Leading change programmes

Leading bigger change programmes calls for action on many fronts simultaneously.

If the change you’re thinking about is regular small improvements to your products or the way you work, the systematic process described in performance improvement should suit you fine.

But sometimes a bigger change is called for. The process still needs a systematic approach but will need to be managed as a project rather than small-scale improvements. The evidence on what goes wrong in most change programmes gives us a great way of understanding exactly what we need to get right.

Governance

Change programmes can fail because the efforts of different groups are not aligned properly. It is essential to have up-front commitment from all parties who need to contribute for the programme to be a success. (Getting to this stage may, in itself, take time and effort from the initiator of the change.)

If the change involves a variety of different groups you’ll need to set up an overall leadership team that has enough authority and influence to get people to do the work required. The change governance team will need a leader whose authority is accepted by the change team’s members.

The first task of this group is to confirm the results desired from the change programme (see our development exercise "Clarifying your objectives"), timescales, and the resources available. They will need to confirm that these match up, because throughout the change programme they will be called on to resolve inter-group issues and competing resource problems.

Some groups may start to waiver in their commitment when the going gets tough, which is why the first rule of change programmes is to get explicit commitment from the very top so that waiverers can be brought back into line. (Again, getting this explicit commitment takes time and effort before the programme has even started.)

Programme management

Change programmes often involve changes to systems and processes, structures, skills and roles and responsibilities. They have to be put in place at the same time as keeping your existing show on the road, so there is a crucial transition period while you are simultaneously managing the change and managing the existing business.

These require careful planning, project management and implementation and constant communication with people who may become confused and resistant if you don’t tell them what’s happening. If you involve people from the start you will get useful feedback on the viability of changes and can adapt them - see the development exercise "Building commitment to change" for help with this.

Winning commitment

There is a whole page of the website devoted to resistance to change. There are two crucial start points. The first is to understand that people do not “carte blanche” resist change. That unhelpful myth came out of research into people being told that they had a terminal illness, which is not usually an appropriate metaphor for workplace change.

Secondly, for any ten people who a change will affect there will be ten different positions on the commitment spectrum to deal with.

People do resist deterioration of their circumstances. Understandably. On the other hand they normally welcome change that they think will be good for them. You will want to listen carefully to people’s hopes and concerns.

If you publicize successes as they happen you are more likely to retain people’s active involvement.

Deliberately seeking out quick wins will help to build momentum for the changes. They show that the changes will make a positive difference and justify short-term costs and are also useful for communicating with any nervous stakeholders.

Developing the new systems and skills

A common complaint during change programmes concerns lack of training and systems changes that haven’t been properly thought through or implemented.

These are the “hard yards” of change – seeing things through over the pernickety obstacles after the glamour of the inspiring vision has faded. Tying up loose ends, documenting the new job descriptions and processes and so on.

Perseverance - and expecting the unexpected

Finally, all change programmes come up against unforeseen obstacles. Most change programmes look a mess in the middle. The key message to teams and leaders here is to "expect the unexpected".

There are things you should have thought of but didn’t. There are “known-unknowns” and “unknown-unknowns”.

You may need to modify the programme. The best leaders adapt as their reading of situations change. It is a well-documented decision-trap to continue with a journey just because you have started.

But more often you will need to keep your nerve and persevere in the face of unexpected setbacks.

Summarising: Checklist for successful change

  1. Get governance right and explicit commitment from the top.
  2. Plan the changes carefully and involve people.
  3. Listen to the hopes and concerns of people affected by the change.
  4. Get the practicalities right - train people, get the bugs out of new systems, document new processes.
  5. Seek quick wins and publicize successes
  6. Adapt the change programme in the light of new information, but persevere when unexpected setbacks happen – they always do.