In any business transformation program, there are three primary stakeholder groups: the change team, the business leadership team, and everyone else. The change team is the group of people who work in the change program on behalf of the business. The other two groups represent the business. The difference between the two is defined as those who commission and lead change and those that receive or follow change. For the purposes of this article I will refer to them as leaders and followers respectively, and collectively they are referred to as the business.
I am a strong believer in the principle that the change team cannot change the business. Only the business can change the business. The change team works on behalf of the business. If the business does not want to change, then there is little the change team can do about it.
Simply put, the change team may be responsible for day-to-day change activities, but the business is never absolved of its accountability for the success of the change program.
It is reasonable to say that the central tenet of the change agents’ mandate is to ensure the organisation successfully moves through the business improvement journey with the least amount of disruption to the operations as possible. Or in other words, the mandate is to reduce the depth and width of the change curve.
Typically change manager will administer a periodic stakeholder engagement survey to predict and evaluate how successfully the business is transitioning across the change curve. Key to achieving success is that the business acknowledges and accepts its accountability for the quality of the deliverables arising from the change program and for ensuring the benefits are realised and sustainable.
Predicting future success requires understanding the past. If the survey identifies what has not worked “so far,” then it is reasonably easy to extrapolate what will or won’t work in the future.
The problem is that the surveys don’t pick up the issues early enough. This is because they typically ask the same questions of all stakeholders to support a “compare and contrast” analysis across the organisation. This approach will not provide a complete or relevant picture. That requires the survey to recognise the difference between leaders and followers and to ask questions relevant to each group.
In any organisation, there are only a handful of senior managers with sufficient authority to take decisions that will cause material changes to the business and without doubt, the biggest killer of success for any change program is the inability of the change team to get these leaders to make a decision.
The reasons for not making a decision are varied and include:
- The decision-maker does not actually have the authority to make the decision, and won’t admit it.
- The decision-maker does not understand the change program and therefore does not understand the consequences of making or not making a decision.
- The decision-maker does not have the confidence to make a decision.
- The decision requires the approval/endorsement of a committee.
The first three are particularly disruptive. When a manager acts as if they have authority to make decisions and they do not, they destroy the change program’s momentum as it tables decision after decision and nothing happens. This includes the situation where senior management has specifically inserted a manager into the change program without giving them the authority or support to make necessary decisions. At best, a manager like that is a post box who relays messages to senior management. At worst, they can cause the program to fail.
The decision-maker that does not understand the change program is not only disruptive, but also dangerous. It is not necessarily a case of the manager being lazy or disinterested. It may just be that the manager is so busy with their day-to-day activities that they leave the change program to do its own thing. The consequence is that they will not be close enough to the program to appreciate the impact of making or not making the decision. As an example, the manager may decide to extend the delivery date on a change program without realising that it will cause the company to miss key dates in its audit schedule. This may invalidate the insurance cover and leave the company seriously exposed.
These problems are amplified when a committee is involved and especially when the committee meets on a fixed schedule. Any decision that is not taken in one meeting, is held over to the next, or the one following that. These delays can have a significant knock-on effect on the change program.
The leaders’ engagement survey needs to identify if these types of issues exist. Or in other words, do the leaders accept their accountability for the quality of the deliverables arising from the change program and for ensuring the benefits are realised and sustainable?
The survey questions could be as follows. These questions are not intended to be exhaustive.
“Being personally accountable for your actions and omissions.” This presupposes the ability to accept the responsibility to carry out assigned tasks and having sufficient authority to carry them out.
- Do you fully understand the impact your position can have on the success of the change program?
- Have you been asked to make a formal decision?
- Have you been asked to make a decision outside of your delegated authority?
- Have you followed up to determine if any decision you have taken is being followed?
- Have you requested an impact statement to understand the impact of decisions you deferred?
- Are your colleagues aware of the decisions you have made?
- Are you aware of decisions your colleagues have deferred?
- Have you or your colleagues changed your behaviour as a result of a decision you have taken?
- Do you have value to add, but lack the forum to add it?
