Successful Organisational Change Might Be Easier Than You Think

Emma Weber

With the assumption that organisational change is “hard”, it seems we are wired towards change failure. We treat any success with organisational change as a freak stroke of luck and any failures as concrete evidence that change is indeed extremely difficult.

This concept was raised recently in Harvard Business Review, who published the article – “Stop Using the Excuse “Organizational Change Is Hard”.

Before kicking off an organisational change project – in most organisations someone, somewhere down the line will assert that “change is hard”. There is truth in that it can be difficult to successfully lead organisation-wide change. However, if we start the project with that mindset, are we handicapping the whole initiative?

HBR suggest that in organisational change “our negative biases can create a toxic self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Yet HBR propose that much of the failure statistics on change initiatives have been widely misinterpreted over the last 20 years. This in part is because many statistics look at complete 100% success and do not factor in partial success in an initiative. Quoting McKinsey (2009), they suggest that actually only 1 in 10 are completely or mostly unsuccessful and 6 out of 10 can be partially successful.

Yes, change is hard. But HBR believe that requiring effort doesn’t necessarily mean that it will not succeed.

I see what they are saying, however there has been recent research collaboration between the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and i4cp (2014) that found only 17% of business and learning professionals surveyed rate their organization as highly effective in managing change initiatives. Perhaps as HBR are saying, organisational change isn’t as dire in creating results as we once thought, but that’s not very encouraging when most organisations are facing a minimum of three major changes per year.

Successful change of any type ultimately requires people to do something different. Whether that is to use a new IT system or answer the telephone differently – someone somewhere has to change their behaviour. The simple, often overlooked fact is that people don’t like change. Behavioural change is not automatic and it’s not easy. But without behavioural change, the organisation doesn’t change, and therefore, the measures that matter do not improve, leaving the organisation with yet another missed opportunity.

As a result, most people focus on the easy bit – the systems, processes and procedures, the documentation and design of the change. They pour their focus into planning the change and communicating the change before the initiative and as soon as it starts the energy drains away as the ‘human element’ kicks in.

Organisational change only happens when people change, so for ultimate change success, organisations need to implement a change transfer strategy to support people with that process. It’s crucial to hold people to account so they will do what they say they will do and make the behavioural adjustments to allow the change to ‘stick’.

People need a structured process of intervention and support that allows the individual to choose the aspects of the change they want to implement first, give them time to reflect on the outcome of those behaviours and hold them accountable to making the change.

At Lever we use a robust transfer solution to support behavioural change after a change or learning initiative. Here’s a case study showing how we supported the University of New South Wales to create real change.

We are happy to discuss how these ideas could apply specifically to an organisational change initiative at your organisation. Just click the button below to get that conversation started.

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Emma Weber

Emma Weber is a recognized authority on the transfer of learning. As CEO of Lever – Transfer of Learning, she has helped companies such as Telstra, Oracle and BMW deliver and measure tangible business results from learning. Emma has also been a guest speaker at learning effectiveness conferences worldwide and authored the hugely successful book Turning Learning into Action. Much more detail around the issues and solutions examined in this article are available in the book – please feel free to download a free chapter.