The pressing need for businesses to be adaptive increases with each passing year: Global competition, new entrants into your markets, cost pressure, legislative pressure, environmental pressure, uncertainty, as well as increased demand from customers and staff all play their part. Businesses that are not ready for change, and can’t keep up with the pace, will be left behind and find themselves becoming obsolete.
Business studies have consistently shown that the organisations who embrace change and continuously look for ways to improve are the most successful. However, there are not many of them, in a recent IBM survey just 20% of businesses saw more than 75% of their projects succeed.
That means more than 80% of organisations are seeing more than one in every four projects fail or fall by the wayside. This includes major company initiatives but also smaller project implementations like system changes, mergers, new processes and procedural changes– and that’s just the best companies. The worst are seeing figures closer to one in three or even one in two!
Think about your own organisation in the past five years, how many projects or changes can you say were successful? How many ran their course and resulted in positive change to the business? Unfortunately, you’re more likely to think of plenty that were over budget, late, not fully implemented or ultimately failed to provide the return you were looking for, either in terms of investment or cultural change.
Ready for change?
The ability companies have to change quickly, and the necessity of change are diverging at a greater and greater rate. After all the teachings and experiences of the past few decades, organisations should now be constantly ready for change, people at all levels should be able to adapt and embrace change however the reverse is true. We need to be able to live in a world which is in constant transition and not only accept it but embrace it; however, this is not the case.
If you look at your own organisation, how many senior and middle managers are motivated by change and keen to challenge the status quo? Do you think your organisation is ready for change?
If we don’t try to bridge the gap between our ability to change and the need to change, there can be only one outcome: We’ll be overtaken by nimbler and more entrepreneurial companies that can respond to the fast pace of change. In fact, more than two in five CEOs now expect their next major competitor not to come from existing competitors, but from new entrants who can adapt and embrace ever-changing technology and working practices.
The IBM study polled over 1,400 businesses across 48 countries and identified that 20% were change architects; they were highly successful in implementing changes and improvements in the workplace. So what makes those 20% different, the findings of the study support my own first hand experiences working with businesses for the last 25 years:
The importance of leadership
One of the most frustrating things I find with businesses that fail to implement change is the total lack of importance they place on leading change. Most often change initiatives are decided by management in a logical way and then dictated to the workforce at large who will be expected not only to put the changes into action, but also to thank the management for their ‘interference’. The managers may be ready for change, but they haven’t warned their staff or taken any proactive steps themselves.
The failure to lead the change and to communicate effectively with those lower in the company is what prevents success: Why would workers on the shop floor change their behaviour when they see no indication that management is changing their own attitude?
To my mind, successful leadership is vital to change that sticks. This encompasses:
- The need for role models throughout the company that walk the talk
- Engaging employees with a compelling case for change
- Empowering new and passionate change leaders at all levels throughout the company
If leaders are not visible, united and engaged in the change they are asking for, then what hope is there for the rest of the organisation? Successful companies recognise this and management teams take an active role in change.
A shared vision
After lack of leadership sponsorship, the next biggest issue when trying to implement change is the lack of a clear vision across the company of what you are trying to achieve. Organisations may be ready for change, but they don’t know what they are changing, or how, or why.
A critical responsibility of top management is to create a clear vision of why the change is so important to the business and the individuals in the company. This means explaining why the change is necessary, the benefits of the change to the individuals and what the new way will look like.
To do this company leadership must spend time thinking about the change and how it will impact the business and individuals in it: Time to understand why there may be resistance to change, and what that resistance is motivated by. But this means investing time in change management which the majority of companies do not.
Although the process is carried out by people with their own unique fears and aspirations, most change implementations ignore the human element and focus just on the process. It is assumed that the workforce will fall into line, but if they don’t understand the vision for the future, if they don’t know what the company is working towards and why that is better, they won’t accept the change.
We must invest in engaging the people and making the change stick in the organisation and that all starts with selling the vision. To sell the vision you must understand what the benefits will be to the organisation and those who are part of the organisation at each level.
A corporate culture that promotes change
What kind of culture do you have in your organisation? Is it one which encourages questioning, putting forward ideas and challenging the norm? Or is it one of command and control? What tweaks need to be made so that you’re ready for change?
Trying to make a company-wide change is challenging without changing the culture of the organisation itself. Businesses must become more flexible and adaptable; they have to change the environment so that people feel they can speak up if they see a problem with the way things are being done.
Our leaders, managers, staff and partners can’t be constrained by existing paradigms and maps of thinking. They must embrace change, grow and develop to survive.
This is all a massive change to our traditional leaders and C-suite personnel as they must change their approach, their attitudes and leave their comfort zones. Just as with other staff, large-scale change is not easy, but it is necessary to succeed.
Change is essential for our survival. We need to understand that if we do not set up to facilitate and encourage change then we will be left in the dust by more innovative competitors. Those that devote time and effort to planning and supporting change will reap the rewards. Those who continue to focus on the technical solution to problems will fail.