After graduating from Loughborough University in 2007 with degrees in electronic engineering and finance and management, I completed the BAE Systems graduate programme in their weapons and vehicles di...
Byron Ford, Consultant
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The secret of successful change
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The key to successful change is having a clear sense of where you are heading and why you are heading there. Any change needs to be rooted in tangible business benefits, supported by a robust business case and an understanding of the journey your people are embarking upon. Here we provide some guidance on how to shift your organisation from one that maybe “can’t” change to one that “can” and ultimately “will”.
Change comes in many flavours – from a relatively straightforward system change in one part of your business through to a highly complex and critical culture change across your whole organisation. Whatever the change, you don’t want it to leave a nasty taste in your mouth, not to mention a big bill with little to show for it.
So what’s the secret of successful change? Simple. Root it in the achievement of real, tangible business benefits. Let a robust business case guide your change, not just at the outset but throughout the journey as you prepare your business, lead the way, equip your people and create real ownership.
What does good change look like? Good change always has to be about the realisation of tangible business benefits. Why are you doing this? What ultimately are you trying to achieve? If you haven’t asked and answered these questions, hold fire on change or else you’ll no doubt end up spending a great deal of time, effort and money to little good effect.
No matter how tempting the new idea, no matter how enticing the methodology, change for change’s sake is never a good thing. You have to make sure you clarify, articulate and agree the hard benefits of change at the outset.
You have to start with a clear sense of where you’re heading and why you’re heading there. A robust business case should always be the prerequisite of change. It’s your passport to change and like all passports you need to keep it with you as you go – referring back to it at key stages to make sure the business benefits you have set can still be achieved and to explore whether there are additional benefits to be gained. It’s a good idea to make sure you plan these revisits in upfront.
So the business case comes before the change. But what of the change itself? What form and shape does it typically take? What path does it follow? What’s its story?
To get a handle on what needs to happen, it helps to ask yourself two key questions: What will people have to see or do that’s different from today for the change to be deemed a success? And what will people have to believe? Spending time up front to gain precise and practical answers on both counts pays dividends further down the line.
It also pays to see change as a journey from ‘I can’t or I won’t’ to ‘I can’, ‘I want to’ and, crucially, on to ‘I will’. Once you understand what will need to be different round here and what it might take to get all the way to “will”, you have the insights from which to put together a journey that above all engages people, changing their attitudes and emotions along the way. A journey that is managed by focusing on four key areas at each and every stage: preparing the business, leading the way, equipping people for the job, and creating real ownership. One which always ties back to the key benefits which are the reason for changing in the first place.
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Many change programmes end with an implementation, for example of a new HR system. But this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is more like the messy middle. Clearly, just because people can turn on a new system doesn’t mean they will embrace and enjoy making the most of it. You have to go further – focusing on embedding a genuine sense of buy-in and emotional ownership of the change.
This is all the more critical when you consider that at the very point of implementation, attitudes and emotions are often at their lowest ebb. It’s the point at which people are faced with the change actually happening, when they may well still have uncertainties and reservations despite all your best efforts to prepare the ground for and with them.
It’s akin to the ‘valley of despair’ highlighted in the diagram below. The imperative clearly is to recognise that this is all just a natural part of the journey and keep on going, like a marathon runner hitting their wall and running on through it.
Particularly when you’re dealing with big, complex change, it’s important to understand that the journey will be neither neat nor straight. That’s simply unrealistic. You prepare well and keep an agreed destination of business benefits in mind, but you also have to be ready to weave and wiggle, to flex and adapt as you go.
So how do you bring some much needed rigour to the journey? This is where an appreciation of the four key areas and how they play out across the journey is particularly helpful.
As you’ll see in the diagram below, all four areas are important throughout the journey but at different points you turn the volume up on one or more of the areas to keep the change flowing and build ever greater momentum behind it.
In and around that critical messy middle stage of implementation for example, it’s good to reintroduce a greater emphasis on senior folk leading the way. By stepping back in and reconfirming the commitment and the good reasons to press on with the change, leaders can help to minimise any last minute pre go-live worries and wobbles.
So the art of good change is to start by making sure you have a clear sense of where you want to get to, rooted in hard business benefits. You then need to combine this clarity with project management rigour to keep you focused on getting there together with the willingness to flex and adapt as you go – taking people on a journey of change from can’t to can to will. Ultimately to success.