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Why the success or failure of change is all relative

To avoid being like a lost tourist, you need both a starting point and a finishing line - ©John Ramon Quin Iii/EyeEm

When you are planning for change, how will you know you’ve succeeded? By knowing where you start and finish.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: a lost tourist stops a local and asks for directions to a particular place. The local thinks for a while and then says: "I know the place, but I wouldn’t start from here."

For anyone involved in change this raises an interesting conundrum: that it’s not only good to know where you are starting from but it’s essential to know just where you are going to finish – and what that place will look like when you finally arrive. Change has to be capable of being measured, but just how far do you need to move the needle to know that you have arrived and that the change has been successful?

In our previous two articles we examined the challenges of driving change within an organisation, and how those changes can best be communicated. So in this final part of the three, it’s logical that we examine measurement.

If you missed the first two and would like to read those before you go further, click here for the first, and here for the second.   

Moving the needle

Like that lost tourist, anyone implementing a change in their business needs to know first where they are starting from. You need a baseline. Then you need a finishing point: a place where people will be able to notice – even feel – the difference that has been made. That needs to be capable of being measured. Which is why I like the idea of a needle. We’re all familiar with measuring devices, be they scales or the fuel gage in a car. Has the needle moved, and if so, has it moved sufficiently for us to register the change as a success?

This is where the relativity comes in. Before you implement the change you need to make a decision about just where that needle has to reach. Is it enough to be moving in the right direction or does it need to pass a certain point or even go beyond it?

Take the analogy of a would-be Olympic athlete. For some, just making it into the final would be an achievement almost beyond their wildest dreams. To others, anything short of a place on the podium will be a failure. It’s all relative, and it’s very dependent on where you decide success or failure is going to be found as that needle moves.

Success is all relative

Nobody likes change which is merely for the sake of change. Your employees will be the ones both enacting and impacted by what you are asking them to do. If they can’t see a purpose and an outcome they will very quickly lose both their trust and belief in what you say you are trying to achieve. Both of those things are absolutely critical to the success of any programme of change. 

So change which is not capable of being measured is misguided in two ways. You not only need to see the finish line but you also need individuals to recognise the value of what you’re trying to achieve and how they’ll know when it’s been achieved. Therefore, you need both a starting point and a finishing line. Without them you are, like that lost tourist, dependent on directions from a stranger which might make little sense when you’re lost and forced to ask for them.

But you also need to know just where that finish line is to be drawn. Success or failure is all relative, but provided your organisation starts out knowing – and agreeing – where that end point is going to be found, you’re far more likely to achieve a result which will be a change that really moves your whole business closer to where it really wants to be.

Michael Esau is global HR advisor for SAP

Our podcast series, The Human Factor, has been created to discuss just such tricky but highly relevant topics like change. In the podcasts we talk to leading experts about the issues and themes that influence people and the world of work, and they share their thoughts about the skills and techniques you need to succeed. The whole catalogue of episodes is available right here.

If you are interested in discussing these ideas with the SuccessFactors community, we have a number of events across 2024 where you can discuss ideas, learn and network.  You can find out about them here.