Most transformational change in non-crises situations fails. Change born of real crises tends to write its own agenda, the issues here are now to do with tactics and timing rather than the three big questions of change; why, where to, and what; because these have usually been answered for you by external forces. The real test of an organisations change leadership capabilities is not, when we have to, but when we ought to.
When the obvious mandate for change is weak, other forces need to be brought to bear to create that strong mandate. Without it, the rhetoric for change stays as just that, rhetoric; peoples behaviours remain the same and the change targets set begin to slip.
The creation of a mandate for change comes down to leadership. Leaders (at all levels) recognising (before its obvious) that the current ways of working are either sustainable or scaleable. This can be hard to do both conceptually and practically when the current business metrics look solid.
One of the things not often not understood about the timing of change it that performance is usually a lagging indicator of a change/leadership vacuum. The argument made not to change ‘because of the strength of the current numbers’ dangerously misses the point. Waiting until the numbers nosedive before changing will create a performance gap, because any reactive changes will take a while to kick in.
This connects to the second problem. Changing when things have already gone wrong means working from a reduced set of options. Suddenly, change has to be fast(er), and cheap(er), anything else will not resolve the immediate performance gap.
From our own work, the third most common problem why change is postponed is the mysterious disease of ‘change fatigue’. This seems to affect many people, and organisations, although interestingly the more successful the organisation the less it seems susceptible to the symptoms (cynicism, negativity, workload issues, etc.). It’s not change that causes the fatigue, but initiative overload, done superficially and reactively.
When change is clearly connected to strategic objectives, underpinned by extensive supporting/reinforcing mechanisms, owned by the people is affects, aligned with values of the organisation, and implemented before it’s needed, people don’t suffer change fatigue but change excitement.
An organisation’s change capacity is not a function of purely how much change, but mainly a function of the quality of change. When the change processes meets the above criteria the organisations ’capacity’ for chance increases. Change starts to be driven as much bottom up as top down. It becomes the natural order of things like a family with young children. The ‘young child family’ is an interesting analogy. Because children’s changes are inevitable, they can be planned for and coping strategies developed, before they occur. What every (effective) parent has done is cross the threshold of conviction. They believe the changes will happen, so have the motivation develop the appropriate responses. By definition, part of bad parenting is not dealing effectively with the growing up (changing) of their children. The crossing of the threshold of conviction for people in an organisational change context is critical. For that move across the change needs to answer three major questions for each individual affected:
- Why and why now?
- Where to, over what time period?
- What’s in it for me?
It’s obvious when people have crossed this threshold, they don’t need to debate why, or why me, only what next? When they understand the where to, all the focus can move to the how? And when they get what’s in it for me, their emotional investment commits to making it work.