Implementing change is damned difficult

The Economist has a review of Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble’s book The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. The book has just come out and looks like it is well worth reading.

Organisations often put huge resources into producing ideas and planning change programmes. The toughest part, though, is to get the ideas off the Powerpoint slides and into action. This paragraph in the review struck a chord with me:

[Govindarajan and Trimble] say that you need to start by recognising that innovation is unnatural. Established businesses are built for efficiency, which depends on predictability and repeatability—on breaking tasks down into their component parts and holding employees accountable for hitting their targets. But innovation is by definition unpredictable and uncertain. Bosses may sing a pretty song about innovation being the future. But in practice the heads of operational units will favour the known over the unknown.

Which is why change of any kind is so difficult to implement. I know I say this every time I write anything about organisational culture but, as Edgar Schein explained, culture is based on assumptions and beliefs. You can’t change behaviour unless you change the assumptions and beliefs that underpin that behaviour. However, these assumptions have been built up over time and are usually based on what has worked in the past. As Govindarajan and Trimble say, even when they claim to be in favour of innovation and change people tend to stick to what they know. This is especially true when they are under pressure.

I have seen many a change programme look as though it is delivering lasting results when times are good only for the organisation to retrench back to the tried and tested as soon as the business environment becomes difficult. Organisational cultures have something of the characteristic of spring steel. You can bend them quite a long way but they have a habit of springing back to where they were.

Change management theorists argue about the best strategies for implementing change. In an ideal world you would get all the senior and influential people in the company behind the change. In practice, that is usually difficult to do. Those championing change in organisations often use the “small fires” approach, where you change parts of the organisation to set an example to the rest and show what can be achieved. These micro-cultures or skunkworks teams are often given a degree of autonomy and encouraged to be deliberately counter-cultural. But, as Govindarajan and Trimble point out, this can cause problems too. Being whacky and mocking the boring suits who pay your salaries is unlikely to win friends and influence people. Often, these innovation hothouses are starved of resources because they’ve pissed too many people off.

Like an organism, a company can reject a transplanted organ, even after the transplant has appeared to succeed. (The metaphors are coming thick and fast here, I know!) I’ve seen this happen all too often. In one example, the change programme was fully backed by the CEO and his deputy. They appointed change champions; they empowered groups of employees to innovate and gave them the support and political backing to implement their ideas. All the textbook change-management stuff about communication, getting buy in and taking people with you was in place. Even the language began to change and it looked as though the organisation had made a long-term shift. However, the company was deeply hierarchical and with an economic downturn came a backlash. Some managers felt the CEO had gone too far with this empowerment stuff and they had allies on the board. Eventually the organisation spat the CEO and his deputy out. What had looked for all the world like a successful change programme had been something of an illusion. At the first sign of trouble the organisation reverted to type.

Making any innovation in organisations, even basic transactional changes, can be difficult. Counter-cultural change is even harder. The corporate body has a habit of rejecting the counter-cultural transplants. Cultural assumptions in organisations run deep; even when you think you’ve changed them, they re-emerge, sometimes even stronger than before.

Coming up with innovative ideas is only half the battle. The Powerpoint slides and project plans may have been word-smithed to death and contain some really whizzy graphics but the messy business of making the change stick will be a lot harder. It’s a difficult balance to get right. Too cautious and nothing will change; too challenging and, unless you have a rock-solid mandate behind you, nothing will change either.

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2 Responses to Implementing change is damned difficult

  1. Pingback: Implementing change is damned difficult - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Pingback: Graduation 2012 « Dr Ian C Elliott

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