Some notes and links on why top-down change initiatives still fail and some glimpses of a more emergent approach focussed on digital adoption.

Plus ça change?

It’s been exactly seven years since Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini argued that:

‘continuous improvement requires the creation of change platforms, rather than change programs ordained and implemented from the top’.

Since then, the business world has been turned upside down by the relentless advance of digital technologies and momentous global events, forcing companies to accept VUCA conditions as an urgent and constant reality, rather than just another acronym made up by the US military. Despite this, companies still cling to the arrogant notion that change can be ‘managed’ – so long as it is planned and executed (usually by an expensive bluechip consultancy) with senior management support. In this world view, change is something companies do to their people to achieve compliance with difficult decisions affecting their jobs, working conditions, or even their viability as human ‘resources’. Is it any wonder, then, that the needle has still not moved from the 70% failure rate mentioned by John Kotter in his seminal Leading Change back in 1996?

Still searching for a better way

Arguably, focussing on the people side of change has never been more important, but we need to move away from the largely discredited combination of top-down programs coupled with inane corporate comms as the default model for change. But how? We have long argued that change must become routine, rather than the focus for one-off change programs which, like crash diets, might achieve some short term benefits but rarely sustain. More recently, we have witnessed the encouraging transition of agile principles from the technology domain to the boardrooms of leading companies.

While senior leaders still need a lot of support to fully embrace agile ways of working (e.g. de-mystification, clarification, education and – above all – practice), the wider acceptance of agility as a core competency for modern businesses has opened the door for two equally encouraging signs of progress:

  1. The realisation that becoming a truly digital company means embracing constant change, which in turn challenges the notion of one-off change management as an approach; in other words, as Melanie Franklin argues, change management must re-invent itself to become more agile (a full hour’s video introduction to agile change management is provided by APMG here if you really fancy it).
  2. The convergence of agile and change management, especially where the common purpose is the success of digital products or services being developed, measured through adoption metrics. If the goal is to improve digital outcomes, the co-existence of change management (“driving employee adoption and usage of solutions”) and agile (“driving inclusive, iterative solution development”) comes into clearer focus.

Just as we have seen agile principles begin to replace rigid and inefficient project management, let’s hope that by focussing on the people side of adoption we can start to formulate a more human, democratic and sustainable approach to change.