Any straightforward formula that guarantees successful and sustainable organisational change, would become an instant hit in consulting and business communities. Providing prospective change leaders with the comfort that organisational turnaround is after all not that difficult, will be great news – particularly in a 21st century business landscape characterized by exponential, and most often, disruptive change. Surely organisational change can’t be that difficult, or rather insurmountable, as many would tell you. I mean, what could be so difficult in just finding the most appropriate theoretical framework, tweaking it to fit your organisation’s circumstances and simply work your way through the theoretical guiding principles as prescribed by such a model? Success is almost guaranteed, right?
High failure rate
I am afraid things may not be that simple. John Kotter (1995), known for his academic contributions on organisational change, once pointed out that 70% of all change efforts in companies fail. He then introduced us to his holistic eight-step change-process model. Following this framework, it is said, organisations can avoid failure and become adept at change. By improving their ability to change, organisations should be able to increase their chances of success, both today and in the future. An organisation without the ability to adapt, continuously, will over the medium to long term not be able to thrive in the current business landscape.
The human factor
No doubt the Kotter change framework has helped several organisations succeed in an ever-changing world. However, reading Kotter’s work, it became clear to me that successful organisational change depends to a large extent on people’s feelings. William Bridges, known for his development of the transition model, once said: “nothing undermines organisational change as the failure to think through the losses people face” (Mulholland, 2017). But wait a minute, are Kotter and Bridges not referring to the same thing? With feelings and fear of loss (most often existential), we’re moving into the spheres of emotions, personalities, agendas, biases and culture – to name but a few. Having been involved in several change management projects, I came to know that the human element, including organisational culture, is by far the trickiest part. Now I’m touching a few nerve points, not so? Wasn’t it Peter Drucker who once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Most scholars and consultants know that changing a company’s culture is not easy. Changing the culture of an individual or group most often needs a paradigm shift. In fact, change per se needs a paradigm shift.
Apart from cultural and behavioural challenges, change projects can add to staff’s existing (sometimes already heavy) workloads. In many cases, these initiatives may even confuse customers; or investors may be sceptical about unproven strategies (Bertolini, et al. 2015). Even trade unions, where the jobs of their members are a concern, will object to certain change efforts. It becomes rather clear that most often any change or transformation effort meets with significant levels of resistance, both internally and externally. Although the Kotter model and some of the other change frameworks are cognisant of these human elements, there are also other challenges to consider.
Company/industry life cycle is important
In my view the organisation’s or industry’s phase in their life cycle is very important in defining success indicators, during both early and later stages of the change process. Strategy options are different for companies during the start-up, growth, maturity and decline phases. Competitive pressures will certainly require a different approach to turning a company around as oposed to changing systems and procedures, or adoption of a customer-centric attitude to business operations. I’d be inclined to postulate, all other things being equal, that it might be simpler to turn a company around in a growth phase than an organisation in a mature or decline phase – where a completely new business model or even a blue ocean strategy, amongst other alternatives, is mostly likely required. A proper industry analysis will be of paramount importance before embarking on any organisational change effort. Surely, we need to know exactly where and what we are, what future we desire, before we start thinking of how to get there. This of course recalls Michel Porter’s seminal work on the five competitive forces that shape industries, which should not only help us to analyse our current position/situation, but also guide us in developing options for strategic and organisational change.
Why do we need change?
If our organisation is plagued by performance gaps, in whatever form, we need to be very clear on our reasons for change. Considering the risk of stating the obvious, surely our reasons for change should be clear, as this may very well affect other considerations, goals and dynamics. Yes, our very reason(s) for change will be of vital importance to defining our success indicators and setting of goals.
Having been involved in several organisational change projects, ranging from leading a major company turnaround to post-M&A integrations, system implementations and operational efficiency enhancement projects, my contention is that any organisational change effort is an enterprise fraught with complexity and risk. But don’t get me wrong, organisational change is most certainly doable. It takes, inter alia, clear vision, extraordinary people and analytical skills, dedication and unfaltering commitment!
Bertolini, M., Duncan, D. & Waldeck, A. (2015) Knowing when to reinvent. Harvard Business Review: December 2015.
Kotter, J. (1995) Leading change: why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2):59-65.
Mulholland, B. (2017) 8 Critical change models to evolve and survive. Process Street. Available from:
https://www.process.st/change-management-models/ [Accessed on: 15 May 2018]