Getting an organisation to change has been compared to “running through fields of molasses”. The going is slow, with progress frustrating, messy and hard to measure.
And when it is measured, the results are often confusing or just depressing. A study by Towers Watson found that just a quarter of change management initiatives were successful.
Yet most senior executives have a deep desire to institute positive change in their organisations. When delegates enrol in an executive education programme, what they most often ask me is “How can we change and grow?” “How can we be more efficient?” “How can we engage more positively with our organisation and the society around us?”
The overwhelming majority of the executives want to do better, not just within their organisations, but also in the broader community. Change therefore does not fail because there is a lack of will or aspiration. Change fails because those responsible for it do not always have the right tools to make it work.
So assuming executives are open to the transformative process - what can they do to make sure change not only filters down, but sticks?
Look in the mirror
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, change begins with the leader. Psychology Today points out that “highly mindful” leaders – those who are fully present, not just in the working environment but within themselves – are more productive, more efficient, and make better decisions. Author Ray Williams writes: “Neuroscience research has shown that we often make decisions unconsciously because the brain’s reactive and protective mechanisms rule us. When leaders believe they don’t have the time to work through all aspects of a problem they are inclined to narrow their perspective and take cognitive shortcuts, becoming more impulsive and reactive. In effect, their actions do become automatic. Hence the term ‘autopilot’.”
Daniel Siegel, neuroscientist and author of the The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, contends that a corporate culture of cognitive shortcuts results in oversimplification, curtailed curiosity, reliance on ingrained beliefs and the development of perceptional blind spots. Greater introspection and – as counterintuitive as it may seem – a ‘slowing down’ on the part of senior executives from time to time – may in fact result in long-term positive change.
Tell people why it’s important
Secondly, changes must be communicated effectively. This may sound obvious, but more often than not, it doesn’t happen. USA Today business columnist Steven Strauss writes, “It’s not that management fails to communicate what the change is or what it should look like, but rather, they fail to communicate why the change is needed. The number one reason why organisational failure occurs is because the case for making a change is not adequately articulated to the troops, and therefore, is never fully embraced.”
Often, senior executives will communicate an insight or a new direction to employees, but without the objective, it will have little meaning. Telling employees it is necessary to “strive for excellence” means little if they are not aware what “excellence” means for them and their team in practice or just what timelines they need to keep in mind to achieve this “excellence”. Further, it means little to set clear objectives if one does not ask for input from the employees concerned in the creation of those objectives, timelines, and drivers for change. Seeking out and making use of input from multiple stakeholders in a formative way is an essential part of building a path to sustainable change.
Yet Strauss cites a recent study which found only 40% of supervisors believed they were communicating the reasons behind organisational change across to staff – which leaves the majority uninformed.
Work with, rather than against, resistance
A third major factor is managing resistance. According to Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance, 70% of attempts at change in organisations fail because of resistance to change. Project Smart, which researches trends in management, reminds us that resistance to change is sometimes quite understandable: “Resistance to change may be active or passive, overt or covert, individual or organised, aggressive or timid and on occasions totally justified.”
“Resistance to change occurs at all levels, including among senior executives themselves,” says Dr Tim London, Senior Lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership. “Change and “unlearning” of old habits is challenging for most people; senior executives often have even more at stake in confronting ideas or behaviours that have enabled them to reach these senior roles. Such paradigm shifts in thinking and action, while often prompting growth, can be unsettling in the short and medium term; this is true for people at all organisational levels, and that period of adjustment should be allowed for and supported.”
Much of the work of a good executive development programme is to give executives at all levels the space and support to make these paradigm shifts. In this safer space, they can fully engage with all of the challenges and benefits that come with change for themselves and their organisation: to make friends with resistance and fear. This allows them to return to their organisations with a deeper understanding of just what change will mean for their organisation, and a refined set of skills to make it more likely that their organisation and people can change effectively.
A key insight that emerges from Dr London’s experience, as well as the work of Project Smart, is that “managing resistance” does not simply mean doing away with it. It means actively engaging with it, both within one’s own transformation and at organisational level. Resistance, if drawn out and engaged with constructively, is crucial to refining the change process as it develops, making it much more likely to pay dividends. “A pearl can result,” as Project Smart puts it; interrogating resistance can result in powerful insights that enrich the process of change.
Change, then, is a process of first unlearning and then relearning. By definition, it is complex and requires introspection and engagement – often beginning with executives and being engaged, painstakingly at times, at all levels of organisations. From abstract beginnings, concrete and sustainable transformations can result.
Kumeshnee West is director of Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB).