It’s no secret the world is changing – fast. That’s why over 60% of all executives now believe disruption will hit their industries hard in the next year. It doesn’t matter the industry – management consulting, financial services, education. Everyone’s at risk.
This is exactly why I recently outlined why “organizational lag” is every company’s biggest competitive threat.
We hear the mantras: The only constant is change. People don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Change before you have to. Blah, blah, blah.
The problem is that most big companies – and even smaller ones – can’t keep up. They just can’t move fast enough.
Enter the field of change management.
Change management has been around for decades, with its origins in the 1960’s – when the world moved at a snail’s pace as compared to today. The problem is that most change models are based on old school thinking, tools, and techniques.
No wonder 70% of all change efforts fail. Change needs to happen in days and weeks, not months and years.
Here are five underlying assumptions of the change management field that I believe account for the failure of most change programs:
Most change management frameworks assume that the process of change is linear. Models that use “adoption curves” or “7 steps” typically neglect opportunities for revisiting goals and strategies based on the learning that occurs from the process of implementing the change itself. Moving fast requires creating feedback loops so you can adjust as needed based on what you see and experience – not by following a step by step approach with little flexibility. Like Design Thinking process, it may be useful to jump back to a previous step and do it over based on what’s been learned.
Most traditional change management programs focus on assessing the current state, defining a desired end state, and then bridging the gaps between the two via a gap analysis. Many change models define “from-to” strategies as well – the organization needs to move from the current state to a pre-defined future state. Regardless of what you call it, the ideal future is defined at the start of the change process and everything done from that point on hammers it home. But what if things change in the meantime? The world is changing at a mile a minute due to disruptive technology shifts, changing customer needs, and competitors arising out of nowhere. Change processes that myopically focus on a pre-defined future risk having that future disrupted before it arrives.
There’s a paradox when it comes to change. Leadership is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. It’s not enough for leaders to paint a picture of “burning platforms” or big visions of the future. Employees take cues from peers as much as leaders. Traditional change management strategies focus on finding sponsors at the top and creating cascading communication plans. In today’s world, change comes from the bottom and sides as much as the top.
Most corporate change management initiatives are just that: projects that last for a pre-defined period of time. But the fact of change is that change never ends. That’s the reality of life, and business is no exception. When change is approached as a project, program, or initiative, it undermines the notion that the organization must continually adapt and respond to its dynamic external environment. Sure, there might be specific technology projects to implement or training programs to deliver. Organizations that jump from one initiative to the next risk losing the aptitude to create a culture of continuous learning and change.
Most change management professionals say that “change starts at the top.” That’s the problem. Change should start with the customer. Many change programs lack a direct line of sight to customer problems, needs, pain points, and challenges. Without an anchoring in the ultimate value of the change for those being served (and paying the bills), change programs risk becoming change for change’s sake. When people have a clear sense of why the change is happening – from the customer’s perspective – resistance decreases and motivation to accelerate the change increases.
Just about every industry today faces a level of unpredictability unseen in the past. Here are four rules for change revolutionaries in the today’s disruptive environment:
Apply the principles of innovation to the change process. Gain insight into internal or external “customer” needs and problems. Test ideas. Iterate.
Rally people around meaningful business goals that make a strategic difference. Frame projects and initiatives as supporting business strategy, not change itself.
Involve people in determining what needs to change and why in the first place. Promote grassroots innovation. Enlist a cross-section of the organization in championing meaningful change from the beginning.
Reinforce the importance of continuous learning and adaptation through communication and storytelling. Make changes in the organization, but build people’s skills for change itself as part of the process through empowering them to uncover customer problems to solve (internal or external customers), run pilots, experiment, and innovate.
The concept of “managing change” is fast becoming an oxymoron. Innovating the future of change management means embracing innovation as a natural part of the change process.