Dominic Mahony and Chris Rodgers challenge leaders to face up to facts on change management.
Isn’t it time we were less confused by the challenge of change? A1954 Harvard Business Review article identified employee resistance to change as one of the most baffling and recalcitrant of the problems facing business executives. Fifty years later and we are still grappling with the challenge. Research shows that up to 85% of organisational change efforts fail and this this has substantial repercussions, including reduced profitability and market share, immediate loss of talent and long-term attrition, and reduced employee engagement.
Too often, leaders underestimate the importance of the human side of change prioritising the formal elements of an organisation – its processes, systems and structures but overlooking the influential role played by informal interactions. The impact of power, politics, and the powerful grip of cultural assumptions on decision-making and performance, are dealt with superficially or, worse still, not at all.
How change happens – The conventional view.
Conventional approaches to organisational change vary from tight methodologies to those that are more flexible. The former seek to achieve speed, decisiveness and control by imposing change on the organisation through a classic top-down approach and for many managers, this heroic view is what change-leadership is all about.
At the flexible end of the scale, joint problem-solving approaches involve a wider group of people; seeking to achieve broad agreement about how best to proceed and to create a sense of ownership for the desired changes. These adopt a more inclusive view of the dynamics of organisational change and reflect a collaborative and participative style of leadership.
In between, education and training set out to inform and persuade people of the merit of required changes, and to modify their behaviours appropriately. They seek consistency, integration and structural alignment, through ordered programmes.
However, even if all of these elements are embraced fully (which largely speaking they are not) something vital is still missing. There remains a gap between the socially complex dynamics of real life organisations and the models and methodologies that dominate current practice.
How change happens in practice.
Whenever formal changes are announced or rumoured, people get together and talk about them. They share their perceptions, interpretations and evaluations of what is going on and as a consequence they decide how they will act in relation to the change proposals.
This response is universal. Everyone does it. We all have a basic need to make sense of the world in which we live and to act in ways that maintain our sense of competence in dealing with it. By speaking with others we can satisfy this need.
In organisations, some of this sense-making takes place during formal, structured meetings. Most of it, though, occurs informally, whether around the fringes of meetings or in other settings altogether. These might include chats by the coffee machine, private one-to-ones, banter and gossip at social gatherings, and so on. Outcomes emerge from this complex interplay of conversations, which happen continuously throughout the organisation and beyond. Managers can neither prevent nor control this activity (like everyone else, they will contribute to it). Indeed, formal change plans will themselves have originated and become formally adopted through this same conversational process, as the result of managers’ interactions, both formal and informal, with their personal and professional networks.
Crucially, then, it is not formal strategies, plans and programmes that change an organisation. It is how people talk about them and make sense of them and how they act as a result. Managers must realize a means for influencing the content and pattern of these interactions in a deliberate and meaningful way.
Engaging with the hidden dynamics of change
Informal conversations, power relationships and political processes have a huge impact on organisational outcomes whether or not these are seen as legitimate. People coalesce around interpretations of events and their actions will flow from these.
The informal coalitions view of change stresses the complex, developing and emergent nature of the overall process. Therefore, managers cannot plan and control change in the ways that conventional approaches imply. Instead, they can seek to influence outcomes, by working with these natural conversational dynamics to build active coalitions of support for desired changes.
In this way leaders are both in control and not in control at the same time – or in charge but not in control, if you prefer. While specific decisions and actions can be commanded and controlled by managers, within the levels of their delegated authority, the ultimate impact that these have on organisational outcomes cannot. These will be significantly affected by the ways in which people perceive, interpret and evaluate what is going on. What emerges will then depend on which of these interpretations are shared, bought into and acted upon through the give and take of day-to-day interactions.
If people come together around themes which are aligned with management’s formally adopted position, the actions that flow from them are likely to support their implementation. However, if the themes that are organising informal conversations and actions run counter to the official line, the intended changes are likely to be frustrated or actively undermined.
The role of leaders in organisational change
What this informal coalitions’ perspective means for leaders of organisational change is that they need to:
Change the focus of their communication, from passing messages to helping people make sense of emerging issues and events. This also means tuning-in to those themes that are dominating everyday conversations and seeking to influence the outcomes that emerge.
Think culturally, rather than thinking about culture. The more that people make sense of events in a particular way, the more likely they are to make similar sense in the future. People take many of their cues for this sense-making from leaders’ everyday words and actions. So leaders need to remain aware of the impact that their own behaviour has on the patterning process; and to think culturally when they interact with their team.
Act politically, which means accepting that organisations have natural political dynamics and that engaging with them constructively is possible.
Build coalitions of support for value-adding ideas and desired changes. Issue coalitions aim to shift the organisation’s ‘official’ agenda, policies and elements of organisational ‘design’ in some new direction. Action coalitions set out to bring about desired changes ‘on the ground’.
Work with the inbuilt and irresolvable tensions and contradictions in organisations – such as current v future; task v people; continuity v change; innovation v compliance; and so on. The aim is both to make these ‘liveable’ for people and to exploit the potential for creativity that these tensions bring.
Provide vision through everyday engagement. This is not about developing a Vision that a leader communicates formally and documents on a website. It is about using everyday conversations and interactions to help employees gain perspective, realise their purpose, self-manage their processes and unlock their potential.
In looking to improve the odds of achieving successful organisational change, the only meaningful choice that leaders have is whether or not to actively engage with the complex social dynamics of their organisations. The above agenda will enable them to do so in a deliberate and informed way.
On May 20 Dominic Mahony will be speaking on change management at The Lean Management Journal’s flagship event. Attend to learn more from this Olympian athlete and current team manager for the British Olympic modern pentathlon.