Traditional approaches to organisational transformation are increasingly high-risk. An over-reliance on process relegates the importance of people in securing positive and profitable change

Change isn’t working. The failure rate of organisational change projects remains unacceptably high (it’s a subject of much debate: we prefer to go with 81%, based on a 2002 study which examined reports on the success of organisational change covering some 40,000 organisations [1]).

The future business environment is going to be a scary place and so we need to re-think our approach to change and transformation. An approach based on people not process. Many organisations pay lip service to the people side of the equation during times of change. But when push comes to shove, it’s all too easy to focus on the ‘hard wiring’ of the organisation at the expense of behaviours, values and attitudes of individuals and groups of individuals who make up the organisation. Without a supportive internal culture that clearly defines desired behaviours, meaningful (and profitable) change is unlikely to be achieved.

The three myths

Even for those organisations which do recognise the importance of people, culture change remains fraught with difficulty. It’s a common cry from those affected that they are the least involved – change remains something that is ‘done’ to people. We believe this is the result of three myths that still characterise approaches to change in general and to transformation programmes in particular:

Myth 1:    People act rationally

People act socially, not rationally. In our heart of hearts, it’s something we’ve always known but the advent of behavioural economics, neuroscience and behaviour change as an industry has repeatedly demonstrated that we are social animals, acutely aware of group dynamics, peer group influence and, in this case, organisational norms.

Myth 2:    Hearts and minds must be won before change occurs

Traditional approaches have focused on changing attitudes and beliefs – the winning of hearts and minds. In today’s environment this simply takes too long (attitudes and beliefs are deep-rooted and hard to change). We believe that by identifying and promoting desired behaviours, people can think and act in new ways that deliver results more quickly and with greater impact.

Myth 3:    Change can only be led from the top

Of course, leaders and their teams have a fundamental role in highlighting the state of the business, its competitive threats (and opportunities) as well as identifying strategic imperatives for the future. Employee reactions will be varied and different. The problem comes when leaders try to second guess these reactions and how to tackle them – as if there is only one solution and, as a leader, “it’s my solution.” The best way to achieve sustainable change is for it to be employee-driven, for it to be built bottom-up and for leaders to trust their people to come up with answers (after all they are likely to know best).

Goodbye to Gantt charts 

Addressing the three myths only goes part-way to delivering successful change. ‘People not process’ also has a less prosaic but no less important interpretation.

For those involved at the sharp end of transformation programmes, the whole area of project management and governance is crucial in delivering desired outcomes. Yet, ironically this requirement for good project discipline can actively impede progress – all too often the focus on observing correct protocols and procedures, over-bearing reporting requirements and the demands of the Gantt chart results in the process becoming an end in itself rather than a means to facilitate desired change.

Change is a not a linear process that involves ticking off one task before moving on to the next. It’s a movable feast, fraught with uncertainty, often influenced by extraneous factors that may have a significant impact on ultimate success.

People not process

By its very nature, focusing on people not process involves more uncertainly, greater irrationality and wider organisational involvement. Yet the end-result outweighs the added difficulty of getting there.

For too many years, we’ve been doing the same thing when it comes to change and expecting different (and successful) results. Now is the time to take a different view – if we don’t, we’ll find ourselves repeating the same old statistics about the failure of change programmes and worse, organisations will continue to suffer consequences that imperil their success.

[1] Smith, M. E. (2002) – Success rates for different types of organisational change. Performance improvement, 41 (1), 26