How to master the ‘follow-through’ of organisational transformation.

Change programmes are notoriously difficult to design but even more challenging to embed across an organisation in the longer term. Aside from times of merger and acquisition, organisations are under regulatory pressure to change; they also face pressure to change from their customers, shareholders and even from their workforce. 

For too long organisations have taken a macro approach to embedding change initiatives, often ‘sheep-dipping’ large groups of people through launch events but forgetting that the change will be brought about by individuals. This discussion article suggests why reviewing approaches to embedding organisational change is so important for all those involved. 

Purpose

This article sets out the case for radically changing the approach to designing and maintaining change initiatives in organisations. The proposed changes will allow for a significantly improved conversion rate of ‘change-planned’ to ‘change-manifested’. 

Those professionals charged with the responsibility and accountability for ensuring that large-scale change initiatives return a higher proportion of the investment that has been made in them, such as CEOs, Human Resources Directors, Heads of Learning and Development and Strategy, will benefit from the new insights offered in this article. It will provide a new approach that increases success-rates in organisational change that will last for the foreseeable future: Namely a future that involves human beings in the workplace. 

There is a secondary objective for this article and that is directed at those on the receiving end of such change initiatives. If future work-based success of front-line employees is in part determined by their ability to consistently make manifest the changes that the organisation has planned, then this article will help the facilitators of change, to help those on the front line to make it reality. 

“Change being the only consistent” is a piece of classic Greek wisdom that employees tacitly understand but change-fatigue is a recognised phenomenon (Bolino, Hsiung, Harvey, & LePine, 2015) and the ability to energise and motivate the individuals in an organisation to engage in change initiatives whilst protecting their well-being is key to the success of both the organisation and the individual. It is this symbiotic relationship that is at the very centre of this article: An organisation cannot change without that change being manifested by the individuals within it – at all levels. 

Helping facilitators and leaders of change help the rest of the workforce bring to life the planned change is mutually beneficial. Getting change right the first time saves drawing on the resilience and limited resources of the entire workforce and reduces in levels of stress (Smollan, 2015). Any surplus energy can then be focused through the change initiative to increased productivity. 

Current evidence

Reportedly, somewhere between 50-90% of all change initiatives fail. Of course, this isn’t an accurate assertion (Hughes, 2011). No-one can know exactly what that figure is because of all the variables involved, not least of which is a clear understanding of what it takes for a change initiative to be declared ‘a failure’ (Cândido & Santos, 2015). What is clear is that academics and professionals alike recognise that undertaking large-scale organisation change programmes is extremely challenging, in that there are an almost limitless number of variables to manage, within a process that is neither linear nor necessarily logical.

A new direction

However, there is a change of emphasis looming on the horizon. That change is an important pivot point that as leadership coaches we have long spoken about: The move to organisation level change through emphasis on individual level change.  Such a shift requires little support or interventions from outside the organisation but what it does need is a fully engaged management and leadership cohort, skilled in working out the motivations, drivers and barriers that each of us experience from time to time. This is echoed in recent research suggesting that the role and leadership style of leaders is especially important in the engagement of the wider workforce, with transformational leadership styles being positively associated with change by employees, whilst transactional styles of leadership are negatively associated with the change process (Holten & Brenner, 2015)[1]. There is also evidence that positions the importance of the relationship that employees have with their line manager in bringing about changes in employee behaviour (Alfes, Shantz, Truss, & Soane, 2013). A clear but not surprising conclusion to draw, is that leaders and bosses have a significant impact on employees changing behaviours and attitudes in both the short and long-term. 

Gradually, the emphasis on the individual is gathering pace and it makes perfect sense to us – albeit a case of ‘better late than never!’ Great focus on individual change seems logical to us for several reasons: 

  1. A team is in fact a group of individuals and by extension so is an organisation
  2. Organisational culture and observable behaviours are largely the manifestation of many individual human acts
  3. The people closest to and who have the greatest impact over the wider workforce, are managers and leaders(who, by the way, are also both individuals and humans themselves … at least at present!).

Let’s look at each of these points in a little more detail: 

1. The nature of a Group

“There is no ‘I’ in team”. No doubt you will have heard this before. Whilst I recognise that it is often said tongue-in-cheek, it’s not a position I have ever held to be accurate. The concept of a “team” is not one to which I subscribe fully. Indeed, what is a team if not a collection of ‘I’s? 

If we can hold this position, (even if only for the purposes of this article!) it helps clarify why large -scale change runs into troubles: It tends to be focused on large groups rather than on the individuals within that group. It seems odd to us that organisational change is designed by a small-group of people then communicated to a large group of people, whilst expecting the changes to come about through the attitudes and behaviours of individual people. This seems somewhat at odds with logic let alone common sense or the evidence (e.g. Stanleigh, 2008).

2. The nature of organisational culture

Organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB) refers to “employee behaviour that is more discretionary, is less likely to be formally linked with organizational rewards, and contributes to the organization by promoting a positive social and psychological climate” (Bolino et al., 2015). These are the very kinds of behaviours that many change initiatives are designed to develop in employees. We often see this level of behaviour change required when organisations launch new company values and leadership or competency frameworks. Organisations are looking for positive behaviours from their employees, ‘freely’ given in the spirit of working towards the ‘greater good’. In the current economic climate, with a greater emphasis on ‘doing the right thing’ in combination with ‘do the thing right’, building an organisational culture where such behaviours and attitudes thrive, is critically important. However, bearing in mind the individual nature of values and beliefs that drive such behaviours, it remains a real challenge to bring about human-level change through a solely organisational-level approach. Individuals will contribute to a positive organisational culture and display OCB but often only once they have an idea of the answer to the question: “WIIFM?” (What’s in it for me?). 

3. Leadership and management

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.”  

Max Frisch

For change to be embedded sustainably, i.e. for the duration that it is still relevant, requires two simple things: Firstly, it requires a level of readiness in the individual to change; secondly, it needs high levels of high quality human contact. Both helping get employees ready for change and high levels human interaction post the launch come from effective leaders and managers. 

Excellent leadership and management approaches to staff and strong relationship building, promotes high levels of trust and result in sustainable change i.e. embedding the desired changes over the long-term. If the leadership cadre have the skills to build these effective relationships with their staff and develop a transformational leadership style, then they will be able to impact change positively across the whole organisation on a day-to-day basis and in the long-term. The net result will not only be a more effective change programme but also improved business results (e.g. García-Morales, Jiménez-Barrionuevo, & Gutiérrez-Gutiérrez, 2012).

The challenge then is two-fold: re-directing the emphasis of change programmes to make the focus more tailored to individuals and importantly, the development of leadership and management populations, in order that they can lead and manage in a way that focuses on the human being that is going to produce the outputs that are key to the organisation. 

Summary

In this discussion article we have suggested that change programmes struggle to embed fully across the long-term. In part, this is a problem of definition and a lack of clarity about what success would be if it were achieved. However, it is also a result of an organisation or team level focus rather than centring the attention on individuals: Be they leaders of those on the front line or those who are actually on the front line itself. The focus on developing the transformational leadership skills of individual leaders will lead to a strengthening of their ability to facilitate change at an individual level (values, beliefs, motivations) with their staff.  

We enable your organisation to achieve individual and collective transformation goals quickly and confidently, whether you require support for senior leaders, executive teams, or large cohorts of mission critical managers.

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[1] In this context the former is described as including: charisma; intellectual stretch, inspirational motivation and individual consideration. Whilst transactional leadership has been predicated on conditional reward and management by exception (See: Bass,1999)

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