The majority of organisational change efforts are unsuccessful, with estimates from McKinsey and others suggesting that about 70 per cent of these initiatives fail. That implies, however, that close to a third of these transformation programmes are successful, nonetheless, and the author here concentrates on what we can learn from these.
His research includes talking to those who have successfully led programmes, including chief executives and change-management specialists across the globe.
His key finding is that a linear approach doesn’t work. Change is not predictable or sequential, it is instead a complex process involving hearts as much as minds. Understanding that concept is vital to successful change initiatives.
Too often, leaders engage in one-way communication or “coercive persuasion”, a process that precludes debate and where questioning is regarded as a form of resistance. This, however, is often dressed up as an invitation to collaborate, with a style of delivery that suggests a desire for consensus and debate but with a different reality.
In this scenario, there is no sharing of perspectives, no negotiation of what the future might be, no consideration of identity and an assumption that change can be achieved through the exercising of positional power.
As Lawrence notes, change typically doesn’t happen through monologue and dialogue happens anyway. Just because the change manager chooses not to engage in dialogue doesn’t deter others from engaging in it and it is through that dialogue that change actually occurs. It is widely accepted that the success of change efforts depends on the regular provision of clear information about the nature of the change, the reason for the change and the individual’s role in the change process. However, people make their own sense out of what they hear and are generally resistant to others making sense of it for them.
The change leader who declines to engage in dialogue is in effect declining to participate in that sense-making process.
Listening is vital too. It is important that this is done properly and is not merely a process of following the discussion to discover the terms on which you can get your own way. There is no substitute for getting out and talking to people and leaders should prioritise this.
As the chief executive of a large Australian company told the author, it is a myth that the higher up the chain of command that you go, the busier you become. The reality is that you should be less busy and you should have the time to talk to people and to reflect. A good chief executive doesn’t fill their in-tray with operational work so that they have the excuse that they don’t have the space to be strategic.
Constructing a coherent narrative was another theme the author discovered from his conversations with successful change managers. Structure is important, he notes, and all good stories share a similar underlying structure. However, the key aspects of storytelling that emerged from the research for the book were resonance, transparency and authenticity.
While the narrative must be clear it also needs a certain degree of elasticity. The effective change leader is engaged in an ongoing dialogue and is continually reflecting on the response of others to the narrative and as circumstances change, so must the narrative.
Change leaders are engaging in a process that involves understanding the emotions of others and need to be clear on their own emotional feelings as part of this too. This involves spending time reflecting on their own role, including the link between values, beliefs and behaviours.
Every organisation has strong emotional undertones and the consequences of damaging that emotional fabric can be immense. Change leaders who attempt to implement change from afar without attending to these emotional undertones will have little insight into the process and efforts are likely to be doomed to failure.
The author has some good practical advice on group training programmes around change to create a team of change agents.
These, he says, should avoid too many theoretical models and theories as they may not make practical sense to participants. There should be scope for reflective dialogue and they should avoid too much task work that can become an end in itself. It is also important to invite the right people, those who are curious and eager to learn, as they will make the most effective change leaders.
Lawrence, who is an executive coach and co-director of the Centre for Systemic Change, has produced an interesting and well-researched volume on the topic that will be of benefit to anyone planning a change programme.