Working to agreed standards. This requires that the manager is appropriately educated to be able to take responsibility for their actions. It also places responsibility on the manager to maintain their competence by continuing to educate themselves about the deliverables while working within appropriate bounds.
- Can you describe what the change program deliverable will look like in your area?
- Can you describe what you will do differently as result of the change program?
- Can you describe what your staff will do differently as result of the change program?
- What have you done to satisfy yourself that the deliverables will be fit for purpose?
- Do you attend a regular briefing on the change program?
- Have you posed any questions to the change program on the nature of the deliverables?
- Have you requested further information from the change program?
Deliverables need to be adequate for present needs as well as developing capacity to meet future requirements.
- Can you clearly describe how you will measure success of the program?
- Can you describe what formal actions you are taking today to make sure the change program is successful today and in the future?
- Do you actively hold your colleagues to account for inadequate support of the change program?
- Are you implementing additional plans to address related and necessary actions that are out of scope to the change program?
When it comes to the follower group, the questions must necessarily be different to those of the leaders. Followers do not have the authority to make binding decisions on the company. But given the relative volume of this group, they do have the means to derail any change initiative. It is therefore equally important to measure and track the mood of this community.
When measuring the followers’ engagement with the change program, the oft-heard phrase is “resistance to change.” My experience is that a survey seldom, if ever, will identify resistance to change. This is not to say that resistance to change does not exist. Rather when it exists and is material, it is normally so obvious that a survey is not required. Examples could be unionised workplaces, or the resistance is from one highly influential person. This could be the CIO who is having a new IT system imposed on him by the CEO.
It is largely irrelevant if an individual is resistant to change as it is near impossible for the change team to manage change at the individual level. It is acknowledged that there will always be staff who are late adopters of change and it is acceptable to give them time to come around to the need for the change program. Managing these staff is the responsibility of the line manager.
One of the reasons I don’t like the phrase “resistance to change” is that it is easier to brand someone as resistant to change than it is to take the time to find out why an individual or group appears hesitant/resistant to engage more fully with the change program. Just because they have concerns with the change program does not make them resistant to change. Frequently it is only a case that they do not feel ready for the change.
There is an enormous difference between readiness for change and resistance to change. It should be expected that staff will always question if they, or their organisation, is ready for the proposed changes to take effect. This does not mean that they are resisting change. Rather they are confirming for themselves whether the organisation is ready. Unfortunately, this type of hesitancy is frequently interpreted as resistance to change. The consequence is that any concerns staff have about organisational readiness are frequently met with practical indifference by the leadership. I use the phrase “practical indifference” as change programs will readily talk about the importance of measuring stakeholder engagement, but the majority don’t do anything practical about it. They tend to adopt the view that followers should join in or “get off the bus.”
There are two categories associated with readiness: personal readiness and organisational readiness. In this article, the term “readiness” refers to the human level. It excludes technical readiness such as installing technology of some sort.
While the two categories are only loosely related, organisational readiness should follow personal readiness, as sustainable business outcomes require that most stakeholders need to be neutral or better in their support for the change. Organisational change readiness then can be built on the back of this support.
In addition, the survey needs to reflect the phase of the program.
It is common for a change program to have multiple named phases such as “mobilise, analyse, and implement” or “stabilise, transform, and extend.” The labels used will depend on the nature of the change program. Using the same set of questions for each phase would not evaluate the maturity expected from each phase. Asking a stakeholder if they have heard of the change program makes sense in phase 1, but offers little value in future phases. Conversely, by the time the program enters its final phase, it is critical that followers consider themselves competent and capable to operate in the new world.
While the questions should change between phases, it makes sense to use the same headers or categories across all phases. Example categories are Awareness, Acceptance, and Attitude for personal readiness and Alignment, Capability, Capacity, and Competency for organisational readiness.
The following table provides example of the concepts to be tested at each level of maturity.
I close with the observation that a survey does not fix issues and it only provides answers to the questions it asks.
A change program with strong leadership, that demands accountability from the leaders, will always deliver a solid result. You don’t need a survey to tell you that.