The roots of change management have been traced back to the beginning of the last century when anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep began documenting rites of passage all over the world. He identified three core stages – separating from the present; going through change; and establishing a future state. Social scientists influenced much of the early thinking around change management, with the well-known comparisons between people experience grief and those facing change at work first proposed in the 1960s.
In the late eighties and throughout the nineties change management became more recognised as a business discipline. It gained new champions, methodologies, structures and a whole stack of clichés and jargon.
And increasingly the people side of change, such as behaviours, culture, leadership and motivation, was seen as the preserve of HR – who were often ill-prepared for the responsibility. This would leave executives to focus on results, strategy, objectives, metrics.
More than a decade ago a classic Harvard Business Review article, The Hard Side of Change Management, looked at whether change management had become too focused on its softer aspects to the detriment of business results.
The HBR article proposed a structure based on Duration, Integrity, Commitment and Effort (DICE) to judge success in the hard side of change project management.
Looking back at the approach that HBR’s article suggested, we consider whether these factors are still as relevant today and compare them to our own research into change management and its success factors.
The longer a project goes on, the more likely key stakeholders are to believe it’s going off track and likely to fail. Research conducted for the HBR article showed that actually this was not the case and that what is really important is frequent project reviews to track execution, identify gaps and spot new risks in order to ensure better outcomes.
Our own research concluded that an agile approach, enabling a focus on project objectives to be delivered in short sprints, is the most effective approach. The risk is that a waterfall approach with a pre-determined project end-date will not give change a chance when so much knowledge can be gained through each agile/iterative cycle.
The HBR article goes on to discuss performance integrity, i.e. ensuring that the best quality project team is in place that can be relied on to execute successfully.
We would again, concur. If the change is a priority then the organisation must ensure star performers are allowed to focus on it. And where a relevant skills gap is identified, sourcing external talent or expertise becomes a priority. Failure to focus properly on this and to be honest about skills gaps in the organisation can reduce the likelihood of successful change from the outset.
Where leaders are clear, consistent and committed to their vision of change, they can expect similar levels of commitment from their staff. The HBR article describes how senior management often underestimates its ability to gain support for initiatives through effective communication. The ‘hard’ part of this communication is to make sure that it is clear ‘straight talk’ that does not water down difficult decisions or leave ambiguities. Staff are likely to fill in gaps and notice inconsistency and therefore build up mistrust rather than support.
Our research found that commitment and communications skills are essential for leaders to build trust in their vision, rather than relying on positional power. This doesn’t however mean that conversations are ‘soft’ when critical decisions need to be communicated.
The need to take the right people away from their day-to-day activities in order to properly focus on achieving the change never goes away. But delivering results in the short term cannot be put on hold if the brighter future is to be achieved. We have always found organisations struggle to divide their time to properly evaluate the past and prepare / innovate for a better future when they are stuck feeling that all effort needs to be focused on the present. Discipline is required to ensure that effort is distributed effectively and supplemented where necessary. Change requires investment if you want it to succeed.
So it’s hard to disagree with the principles of DICE. Our own research into successful change management found there is no single improvement that can be made, or methodology followed, to ensure change success. We do, however, propose a practical checklist of ways in which you can keep your project on track, including:
- Agility – anticipate changes in the environment, keeping team membership fluid as the project demands.
- Engagement – analyse impact, measure and continuously improve.
- Focus – Define and measure success based on the outcome you want to achieve.
- Rigour – Make sure the transformation leadership team fully understands the strategy.
- Leadership – Be clear on how much change leadership you have in the firm and get the mix right.
These ideas are discussed in more detail in our research report –
Business Transformation – Why do we keep on getting it wrong?