One of most frustrating issues in operations research and organization leadership is the high failure rate of large, multi-dimensional change programs. These are the types of programs that result generally from mergers and acquisitions, technology replacements, or significant policy or market shifts. They often involve hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars. Large organizations want to be stable and profitable operations: they are distressed by anything that rocks the boat or introduces risk. Three decision points are critical to increasing the chances of successful change:
Whether to do it. This decision is usually put off until a crisis brews or a deadline looms. Many companies can mobilize only with a looming threat. (This is the famous burning platform.) The key is to mobilize before the crisis hits.
When and how to do it. This decision is usually optimized to disrupt current operations as little as possible, which, if the place is really in flames, is not a wise move. This decision requires lots of data, emotional intelligence, and the courage to tailor the plan.
Correcting the course along the way. This decision is the real opportunity for the inevitable roller coaster of change, for this one big decision should really be dozens of smaller ones.
I have a couple of 'secrets' to managing large-scale change that relate to the second point:
- Spend half of the planning phase on understanding lessons learned from past attempts at both your organization and others, and
- Spend half of the design phase on tailoring these lessons to the near and long-term changes.
What to do with that extra up-front time?
- Make the people who are the 'targets' of change a part of the decision to change and the program’s design.
- Individuals don't give up what they have today on the promise of getting something better in the future. Design benefits that are tangible, low-risk, and delivered in pieces.
- Change leaders and projects managers must give equal attention to organizational or personal losses, as well as corporate gains. The program philosophy and plan must explicitly address "loss management" in addition to communicating benefits.
- Change program success cannot depend solely on new technologies or what succeeded elsewhere. The technologies and business practices at the heart of most change programs are usually over-sold or just won't work in the conditions at hand. (Think ERP.)
- Change designs must transcend the personality and short-term agenda of the current executive sponsor. The full benefits of any large change are never achieved on one leader’s watch.
Plan on it.