Making Change Happen

11 June 2010 Chris Roebuck

Implementing change to meet customer needs, find cost savings and improve performance is critical for the future. Chris Roebuck, visiting professor of Transformational Leadership at Cass Business School offers some practical advice on how to make it happen.

Difficult economic conditions and structural changes mean that many organisations face probably the greatest challenges of recent years. Getting successful implementation of change to meet customer needs, find cost savings, innovate and improve performance is critical for the future, but there is increasing evidence that purely rational decision-making is insufficient for successful change.

No longer can change initiatives take years to implement, lack clarity and focus and never quite deliver the predicted benefits. They are a risk to an organisation, but a risk that must be taken to move forward and best deliver patient care. The longer change initiatives take, the greater the risk of failure, wasted resources and diversion of effort from key deliverables. To be successful, change, more than ever, must be launched by chief executives as high impact and high engagement, and implementation must be rapid, focused and deliver measurable benefit.

Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) DICE (duration, integrity, commitment, effort) system validated in more than 1,000 major change initiatives, indicates four key factors in successful change:

1. Review frequency – every six-eight weeks on simple, and two weeks on complex, change.

2. Project team capability – the team must be the best people for the task.

3. Management and staff commitment – those who have to change must be committed to do so.

4. Additional effort support – those delivering change must have time to so as well as do their ‘day’ job.

These factors, used at review points, give a good measure of likely success and potential risks.

"To get high commitment to change there has to be emotional as well rational buy-in."

Change is not just a rational exercise. Recent Corporate Leadership Council research on building engagement and getting high performance suggests that up to 47% of an employee’s commitment is emotional – much higher than many assume. So to get high commitment to change there has to be emotional as well rational buy-in, something often forgotten. Neither is it sufficient to ensure success; emotional buy-in alone will not deliver high commitment unless supported by rational buy in. There needs to be a clear case for both in presenting change to staff.

From my own experience of leading change in two global organisations there are basic principles to make change successful. The application of these principles to one of these initiatives resulted in it winning several awards and becoming a Harvard Business School case study – so they do work in the real world.

All of this together gives us these powerful principles to increase the chance of successful change in the new challenging world:

  1. High-profile launch and keep the momentum up – launch with a bang and have everyone engaged and ready to implement change within three–four months.
  2. Confront reality – management and staff must genuinely accept the need for change and what needs to be done.
  3. Emotional and rational case for change – both are needed.
  4. Commitment for change – everyone must commit to that change.
  5. Best leaders to lead change – those delivering and leading change must be the best people for the task, not the people who have time on their hands.
  6. Keep it simple and focused – have one clear overarching initiative that everyone can focus on and which can be simply communicated
  7. Frequent progress reviews – check you are making real progress and identifying risk every few weeks
  8. Combine change with business as usual – help staff to be able to do the ‘day’ job and make change happen at the same time

The CEO is key in any strategic change. They must make the case for change, build engagement for it, use the best people to make it happen and then drive it personally through line managers supported by HR. Any passing responsibility for leading change to HR will cause it to be quickly viewed as just another HR initiative and lose credibility. Partnership working between all key stakeholders is vital for success as within a few weeks senior management can ensure change is a success or doom it to failure by their actions. Never forget bad change is actually worse than no change!

Multiple, ineffective, confusing and distracting change initiatives are viewed by many junior leaders and employees as a depressing reality of organisational life that saps their enthusiasm and commitment. Change should be a challenging and inspiring journey to a new better world undertaken willingly by your people. Using the ideas above will help your future change initiatives build inspiration, not desperation. Good luck.