There are no definitive statistics but the Internet and a few folks in the business that I know put the success of change initiatives in the low percentages – like, 15% or so. That means 85% of the not inconsiderable energy and resources that we invest in change, are entirely wasted!
In most industries, that would put that particular practitioner out of business, unless they have the charm and guile of a snake-oil merchant. But in HR, that is a quietly ignored statistic. Primarily, I suspect, because it is very easy to change an org chart and move some reporting lines and desks around, but that isn’t really change management, is it? More often than not, if that is how we do it, that is closer to shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.
Also, I think, because the eventual decisions are made by line management, we in HR get to do what they say, and they are accountable for the results of the change. But that is a negative on two levels. Firstly, we in HR are in the position to help make good decisions, and secondly we are the resident experts who can guide the process towards maximum possible success. And to be honest, I don’t like the idea of being tagged with only 15%. It’s not a badge I want to wear, let alone wear with any semblance of pride!
I am a motorcyclist, and I think there are two important factors in safe motorcycle riding that can provide interesting metaphors for the change process. This is not to say success rests in these two alone, but they are interesting perspectives and may help us to realise a few things. One is very counter-intuitive, and one very obvious.
First, the counter-intuitive thing.
When steering a motorcycle, you cannot look at the object you are trying to avoid. You will hit it. You have to look PAST it, to the clear space that you want to be in. It’s a question of balance, and of the tried and tested fact that when on two wheels, you hit the thing you are looking at, even if you are trying to avoid it. It is known as object / target fixation. So, to ride safely, we should never look at the obstacle, only at the destination.
That is not to say we should ignore it, and this is perhaps the most important part of this thought… we need to know exactly where that object is, and where we are, and know intimately the path our motorcycle will ride to navigate the obstacle. But we can’t look at it to the exclusion of everything else. That means we should plan ahead, and pick a course in advance, that will see us safely through the obstacles.
When it is unplanned though, instincts often kick in and we focus with all we have on the new danger. That is how most motorcyclists have an accident. As usual, it’s not what they planned for, it’s what they didn’t plan for. And, as usual, it’s our natural instinct to focus on a problem, rather than on the clear road on the other side.
Secondly, the obvious thing.
Speed differential. I was talking to an ex-racer the other day and he said that the most important aspect of road safety is your speed differential. That basically means you can do whatever speed you want, as long as your difference in speed relative to your dangers is minimal. His example was in freeway riding, and coming up to a group of cars (they do tend to bunch together). If you keep doing 200km/hr (his words), chances are you will kill yourself pretty quickly trying to pass a bunch of cars doing 120km/h. But, if you slow down around those cars – reducing your speed differential – you can navigate safely and then speed up again once you are through the obstacle.
It’s so obvious it’s almost not worth mentioning, and yet there are countless examples of motorcyclists who forget it and are horribly injured when they run out of road at high-speed. Trust me, as a law-abiding motorcyclist, both of these ideas ring very true and they work.
Back to change management.
I would suggest that the first example can be used to discover an important ingredient of successful change – persistence. It’s about having a clear goal that you are trying to achieve, and not being distracted onto smaller issues that threaten to derail a bigger process. It’s where our attention lies that our energy will be spent.
So the idea is to prepare for obstacles, to plan for them, and to manage the course of change so that we are not giving those obstacles more value than they are worth. Notice them in plenty of time, assess them, and chart your course accordingly. But never EVER look at them. Especially whilst in the middle of something important. Give energy to the big picture, to the overall plan, and keep the attention of the team on that.
Even if you have to allocate responsibility for resolving an important issue to someone, keep that issue in context by keeping the main thing, the main thing. And the main thing is not the obstacle. It is the successful navigation towards the eventual goal.
And the second example is a bigger factor, I think, than most of us realise. People embrace change at different rates. But most companies do change at one speed only, and that is usually the speed of the CEO. The problem is, he is not implementing change. He’s the guy with the fancy ideas, and it’s a lot of other people who are actually going to DO the actual implementation of change.
And when change falters and crumbles, and splinters, and wanders off track, no-one asks the simple question. How was our speed differential? Did we try to make people move too fast? Did we communicate well and work through issues meaningfully so that other people’s change velocity increased? And did we temper our speed until they were comfortable? Whats the main goal here, fast, or effective?
Did they become more comfortable with big steps, and learn to balance by themselves in the midst of change, or did they fall over taking baby steps in a hurricane of transition? It is the CEO and the change managers responsibility to look at and understand the likely speed differentials of different parts of the business relative to the overall transition, and figure out what needs to be done so that the business moves cohesively or at least with some co-ordination and forethought, between milestones.
Successful change happens at an optimum speed – and it’s not the speed of the fastest moving part. The right speed is different for each organisation. And it takes an effort to find it, and commitment and persistence to keep it on track.