Making Change Happen
Leading or managing a process of organisational change can be a daunting prospect. After all, failure is so public, and so obvious.
With some understanding of useful models of change, and some good analytical tools and techniques, together with strong people skills, you should be well on the way to steering a change process to a successful conclusion.
Just remember that change takes time. In a large-scale change process, organisations often agree that the changes will take two to three years. In reality, to embed them into the culture of the organisation can sometimes take a lot longer.
The term ‘change agent’ is often used for someone who is responsible for making change happen.
A change agent is usually someone from outside the immediate organisational area affected by the change, often an external consultant, who is therefore seen as neutral and there to manage or facilitate the process, or provide analytical skills to make the process happen.
Why Change Efforts Fail
One very good way of looking at how to make change happen successfully is to look at unsuccessful changes and see what went wrong.
John Kotter, an authority on change management, looked at huge numbers of unsuccessful changes and came up with a list of eight reasons why change had failed.
Kotter's eight reasons for failed change are:
Failing to establish a strong enough sense of urgency. People have to believe that change is genuinely necessary, otherwise the change process will be too painful to bother.
Not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition, so that it has the weight to push change through against resistance from others.
Lacking a vision, so that change efforts fragment as individuals create their own vision, or just abandon it because they don’t know where they’re going.
Under-communicating the vision, often by a factor of ten or more. Kotter saw that no matter how much executives believed that they had told everyone what was going on, most people still didn’t know.
Not removing obstacles to the new vision. These may be as large as organisational structures that undermine changes to the way it works, or as small as one person who is operating in a way that undermines the new vision. But without removing the obstacles, change will grind to a halt.
Not systematically planning for and creating short-term wins. Everyone needs to see some success early on. If they don’t, they will lose heart and give up the change process.
Declaring victory too soon, which allows everyone to relax. Leaders of really successful change use short-term wins to drive the organisation towards larger, more difficult changes.
Not building the changes into the organisation’s culture, until they become part of ‘the way that we do things round here’. Until this stage is achieved, the change will not ‘stick’.
These eight aspects resulted in Kotter’s Eight Step process of change in organisations, which is basically the errors reversed to the positive. Although there are many other models of change, and see our page on Understanding Change for more information, most are similar to this process.
In any change process, and indeed in any organisation, there are aspects that are visible, and ‘on the table’, such as plans, structures and written agreements.
There are also a whole lot of other aspects ‘under the table’, also known as hidden agendas. These include office politics, insecurity, resistance to change, organisational culture and people issues.
These hidden aspects are usually much bigger than the aspects on the table and, if not identified and addressed, will often derail the change process.
Skills and Techniques for Making Change Happen
It is probably clear that there are a number of useful skills, tools and techniques which will help you to move through the eight steps of change.
To develop an understanding of the situation, you need to develop strong analytical skills. These are very much a matter of applying the right tools for the context. There are two main areas for change analysis: the external environment and the internal environment of the organisation.
The external environment is often an important driver of change, and there are two main tools used for environmental analysis: PESTLE, and Porter’s Five Forces. These allow a structured look at the elements in the environment that are affecting the organisation, so that it is clear where change efforts needs to be focused.
PESTLE analysis looks at Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal (or regulatory) and Environmental aspects of the external environment.
See our page on PESTLE analysis for more detail.
Porter's Five Forces
Porter’s Five Forces examines the forces that shape industry competition.
The important thing here is that you take the time to do your research and gather all the information you need.
When looking at the internal environment, probably the most crucial aspect is the culture of the organisation. One useful tool for that is the cultural web, set out in more detail on our page on Understanding Change.
Here, you will find it helpful to ask lots of questions and listen carefully to the answers, also taking note of the non-verbal communication.
More recently, complex systems thinking has led to the development of tools such as rich pictures. Rich pictures build on older techniques such as brainstorming, and mean drawing a picture of how you see the organisation or situation. You can include words, symbols, doodles, colours and so on. It sounds simple but drawing harnesses the right-hand side of the brain, the more creative side, rather than the logical left-hand side, so it brings a different perspective to your thinking. Call it doodling if you like, but it can often be a helpful way of seeing things differently.
Good change leaders have strong Communication Skills and Emotional Intelligence, as well as Facilitation Skills. They also need to be able to motivate others through good times and bad, see our page on Motivation Skills for more.
Like project and risk management, change management is not something that you can do on your own. Being able to facilitate conversations on both a large and small scale is an essential skill.
You may wish to experiment with techniques such as 'World Cafe' and 'Open Space'.
These draw heavily on complexity theory and the idea of self-organising systems. The idea of self-organising systems can be a bit scary, but it’s worth a look. It builds on the principle that, left to themselves, most natural systems do organise eventually.
If that’s going too far for you, think instead of the way that most of the really important conversations at an away-day or event seem to happen in the coffee breaks. The role of the facilitator is to provide the space, set out the very few rules, and then allow the conversations to develop. The participants take responsibility for making things happen.
These techniques are very strong where a clear vision for change needs to be developed, because they allow a vision to build from the bottom up. They are also useful at the point at which some change has happened, but more is needed, to find ways to drive the change and harness the momentum.
And the principles can be used for encouraging conversations more generally: whoever is having the conversation is the right people, whenever it happens is the right time, and it is no use wishing that anyone else was there!
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.
Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.
Remember, small steps and quick wins are much easier for people to comprehend and accept than large changes and no joy. And change takes time. Skipping steps will only result in delays or even stopping your change process later.