Article By Mark Fenton, Transformation Lead at Optima Systems Consultancy
Studies show that 70% of all transformations fail so what do successful implementers of change do differently to achieve their goal?
I have been involved in and witnessed transformation programmes across a range of organisations throughout my career that have achieved varying degrees of success. My experiences of transformation programmes have taught me much, but most crucially the importance of taking a people-centric approach. Organisational change is an emotional experience and through this lens I have identified some principles that I believe are key to successfully transforming an organisation.
A few months ago, I made a decision to focus my career on doing something that I really enjoyed; helping organisations to improve their performance by applying these principles.
Integrating people into systems, not just technologies
My first job following university was working as a Systems Engineer developing complex weapon systems. It was during this early stage of my career that I learned the importance of taking a people-centric approach to design. Systems Engineering is heavily focused on integrating technologies into useful products. As people are a critical component of many systems, they also need to be integrated into the solutions. I was fortunate to be able to work with talented Human Factors Integration specialists who encouraged me to consider both the needs of the people using the systems and the impact of the technological solutions on the people.
Engage people in the transformation to gain their commitment to change
My first few involvements in organisational improvement involved creating faster, more efficient ways of developing products. When I subsequently moved to an engineering services company, I found myself regularly getting deployed on improvement tasks for our clients. My systems thinking and development skills gave me an advantage with the ability to design organisation structures and processes, but it quickly became apparent that this was of limited worth if people didn’t embrace the changes.
These experiences led me to recognise that emotion often plays a more important role than logic in people’s decisions and actions. I concluded that, to really embed change you need to get the people impacted by change to emotionally commit both to the need for change and the proposed improvements. I have found that soft skills including active listening, influencing, and facilitation are key to helping individuals and groups to become engaged.
Facilitating people to explore why the organisation needs to transform helps them buy-in to the need for them to change. Co-creating solutions with the people they impact leads to better solutions that are more likely to be accepted and can therefore be easily embedded. The facilitation skills I have developed over my career have formed a cornerstone of my approach to transformation and are regularly deployed to engage people in transformation.
Navigating through change with a growth mindset
My experiences of transformation within business were reinforced by my sporting experiences. It was here that I learned the importance of mindset in achieving high performance. I spent many years coaching adult softball players ranging from grass-roots players to national squad members. I regularly witnessed players failing to improve because they either started from the mindset that they couldn’t learn new skills, or because they couldn’t deal with early failures and simply gave up trying. There were occasions where new players with little or no previous experience arrived and quickly developed into capable players, but they were the exception rather than the rule. More often people plateaued at a level below their true potential due to a lack of belief in their ability to improve or difficulty coping with failure.
Changing and achieving high performance is not easy; you are quite likely to fail while you are trying. To overcome this, I increasingly found myself focusing on developing growth mindset and resilience to enable players to improve as well as coaching technical skills. The same mindset issues can impact on the successful transformation of a business. To get the best out of your organisation, you have to invest in helping the people within it change themselves.
7 Key Principles for successfully leading people through change
The key to transform an organisation successfully is for the people within it to embrace the change. People experience change in very different ways and, more often than not, changes take time to be accepted and embedded. If you don’t help people to embrace the change, you reduce the chances of successfully transforming the organisation.
Organisations need to actively engage people to gain their commitment to change. I believe that applying the following 7 Key Principles makes successful transformation more likely:
- Leaders need to change first, leading by example rather than directing. Leadership occurs at all levels of an organisation. From executive sponsors to change agents within the organisation, it’s important that these leaders are visibly engaged and demonstrating positive attitudes and behaviours. If people don’t believe that leaders in the business are behind the changes, they are unlikely to put the effort in to change themselves.
- Align the transformation with the organisation’s values. Recent studies by Gallup suggest that between a staggering 70% and 85% of people feel disengaged from their employer. One of the most commonly cited reasons is a misalignment of corporate and personal values. Ensuring that a transformation aligns with the organisation’s values can help to reengage people or prevent them from becoming disengaged.
- Help the organisation change itself from within. People often find it difficult to accept changes imposed on them by someone else. The people within an organisation are the ones that know it best and that have to adopt the changes. It is therefore better to co-create the changes with them facilitating them to develop a solution they own, rather than trying to force them to conform to someone else’s solution.
- Celebrate success; accept and learn from failure. It is highly unlikely that any transformation will be plain sailing. Where success is achieved, it is important to recognise it and publicly celebrate it. Some form of failure during a transformation is almost guaranteed. It is important to accept that this will happen and not criticise people who are doing their best to implement changes. Rather, seek to understand the reasons for the failure and act to overcome them.
- Start with small changes and build on them. The larger the change, the harder it is for people to accept and the more likely it is to fail. By keeping changes small and building on them incrementally you can reduce the impact of change on the people, more quickly realise benefits and reduce the risk of spending large amounts of time and money without achieving the transformation goals.
- Measure realised improvements rather than setting random targets. Targets for improvement are often established at the start of a transformation programme without any measurement of current performance or understanding of what is actually achievable. If people don’t believe targets are valid, they will not buy in to them. Understand the direction of travel you wish to take, establish metrics aligned to the goals as soon as possible and monitor performance regularly to understand the impact of changes.
- Keep going until the change is embedded. Organisations expect the benefits of transformations to be realised early, too often underestimating the importance of an effective transition period. Transformation programmes are closed when outputs have been delivered rather than once the desired outcomes have been achieved. By failing to maintain focus throughout an effective transition period, changes are not embedded as the new way of working. This can result in a hybrid state that does not achieve the goals of the transformation and creates a level of counterproductive confusion.
Transforming an organisation is one of the most complex activities that organisations undertake. Engaging people in understanding issues, developing solutions and deploying them into the organisation helps to increase their commitment to the changes. Failure to take the people-centric aspects of change into account is a common reason transformation programmes are not successful.
At Optima Systems Consultancy we established an approach, Optima Connections™, that consistently helps our clients to transform their organisations quickly and in a way that engages the people impacted by the changes.
This approach combines proven techniques to operating model development and agile delivery management with people-centric approaches to help people accept and adopt change.
What is your experience and takeaway from previous transformation programmes? How well does your organisation engage people to gain their commitment to change and support them through a transformation?
If you think your business would benefit from this approach, contact me to discuss how Optima can assist you.
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