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The bulletproof Change Management plan

Did I choose the wrong profession?

That’s what I thought when I read this McKinsey article from July 2019, for a moment I thought I chose the wrong profession.

In the extremely short post McKinsey claims that they have “…devised a recipe to support transformations by reverse engineering the failures and taking out bad behaviors. We’ve created a bulletproof plan so that if the leadership team follows the recipe we’ve created, those defeating behaviors won’t creep into your transformation efforts.”

How could I have missed such important message?

The end of the change management profession as we know it?

So where is the plan? Where can I learn more about this? Can I get a certification for it? How much have transformation efforts globally improved since they’ve ‘devised’ this?

All searches I let go on the topic only led me to articles on their “7 steps to bulletproof problem solving” (they seem to have something with the number 7 at McKinsey…). But no word about a plan, or transformation efforts.

And it doesn’t stop there. Although there’s a bulletproof plan to prevent transformation initiatives from failing available to us since July 2019 it seems the situation hasn’t changed.

The mythical 70%, or even in some cases the elevated number of 75% (here), persistently appears in publications, even almost 4 years later.

So, what’s wrong with Change Management? Why is there such a high failure rate. I asked ChatGPT why change fails, here are the most frequently quoted 7 reasons (again that 7… hhmmmm):

  1. Lack of clear objectives and goals

  2. Resistance to change from employees or stakeholders

  3. Inadequate planning and execution

  4. Poor communication and engagement with stakeholders

  5. Insufficient resources or funding

  6. Lack of leadership support and commitment

  7. Inability to measure and track progress

Following that up with a question about what we can do to avoid these seven points ChatGPT recommends us:

  1. Lack of clear objectives and goals: Make sure that you have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve and communicate this to everyone involved in the transformation. Set clear, measurable goals and make sure that everyone understands how they will be achieved.

  2. Resistance to change from employees or stakeholders: Involve employees and stakeholders in the transformation process from the beginning. Communicate the benefits of the change and listen to their concerns. Provide training and support to help employees adapt to the new ways of working.

  3. Inadequate planning and execution: Develop a detailed plan for the transformation that includes timelines, milestones, and responsibilities. Make sure that everyone involved understands their role and what is expected of them. Monitor progress regularly and adjust the plan as needed.

  4. Poor communication and engagement with stakeholders: Develop a communication plan that includes regular updates and feedback mechanisms. Engage with stakeholders at all levels and listen to their feedback. Provide opportunities for two-way communication.

  5. Insufficient resources or funding: Identify the resources and funding needed for the transformation and make sure that they are available. Develop a business case that clearly outlines the benefits of the transformation and the return on investment.

  6. Lack of leadership support and commitment: Make sure that the leadership team is fully committed to the transformation and provides visible support. Communicate the importance of the transformation and the benefits it will bring to the organization.

  7. Inability to measure and track progress: Develop a measurement and tracking plan that includes key performance indicators (KPIs) and milestones. Use this information to monitor progress and adjust the transformation plan as needed. Celebrate successes and learn from failures.

No word about a bulletproof McKinsey plan… Is that because no leadership team…

  • Is aware such plan exists?

  • Wants to follow their plan?

  • Trusts such plan?

  • Even believes there is such plan?

  • Or, maybe an even more valid reason, can (or wants to) pay their price? 😊

Are we trying to solve the right problems?

The answers generated by ChatGPT are basically what all the articles claiming the 70% failure rate are pointing to. No surprise, in the 90’s I was already introduced to the concept of Bullshit in = Bullshit out. They all scream the same message, in different variants, to solve in some way these 7 points: use my method, follow my training, hire me, I know what’s wrong.

What worries me is that within the change (agent) community we (almost) all KNOW that we can only get different outcomes by doing things differently.

Yet, the change (agent) community largely keeps applying the same traditional change frameworks, that caused the 70% number to exist in the first place, to try to solve the same problems (which ChatGPT sums up nicely) over and over again.

But if there’s the same failure percentage for more than 2 decades isn’t the question then if we’re trying to solve the right problems?

If we can’t solve yesterday’s problems with traditional frameworks, then how can we solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems applying those same methods?

Putting change in perspective

Change has changed. It has. Believe me.

Over the past 3 decades, the nature of business, and therefor (the way we should approach) change has changed. Don’t trip over the exact the years, those are based on personal experiences, they may be (slightly) off with reality. However, it doesn’t change the message that the way we should approach change is dramatically different from two or three decades ago.

Now some people reading this will think ‘yeah, but those traditional frameworks have evolved. the people and consultancies behind those frameworks have spent 100’s of hours rethinking and reworking the model of the past 15-20 years’.

I believe that! I respect that!

But ask yourself this: if those traditional frameworks have been ‘upgraded’ by experts, through their studies and practical experiences. How come that 70% failure rate number hasn’t gone down? How can it be still, almost exclusively, the one number about change management people know, and for some reason desperately want to maintain?

