Since the mid-2000s, organizational change management and transformation have become permanent features of the business landscape. Vast new markets and labor pools have opened up, innovative technologies have put once-powerful business models on the chopping block, and capital flows and investor demand have become less predictable. To meet these challenges, firms have become more sophisticated in the best practices for organizational change management. They are far more sensitive to and more keenly aware of the role that culture plays. They’ve also had to get much better on their follow-through.
Yet according to a 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of global senior executives on culture and change management, the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent. This is far too low. The costs are high when change efforts go wrong—not only financially but in confusion, lost opportunity, wasted resources, and diminished morale. When employees who have endured real upheaval and put in significant extra hours for an initiative that was announced with great fanfare see it simply fizzle out, cynicism sets in.
DeAnne Aguirre, senior partner with Strategy&, discusses techniques that can help companies transform quickly and effectively.
Our experience with organizational change management suggests that there are three major hurdles to overcome. The first—no surprise—is “change fatigue,” the exhaustion that sets in when people feel pressured to make too many transitions at once. A full 65 percent of respondents to the Katzenbach Center survey reported this as a problem. The change initiatives they suffered through may have been poorly thought through, rolled out too fast, or put in place without sufficient preparation. Fatigue is a familiar problem in organizational change management, especially when splashy “whole new day” initiatives are driven from the top.
Change initiatives also flounder, according to 48 percent of the respondents, because companies lack the skills to ensure that change can be sustained over time. Leaders might set out eagerly to raise product quality, but when production schedules slow and the pipeline starts looking sparse, they lose heart. Lacking an effective way to deal with production line problems, they decide their targets were unrealistic, they blame the production technology, or they accuse their frontline people of not being up to the task. A much better way to solve the problem is to invest in operational improvements, such as process design and training, to instill new practical approaches and give people the knowledge and cultural support they need.
The third major obstacle is that transformation efforts are typically decided upon, planned, and implemented in the C-suite, with little input from those at lower levels. This filters out information that could be helpful in designing the initiative while also limiting opportunities to get frontline ownership of the change. In the Katzenbach Center survey, 44 percent of participants reported not understanding the changes they were expected to make, and 38 percent said they didn’t agree with the changes.
The following list of 10 guiding principles for change can help executives navigate the treacherous shoals of transformation in a systematic way.
1. Lead with the culture. Lou Gerstner, who as chief executive of IBM led one of the most successful business transformations in history, said the most important lesson he learned from the experience was that “culture is everything.” Businesspeople today understand this. In the Katzenbach Center survey, 84 percent said that the organization’s culture was critical to the success of change management, and 64 percent saw it as more critical than strategy or operating model. Yet change leaders often fail to address culture—in terms of either overcoming cultural resistance or making the most of cultural support. Among respondents whose companies were unable to sustain change over time, a startling 76 percent reported that executives failed to take account of the existing culture when designing the transformation effort.