Way back when (pick your date), senior executives in large companies had a simple goal for themselves and their organizations: stability. Shareholders wanted little more than predictable earnings growth. Because so many markets were either closed or undeveloped, leaders could deliver on those expectations through annual exercises that offered only modest modifications to the strategic plan. Prices stayed in check; people stayed in their jobs; life was good.
Market transparency, labor mobility, global capital flows, and instantaneous communications have blown that comfortable scenario to smithereens. In most industries — and in almost all companies, from giants on down — heightened global competition has concentrated management’s collective mind on something that, in the past, it happily avoided: change. Successful companies, as Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter told s+b in 1999, develop “a culture that just keeps moving all the time.”
This presents most senior executives with an unfamiliar challenge. In major transformations of large enterprises, they and their advisors conventionally focus their attention on devising the best strategic and tactical plans. But to succeed, they also must have an intimate understanding of the human side of change management — the alignment of the company’s culture, values, people, and behaviors — to encourage the desired results. Plans themselves do not capture value; value is realized only through the sustained, collective actions of the thousands — perhaps the tens of thousands — of employees who are responsible for designing, executing, and living with the changed environment.
Long-term structural transformation has four characteristics: scale (the change affects all or most of the organization), magnitude (it involves significant alterations of the status quo), duration (it lasts for months, if not years), and strategic importance. Yet companies will reap the rewards only when change occurs at the level of the individual employee.
Many senior executives know this and worry about it. When asked what keeps them up at night, CEOs involved in transformation often say they are concerned about how the work force will react, how they can get their team to work together, and how they will be able to lead their people. They also worry about retaining their company’s unique values and sense of identity and about creating a culture of commitment and performance. Leadership teams that fail to plan for the human side of change often find themselves wondering why their best-laid plans have gone awry.
No single methodology fits every company, but there is a set of practices, tools, and techniques that can be adapted to a variety of situations. What follows is a “Top 10” list of guiding principles for change management. Using these as a systematic, comprehensive framework, executives can understand what to expect, how to manage their own personal change, and how to engage the entire organization in the process.
1. Address the “human side” systematically. Any significant transformation creates “people issues.” New leaders will be asked to step up, jobs will be changed, new skills and capabilities must be developed, and employees will be uncertain and resistant. Dealing with these issues on a reactive, case-by-case basis puts speed, morale, and results at risk. A formal approach for managing change — beginning with the leadership team and then engaging key stakeholders and leaders — should be developed early, and adapted often as change moves through the organization. This demands as much data collection and analysis, planning, and implementation discipline as does a redesign of strategy, systems, or processes. The change-management approach should be fully integrated into program design and decision making, both informing and enabling strategic direction. It should be based on a realistic assessment of the organization’s history, readiness, and capacity to change.