Has all that hard work and experience based evolution, all the changes to the change management frameworks done anything to improve the practice itself? Or the outcomes?

Or, maybe -just maybe- we must reconsider those (evolved) traditional change frameworks more radically?

Changing change example

Let me try to work through an example.

Kotter’s original 8-step model published in Leading Change based itself on the initiation of change, the management of the change, and sustaining the change. The model provided 8 sequential steps to take towards successful change.

In 2014 Kotter's 8-step process was updated from Leading Change (change in finite and sequential ways) to Accelerate (run the steps concurrently and continuously).

Even the famous ADKAR model of Prosci has gotten an “Agile” flavor. If you have $ 1.000 and 6 hours, you can learn all about it here. Don’t register yet. Read till the end and decide if it is not worth more investing € 495 and 16 hours to learn about real Change Agility.

The problem with many traditional methods, and even in Change Leadership training in respected institutions like INSEAD, is the process thinking. The idea that change is linear and takes place in three distinctive phases: initiate, execute, embed. The methods basically only differentiate in the naming and number of steps they claim you need to include.

In change, the impact of running steps concurrently and continuously versus sequentially is minimal if we keep hammering on those three phases. We still do the same thing (more frequently), and thus get the same results (more frequently).

So, here’s a key message you want to remember: CHANGE NEVER WAS AND NEVER WILL BE LINEAR.

I get it, it’s scary but change can’t be linear because true change means working with people. And people are non-linear creatures.

Is there an alternative?

To be straightforward and clear (I hope): there is no silver bullet for change management (despite McKinsey’s promise for a bulletproof plan).

Change Management is a balancing act between the science and art of change. A constant challenge of ‘know-thy-self’ and having your execution toolbox full and at hand. Every change is different and takes place under that group of people’s specific conditions and constraints.

That doesn’t mean everything is lost, it just means change is hard work. Every. Single. Time!

What can help Change Agents to work on that? Here are 5 experiences that worked well for me when working with people in change.

  • Keep an open mind, accept that change will change. – Big, heavy, detailed plans at the beginning of a change are costly and often quite useless. When we start, we know that there’s a lot we don’t know yet. Consequently, whatever we put in the plan will change. Don’t hammer on the plan, go with the flow of the change, learn from what you do and adapt.

  • Set your direction, involve the people, experiment, and adjust your way forward. – In today’s frantic business environments and global economies fixing a goal, an end target of change is not realistic. We are better off setting a direction, work with the people impacted by the change on the definition of the change and the path towards the direction. Learn more about the path taken through experimentation and adjust course when and where needed.

  • Don’t fight resistance, work with people’s responses to change. – Resistance is just one way people respond to change. Digging in deeper on people’s responses to change gives us valuable information about our change. Spending our energy on fighting resistance just burns us out.

  • Try facilitating the change instead of managing or leading it. – The people affected by the change are as well the ones that best know the benefits and how to actually do the change. If we try to ‘manage’ the change we take away people’s voice, and at best find ourselves with an audience waiting for us to proof the change works (which we won’t be able to because that’s what we need those same people for). Recognize the role of the impacted people, give them importance, facilitate them through your knowledge and offer them practices for moving change forward.

  • Forget the three stage process, work with feedback. – Create an overview of what you know, and don’t know. Share that with the people impacted by the change. Facilitate conversations with them, to gain more understanding. Work with them to identify options to work on towards the direction of the change. Let them experiment with those. Learn from the experimentation results. You just gained new insights, which can lead to new options… you get the point.

No silver bullets there, but common sense ideas about what might work for you in your context, in your company. These ideas may even work if you integrate them with your Traditional Change Management practices…

Don't be bulletproof, try something different

Traditional Change Management maybe outdated and for sure not bulletproof, but isn’t necessarily bad. It has and has had its use. It’s present in companies, forms part of their past. It is one of many things companies have used to get them where they are today. We must respect that.

Companies have obtained (small) successes using traditional frameworks. Sometimes.

Smaller change projects might, still today, be well served using a clear, straightforward, more traditional process. However, in my opinion, cutting up a large scale transformation over an expanded time (18-24 months) in ‘initiation’, ‘execution’, and ‘embedding’ and successfully delivering the whole program is an illusion (guess where the 70% number comes from…).

I don’t own the truth or the perfect model, I don’t believe there is such thing. I can share my experiences and recommendations of trying something different. Here are the ones I explained before in 5 bullet points:

  • Keep an open mind, accept that change will change.

  • Set your direction, involve the people, experiment, and adjust your way forward.

  • Don’t fight resistance, work with people’s responses to change

  • Try facilitating the change instead of managing, or leading it.

  • Forget the three stage process, work with feedback.

If we want to change the failure rate number:

Try something different, the result may surprise you. Whatever the result is, it’s almost sure a different result than you got before!

What would you do to change traditional Change Management frameworks?

If you want to chat more about this book some time here.

If you are curious about learning to think differently about change and managing change in a non-linear fashion, check out our course offering.

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