Why business initiatives fail – Part II – We don’t need to change. We need to learn.

It is not possible to have failure without fault.

The second blog in this series explores the definition of change and puts forward some key ingredients that are needed to make change initiatives successful.

To start, we need to look at elements that were common to a few failed change programmes.   In our experience, an overreliance on IT has always been one of the factors. In such cases, the assumption has been that new tools with fancy functionalities will change the way things get done. Without a doubt, IT enables organisations to enforce compliance with new processes; however, often this is not enough to achieve the intended business results.

One hypothesis is that all changes are driven from external factors e.g. ‘we have no choice except to change’. However, they could also be self-motivated e.g. ‘we have an ambition to be the best in class’. The main difference between the two is the mood within which the organisation embraces the change. This directly reflects on the implementation challenges which lie ahead for the organisation.

We can categorise change as operational, tactical or strategic. So frequently, we face changes in our work routines which, even though we see as a hindrance, we just deal with them. However, when the same annoying “changes” continue to happen on a regular basis they can no longer be viewed as “change”. We need a new way of doing our job so that we can deal with the so-called distractions or the nagging issues in a consistent and efficient manner. We consider these as ‘tactical changes’ and in such cases, the issue is never a disagreement on the purpose of the change but the approach in dealing with it.

Then there are times when our markets are changing; we can see anomalies appearing on the horizon, or even worse, certain aspects of own businesses have started to decline.  In this scenario, it is no longer enough to just simply implement “pre-packed” solutions. We need to ‘strategically change’ our organisations so that some of the old habits, behaviours and beliefs are challenged. The enormity of implementing a change at this level often influences organisations to consider less challenging options. This often includes implementing a few latest trend systems such as “digital”, CRM, ERP, etc., as well as implementing a few “customer-centric” and “efficiency” programmes.  While all of these could be valid initiatives, to achieve the required business results, organisations still need to face the inevitable; challenging some of their old habits, behaviours and beliefs.

The most critical element of implementing change is for leaders to acknowledge that change is a journey of learning and reinvention of their organisations. The challenge for the leadership team is not to change their organisation; as it is in changing themselves; As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” (Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948).

Once committed to change, the challenge for the leadership team will be to listen with curiosity and empathy while remaining grounded as the rest of the organisation goes through a roller coaster journey.

We are human. All of us react to change in our own unique ways. Our reactions range from curious and ambitious to confused and resentful; from engaging to distrustful; from confident to fearful and so on. While this is unavoidable, how it is managed is not. We need to establish an environment, which encourages constructive behaviours and provides “psychological safety” to deal with survival and learning anxieties of people. Here are the building blocks for such an environment.

  • Change needs to evoke a sense of purpose among the teams. The leaders at all levels of the organisations need to declare a future for themselves and their teams, which encompasses concerns and ambitions of the wider communities e.g. “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King August 28, 1963)
  • The leadership team needs to put the whole journey within the context of achieving tangible goals e.g. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade” (President Kennedy September 12, 1962)
  • The leadership team needs to balance the immediate business pressures within the context of the long term journey. This often means staying in constant conversation with shareholders so they will buy into the vision and strategy.
  • Develop a road map that allows the organisation to learn, recalibrate and celebrate small successes frequently. Also, we need to remember that no plan or road map can anticipate everything that will lie ahead. Solutions to unforeseen breakdowns may change the timelines, but they are all real-time innovations that need to be celebrated.
  • You don’t need ahead of innovation to innovate. Innovation can come from everywhere in your organisation is encouraged. Encouragement needs to be done through actions and not verbal permission alone e.g. establishing cross-functional Learning Teams to reinvent the way they work together.
  • Communication is not just about informing people. Its purpose is to establish many channels, which encourage authentic open dialogue. This will create a shared understanding and background across the organisation.
  • Managing operational pressures will continue to challenge the alignment of management’s actions and behaviours with what is being communicated. One of the leaders’ responsibilities is to lead their management teams during the tough times so that the new culture can be embedded.
  • And finally, recognise, appreciate, encourage and build your talents by retraining your managers and leaders to become expert coaches.

We are born free, compassionate, curious and innovative; life has a tendency to gradually erode these traits. My proposed approach is based on a belief that given the opportunity they can re-emerge. It advocates that the only way forward for organisations is to move toward an environment which puts empowerment and the concerns of the communities at its centre.

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