· 3 min read · Features

Implementation of change must be rapid, focused and deliver measurable benefits

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Difficult economic conditions and structural changes mean many organisations face probably the greatest challenges of recent years.

Successful implementation of change is critical for the future to improve customer service, find cost savings, innovate and improve performance but there is increasing evidence that purely rational decision-making is insufficient for successful change.  

No longer can change initiatives take years to implement, lack clarity and focus and never quite deliver the predicted benefits. They are a risk to an organisation but a risk that must be taken to move forward and best deliver patient care.

The longer change initiatives take, the greater the risk of failure, wasted resources and diversion of effort from key deliverables. To be successful change, now more than ever, must be launched by chief executives, as high impact and high engagement and implementation must be rapid, focused and deliver measurable benefit.

Boston Consulting Group's system, validated in over 1,000 major change initiatives, indicate four key factors in successful change:

  • Frequent reviews - these should be every six to eight weeks on simple change and every two weeks on more complex change
  • Project team capability - the team must be the best people for the task
  • Management and staff commitment - those who have to change must be committed to do so
  • Additional effort support - those delivering change must have time to so as well as do their day job.

These factors, used at review points, give a good measure of likely success and potential risks. Robert Miles (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2010) looks at why change fails. Failure factors are: avoidance of reality; lack of management commitment; too many initiatives; disengaged staff; loss of inertia; doing change or day to day business but not both. These failure factors mirror the BCG success factors and vice versa.

Change is not just a rational exercise. Recent Corporate Leadership Council research on building engagement and getting high performance found up to 47% of an employee's commitment is emotional - much higher than many assume. So to get high commitment to change there has to be emotional as well rational buy-in, something often forgotten.

Neither is sufficient to ensure success; emotional buy-in alone will not deliver high commitment unless supported by rational buy-in. There needs to be a clear case for both in presenting change to staff.  

All of this together gives us these powerful principles to increase the chance of successful change in the new challenging world.

1.    Launch with a bang and keep the momentum up - have everyone engaged and ready to implement change within three to four months      

2.    Confront reality - management and staff must genuinely accept the need for change and what needs to be done

3.    An emotional and rational case for change - both are needed

4.    Commitment to change - everyone must commit to that change

5.    Best leaders must lead change - those delivering and leading change must be the best people for the task, not the people who have time on their hands

6.    Keep it simple and focused - have one clear overarching initiative that everyone can focus on and which can be simply communicated

7.    Frequent progress reviews - check you are making real progress and identifying risk every few weeks

8.    Combine change with business as usual - help staff to be able to do the day job and make change happen at the same time

While HR has a vital role in facilitating change it must not allow CEOs to hand over responsibility for making it happen. That must remain with the CEO, otherwise the change will be quickly viewed as just another HR initiative and lose traction.

Whilst CEOs must make the case for change, build engagement for it, use the best people to make it happen and then drive it personally with their line managers at each stage, they need the professional expertise and support of HR. It is HR that communicates the CEO's case for change to staff. It is HR that supports line managers in enabling change day-to-day. Within a few weeks of initiating change, the CEO, supported by HR, can ensure change is a success or doom it to failure by their actions. Neither should forget that unsuccessful change is in reality worse than no change for their organisations.

Multiple, ineffective, confusing and distracting change initiatives are viewed by many junior leaders and employees as a depressing reality of organisational life that saps their enthusiasm and commitment. Change should be a challenging and inspiring journey to a new better world undertaken willingly by your people.

Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School London and has held senior HR roles in a number of major global organisations