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How to… harness change successfully

26 March 2018 by
How to… harness change successfully

With the economy in a state of great uncertainty and volatility, being able to adapt your business model and change your practices is vital, says Jane Sunley at employee engagement consultancy Purple Cubed

Many businesses are finding it difficult to adapt to change fast enough. Economic tensions, environmental challenges and political fragmentation are the language of the modern economy and it's causing great uncertainty and volatility. And as technology and globalisation continue to advance, the speed of change can only increase.

Long-term business plans are a thing of the past and organisations now face the almost impossible challenge of planning for change. Businesses are failing to embrace the opportunities (and threats) driven, most significantly, by the technological revolution and changing consumer demands.

The drivers of successful change could be split into two components: organisational (such as product, process, structure) and individual (people-related). The first is driven by the second, yet it's the people side of change that seems to be lagging behind and is often the most difficult to bring about. It's no surprise, therefore, that 70% of change interventions fail.

Change is almost universally poorly led and managed. Ask a roomful of people if they would like things at work to change and most hands will be raised. Ask them if they'd like to make things change and hands go down. Lastly, ask if they, themselves, would like to change, and see what happens…

Change starts at the top and, in turn, that starts with senior leaders being open to change; to understanding that the brilliant formula that worked five, 10, 20 years ago, might no longer be up to the job. Reacting to change will only be successful if you take your people along with you, so they're swimming with, rather than against, the tide.

Many businesses are still taking a 'top-down' approach to the way they manage their people. This is understandable as relinquishing control and allowing people to be creative around the 'how' is uncomfortable for many. However, that discomfort is nothing compared with the pain of dealing with a failing business.

Harnessing the power of your people is a formidable weapon in the fight for survival, profitability and growth. The people on the front line know more about your business than anyone. Consulting them and enabling and empowering them to solve business issues is a good place to start. This represents a big culture change for many and this is why, rather than investing in the future and doing something different, business leaders often opt to plough on with established disciplines. Here, success is often measured on the input (tick-box mentality) rather than the output (tangible business improvements).

Making the decision to change is uncomfortable, difficult and requires effort, bravery and drive. Even more so when people lack the skills and knowledge to deal with change in the right way. It's easy to understand why some business leaders feel it's easier to stay as they are, not rocking the boat or attempting to fix something which, in their eyes, isn't really broken, and waiting for a magical force to change their luck rather than approach it head-on.

Cost-cutting is often an attempted method to stem the pain associated with decline. Hearts can be ripped out of perfectly distinct and successful businesses and it is so frequently counter-productive. While short-term wins are achieved, it's the long-term losses that cause the real challenges. People are required to do more with less, which is unsustainable and some lose their jobs. As a result, employee engagement starts to decline and corners are cut, impacting customer service. Lower engagement results in lower productivity, and lack of motivation means ideas and creativity are stunted. Therefore, targets are missed, resulting in further cost-cutting and more decline in employee happiness. And on it goes - a downward spiral until they crash and burn.

Five questions to ask in order to make a change

Culture - is it distinct, authentic, articulate, universally understood and working for (not against) the organisation?

Strategy - is it nimble, creative, sense-checked frequently and based on what's going on, internally and externally?

Approach - are you moving from 'transactional' to 'transformational'; bottom-up and not top-down?

Leadership - do senior leaders 'get it'; are they role models for the business; do they make it their business to listen, engage, enable and empower?

Clarity - how clear is direction, communication and the process for change? It's difficult to be agile when a lack of clarity is stifling the organisation.

Jane Sunley is founder and chair of Purple Cubed

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