremental won’t work if the people expected to implement or enact it are not entirely on board.

Change management programmes falter due to ‘change fatigue’ because leaders do not think them through. Therefore preparation is inadequate, too many transitions take place at once, or it all happens too fast. In other cases, implementation seems to succeed, but the team cannot sustain the new regime. This can be down to a lack of essential supporting systems or training. An overly centralised, top-down approach is a common cause of failure. The design is flawed because it excludes insights from employees closer to the customer or factory floor, and people have another reason not to ‘buy in’ to change.

Resistance is natural. In an era where job security is an anachronism, few of us relish the uncertainty when change is afoot, even if there’s a potential upside. ‘Change survivors’ from previous programmes will be sceptical, if not stubborn.

Leading business change

Managing change in the workplace is as much about leadership, process and people, as it is about the content of the change itself.

Commitment starts at the top. When senior managers develop the case for change as a team, they can commit fully and better align their parts of the organisation behind the programme. Depending on the scale of the change, a coherent strategy will most likely require input from people across the business and at different levels.

Whoever is responsible for leading change should engage as early and widely as possible. Genuine engagement will inform the plans for the implementation process, if not the substance of the change itself. For example, where leaders keep a strategy shift or restructuring under wraps for competitive or confidentiality reasons.

Communications should be clear, consistent and continuous so that everyone gets the message. Rumours and fears for the worst will fill a communications vacuum. People must understand the need for change and its goals and benefits if they are to accept it. Involving employees at every level takes planning and time, but careful groundwork allows change to bed in more quickly.

Through an open dialogue, those leading a team through change can learn the concerns of their people and better appreciate the skills and training they’ll need to complete the transition. It is also an opportunity to identify employees at all levels who can champion change and influence or support colleagues. Coach the coaches is a term often used.

Effective leaders of change empower the project team and keep them informed, collaborating to fine-tune the implementation process as it progresses and the supporting structures and systems.

They also consider all relevant metrics when evaluating success post-implementation and beyond. Performance improvements may be short-lived if new ways of working are not embedded.

Cultivating change

Ultimately, change must be compatible with the organisation’s culture if it is to succeed. Even a cultural transformation programme should begin by drawing on the best aspects of the company’s existing ethos. Then you can engage people to identify, agree and commit to new values and behaviours. So, the change fits and the business is fit for the future.

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