Achieving change is notoriously difficult, either at an individual level or at an organizational level. The vast majority of new year resolutions, for instance, fail to make it out of January before they’re broken, whilst estimates suggest around 70 percent of change efforts fail to achieve the expected results.
I’ve written a number of times on this over the years, with my belief that if you can change the environment people operate within, then they will adapt their behaviors to the environment.
It’s probably fair to say that this approach is not particularly widespread. A recent McKinsey Global Survey found that just 26 percent of companies believed their transformation projects had succeeded (interestingly, this figure doesn’t seem to change much over the years, so either the advice from gurus isn’t being administered or the advice doesn’t work!).
You suspect that McKinsey believe it’s very much the latter. They spoke with the managers at the companies that did achieve success in a bid to understand what they did differently to the rest.
They identify a number of features that they believe contribute to successful change, including:
- good communication
- active leadership (whatever that is)
- empowered employees
- a culture of continuous improvement
These pearls of wisdom were gleaned from a survey to executives asking them which of 24 different actions were used during their transformation. McKinsey suggest that when all 24 of these actions are used, the chances of success rocket to 79%.
Of those 24 however, McKinsey believe that the aforementioned four tend to have a greater impact than the remaining 20. Lets look at those four in more detail.
Communication is something you would imagine is a given, but the tone from McKinsey is still very much that change is a top down thing and that leaders need to communicate what’s happening to employees (and why it’s happening). There seems little mention of actually involving them in the process, much less them driving either part of the sense or respond.
Leadership in successful organizations seems to come solely from those at the top. McKinsey suggest that delegating leadership throughout does little to alter the chances of success, and that the key is for senior managers to ‘be the change’ and to set the right example.
Interestingly, given the apparent top down recommendation with regards to communication, the survey also recommends empowering employees. There appeared a big perception gap between how involved leaders thought employees were, and how involved employees thought they were. This was also reflected in who thought the change was successful, with leaders roughly 2.5 times more likely to think so than the rank and file.
The top down approach to change continued however, with the finding that a key strategy for executives was to ensure that people resistant to the change were kept out of influential positions. It’s all rather more waterfall than sense and respond.
Which is perhaps a major reason why a culture of continuous improvement isn’t present. After all, change isn’t something that ever really has an end date. Adaptability is a way of life rather than a finite project. That only a small number of executives seemed to support this was a rather worrying conclusion.
There is a sense with the big consultancies that the medicine they provide is fine, if only the companies would take it correctly. I’m increasingly thinking that isn’t really the case.