The winds of change never stop. There is an unavoidable pressure to transform, to move from one place to another. We believe with our hearts and souls the saying: “change or perish”. We talk about agile organizations, and we speed up transitions. We are eager to change, willing to do it. Still, corporate transformations are having a miserable success rate, even though scholars and consultants have significantly improved our understanding of change management. So, what is going wrong? Studies from Harvard University consistently report that about three-quarters of change efforts flop, either they fail to deliver the anticipated benefits, or they are abandoned entirely. We must understand that we are doing something wrong when we manage change, and we must find out what it is. The sooner the better.
Yes, there is a hurtful spiral swirling throughout the corporate horizon. The pressure to change that is causing great disruption. The urge to speed up, to make things happen as soon as possible is draining our people’s energy and we should not be abusing their tolerance. It is frustrating to make such an amount of effort just to get there, to arrive to our goal without having the minutes to enjoy the success and to savor the flavors of achievement. The landscape is horning the dilemma: quick change and exhaustion. Let us breathe. We are causing change fatigue, and the more we keep insisting the more our chances will point to failure. What a waste.
We are watching corporate leaders and companies worldwide competing on their abilities to transform their processes, products, services, organizational structure seeking differentiation. Bad news: everyone is doing the same. And if that is so, and everybody is following the same strategy, where is the difference? If you watch closely, you will find a lot of White Rabbits, persons that seem like the character of Alice in Wonderland. These are singular personalities that have multiple effects.
White Rabbits are leaders. Think about it: Alice follows him when he hurries into his hole and thereby enters Wonderland. He appears to be late for his job. While walking through Wonderland, Alice comes upon his house where the White Rabbit, still in a hurry, mistakes her for his housemaid Mary Ann, and orders her to get his gloves and a fan. When she grows and gets stuck in the house, the Rabbit orders Pat to get her out. In the end, we discover that the White Rabbit is a herald in the Queen of Heart’s court. Do you see what I mean?
The White Rabbits are nervous and always in a hurry. However, they are confident enough about themselves, they make people feel that they know what they are doing, but probably, they do not. These kinds of leaders are currently spending twice their profits on change, and they are satisfied with half the results. And it will not get better any soon. And yet, in the middle of such a hurry, we are not finding the time to reflect on what is going on wrong. If we do not stop to analyze we are never going to answer the quiz correctly.
Flawed implementation is most often blamed for such failures. Organizations jump to conclusions and have focused on improving execution, like the White Rabbit, without stopping to reflect deeply. Leaders have embraced the idea that transformation is a process with crucial phases that must be judiciously managed and levers that must be pulled. Think about it: indeed, expressions such as “burning platform,” “guiding coalition,” and “quick wins” are now common in the change management vocabulary. It is worrying to contemplate their conclusions. Poor execution is only part of the problem; misdiagnosis is equally to blame.
The problem is that often organizations pursue the wrong changes because they really never ask themselves seriously about the diagnose. Sometimes— most of the time— they focus on the symptoms and not on the real causes of the issues. Especially, when they are working in complex and fast-moving environments, where decisions about what to transform to remain competitive. Those decisions can be hasty or misguided.
Let us breathe and get some time to reflect. Before worrying about how to change, executive teams need to figure out what to change and, mainly, what to change first. We cannot do everything at the same time, moreover, it is not advisable. That’s the challenge. How do we set out transformations? That is the big issue. Because, when companies don’t choose their transformation battles wisely, their efforts have a negative effect on performance.
So, we need a way in which leaders decide what changes to prioritize at the precise moment. The path exists, and it starts by fully understanding three items:
- the catalyst for transformation;
- the organization’s underlying quest;
- the leadership capabilities needed to see it through.
Temporized transformations suggest that having the time to examine and align these factors will drastically widen the odds of producing lasting change. I know that choosing the right quest can be hard. Especially when we do not give them time to reflect. When we do not give the space for ourselves and for our teamwork. But, believe me, it should be a compelling and uncontested priority. Otherwise, we shall be tying our teammates to exhaustion. On the other hand, by giving our people time to get used to new things, to master their duties, we give stability. Organizations should be stable to pursue profitable change.
So, we should encourage innovation, but we must get prepared in advance. And the keywords are smart handling. Plan and execute. Mind the words that King Louis XIV from France inherited us: "Dress me slowly because I am in a hurry". Create the stability that will support change. Manage smoothly. Beware of people that will be affected by the change and take care of them.
I believe the mistake that we have been making is that we got confused. We thought that managing meant speeding without preparation, which caused an enormous amount of unnecessary expenses and change failure. All those rushes ended in things going the way that they used to be, and in some cases, the consequence was the shrinkage of the business. Stop. Breathe. And, then, and just then, change.