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Change management: not a matter of debate

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Taking Risks

All organizations, from big to small, undergo fundamental changes at some point of their existence. What drives companies to put themselves at risk is the determination to cope better with new demands and challenges of the market environment. The expected outcome is for them to climb higher on the staircase of success. However, too often, the obtained outcome is a period of utter chaos, governed by confusion and financial losses, with little or no gain in return.

John P. Kotter, Leadership Professor at the Harvard Business School, has tackled many times the issue of why so many companies fail to successfully implement changes, in the hope of isolating a yellow-brick road of change management. Following a ten-year study of over 100 companies, he comprised his findings in the study “Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail.”

Kotter explains that the failure of so many change implementation processes has, surprisingly, nothing to do with the size of the company or the resources it disposes. Even more surprising is the fact that successful change strategies have little to do with skilled managers as, in spite of them being highly capable leaders otherwise, few actually have hands-on experience with implementing change. As such, much of their strategies are completely based on theoretical knowledge.

Sharing change implementation difficulties

An Economist Intelligence Unit 2013 survey entitled “Why good strategies fail,” asked 587 senior executives and academics about change strategy execution and the experiences they gained following such processes. Among their most revealing insights of what went wrong, they mentioned:

  • The difficulty of going from strategy formulation to strategy implementation: 61% of survey respondents agreed that their business model is not well aligned with their strategy. This misalignment leads to gaps in the daily implementation of projects.

  • Leadership absence: a burning situation occurs when managers, although present during strategy formulation, fail to deliver the implementation process. Ultimately, these actions backfire as the staff will revolt. Employees will not regard leadership as a model, and will adopt an attitude of disbelief, born out of the discrepancies between communicated vision and actions.

  • Insufficient change management skills: gaining expertise in this managerial field can be done by experiencing the process. However, most managers benefit only from theoretical knowledge. No matter how capable a leader might be, implementing fundamental change within the organization is a nerve-wrecking process that can have disastrous effects. Mistakes committed at any phase are liable to negatively alternate the remaining ongoing activities.

A framework for successful implementation

Nevertheless, the situation is not without solution, as opinion leaders, such as Kotter, have been struggling for decades to examine how change affects organizations. The esteemed professor created a framework that comprises all the phases needed for the successful implementation of a change plan, together with crucial actions and possible pitfalls.

Thus, the eight-phase plan enfolds as follows:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency: Basically, the change opportunity needs to be presented as not only vital for the company’s existence, but also as an urgent matter which must not be postponed any longer;
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition: The entire process must be led by one team with enough power to tackle the situation;
  3. Create a vision: The change process must rely on a vision which is neither too vague, nor too complicated;
  4. Communicate vision: Namely, the desired change must be translated into a behavior that is cascaded down to every single employee, thus implicating the entire organization into the battle for achieving success by means of the new strategy;
  5. Empower other to act on the vision: People need to be encouraged to act in alignment with the new vision and take the risk to undertake new activities and alter their actions accordingly;
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins: Improvement brought by the change process need to be highlighted and those who contributed, compensated;
  7. Consolidate improvements and produce more change: by using the credibility gained through the above-mentioned performance improvements, the former systems and structures can be changed and employees who excelled in implementing the new vision can be further developed, in order to increase their contribution. Additionally, this is the phase in which any alterations (new projects, new agents of delivery) can be brought to the change process. One particular danger at this phase is to declare victory too early in the process;
  8. Institutionalize new approaches: all employees need to clearly envision the connections between new behavior and the recently registered success.

Implementing fundamental change within an organization is, undoubtedly, a stepping stone for every business and every manager. On the one hand, the process can be regarded as the supreme test for a leader and, on the other hand, no business can survive indefinitely if it doesn’t reinvent itself. This makes the entire process a nerve-wrecking one, as it is as difficult and challenging, essential and crucial all in the same time.

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