Organisational Change – Harder than a Hard Thing?

At TCF we spend much of our time working with businesses who need to make changes.  Sometimes they need to change something relatively simple like following a new procedure in relation to data protection or restructuring a compliance team to work more effectively and sometimes they need to change something fundamental like their attitude to risk or their underlying organisational culture.

However, whether the size of the change is small or large the resistance to change is almost always present.  Now students of human behaviour will not find that surprising and will simply ascribe the resistance to change to our default evolutionary programming as human beings to preserve our energy whenever possible – and as change requires energy it should, by default, be resisted.

What is more surprising is that, given we understand how much energy and attention is required to successfully affect change and given that we have experts who understand the principles and practices of change management from the vast volume of literature available on the topic, that making change happen in our organisations is still something we are generally very poor at.

So what is to be done?  And who needs to do it?

Well unfortunately the answer is a bit dull and predictable.  Making organisational change happen is simply an act of leadership.   To effect organisational change requires focused energy and leaders are the people who create that focus and draw out that energy.

To make change happen a leader needs to focus attention on an issue and create enough energy (emotional or physical) to ensure that change occurs.   This can be done through positive means (honestly describing the current state and passionately describing a better future state, providing encouragement, positive education, coaching etc) or through more negative means (shouting, threatening, bribing, bullying etc).

Now the purpose of this article is not to discuss abstract concepts of human motivation and actualisation but rather to look at why organisational change is hard.   Here are a few thoughts from TCF as to why change is so hard in the real world of organisations.

1. The bigger the change the greater the energy required

So some basic laws of physics seem to apply here.  Asking someone to process a piece of paper in a different manner is going to require less energy to effect the change than asking 100’s of people to change how they view and deal with customers.   Therefore the level of effort required over a sustained period of time to effect the change needs to be magnitudes greater.   Obvious I know but often overlooked.

2. Focus and attention are key

Ironically even attempts to get people to process a piece of paper in a different way often fail because not only have those requesting the change underestimated the energy required to effect even the simplest of changes but also those requesting the change have failed to understand that the person being asked to make the change by email has had 10 other emails that morning also asking them to make a change.  Unless someone is really focussed on a change it  is highly unlikely to be sustained.   Too many change requests kill the ability of people to change.

3. Providing a “why” is vital

As human beings we are fairly simple creatures who will change if we understand and buy in to why it is of benefit to us to make a particular change.   If we understand an investment of our energy is required so that we can enjoy a benefit at a later point we will often rise to the task.  Being clear about what’s in it for me is essential if you want me to change.

4. Repetition is essential

Repetition is important, repetition is important, repet… you get the point.  Advertisers know they need to tell us even a simple message about buying a new brand of cereal in a memorable and repetitive manner if they are going to get us to change a simple behaviour.  If we want to see real organisational change then simply sending a single email asking people to behave differently is unlikely to do the trick.  Use all channels available and use them time and time again if you want to see the change stick.

5. Simple messages are all we can cope with

Remember K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) let’s not over complicate things.  If we do, we reduce our likelihood of driving change.   Think Obama’s “Yes we can” or Trump’s “Make America great again” or even Brexit’s “Take back control”.    All sound bites that became infused with hope and possibility.  In themselves they are virtually meaningless but they did the job of motivating voters to get out and vote.   However, most corporate change requests and efforts are so bland, uninspiring, complicated or poorly thought through that any positive intent is lost and the hope of effective change is massively dissipated.

6.  Momentum is more important than absolute direction

Finally, those who have been successful at driving change will tell you that movement and momentum is much more important than precise direction. In fact many effective leaders of businesses will lead a two year drive to expand and then a two year drive to consolidate and realise efficiencies and then a further two year drive for Innovation. What they won’t do is try and lead a two year drive for expansion, efficiencies and innovation simultaneously. As long as the rationale makes sense and progress is being made people will get with the programme and make the change.  Momentum drives change, inertia kills it.

So how do we get better at organisational change?

The answer is still the same – it requires leadership and focus and some basic understanding of how to drive change.

It then requires some creative planning and some excellent execution.

If you’d like to talk to us about how we at TCF can help you make change in your organisation we’d be delighted.   We can’t promise to reduce the level of energy, focus and resource required but we do think we can help you to make delivering change slightly less hard than a hard thing.