Imagine for a minute a change management consultant pitching her services to an organization threatened by a competitor or new technology. She tells her audience that the changes they want are indeed achievable and that she has the best tools, training, and technology for the job. She shows an outstanding track record of ushering in successful, enduring change. She has a team of smart people who can come in and take names; they have all the technical, financial, and analytical models; and they can help paint the picture of the change in language that people will swoon for. People will want to change.
She has these executives eating out of her hand. They’re impressed with her and gobsmacked by her results. Everyone in the room knows change initiatives are hard. Why not go with someone successful like this?
Then she leans on the conference room table to the rapt attention of the team and says, “You know, the one ingredient I don’t have—but which I need—is a commitment from each of you to change. I need you to model the behaviors you’re trying to drive throughout the organization. You want to drive a nimbler, more cost-efficient business, and this will only happen if you model nimbler and more cost-efficient behaviors yourselves. So you’ll give up your assistants, and your people will see that you’re keeping your own calendars and making your own copies and coffee. You’ll give up your company cars and dedicated parking spaces; this will drive a shared ‘we’re in this together’ attitude.
“You’ll also need to approach the change differently from those you’ve done before—the ones that failed. Instead of deciding the change and foisting it on your people, you’ll listen to your people to find out the best way to meet your goals. And you won’t tell people to change; you’ll ask them to come with you on the change journey. And before doing that, you’ll work on your active listening skills and your meeting management skills. You guys keep scoring horribly in these areas on your engagement surveys.”
People are frozen in place.
“Only with this kind of behavior from you—as leaders—can these other initiatives work,” she continues. “Because most change management initiatives don’t fail because the processes, training, and technology aren’t right; they fail because people like you think you can change your organizations without the hard work of modeling the behavior you’re calling for, leading the change and asking people to follow you. I will not work with you if you aren’t willing to change your behaviors and attitudes. And before I’ll even take this assignment, I want to interview each of you separately to understand if you’re each capable of changing and whether the group dynamic can serve this change.”
Everyone sits in stunned silence for a moment. Then they shift in discomfort. When the team starts to breathe normally again, they give the consultant a warm “Thank you” and send her on her way.
“We have to find someone just as successful who’ll focus on the changes we actually need,” someone says. “That jerk seemed to get distracted on nonessential things.”
A Huge Challenge
A massive change management industry has sprung up during the past three decades, and it sells managers on the idea that disciplined efforts to change the processes, technologies, and behaviors of frontline employees can be done with measurable management techniques that plan for and execute the change at hand.
I don’t want to sell short what this industry does. Given that change is now constant—with some organizations having one or more firmwide changes per year—this is important work. Properly planning a technology cutover, moving to the cloud, prioritizing for the customer journey, changing the way we market and distribute our products, implementing new governance or safety policies, planning for a new work space, or merging organizations…these things can’t be done without significant work, including assessing current capabilities, proper planning for how technology will be used, aligning project activities, understanding clearly how processes will be changed, analyzing cost and revenue and financial planning, and understanding how the necessary training will be delivered.
And, clearly, a fuller cultural renewal—a transformation with a brand-new way of thinking about the direction of the organization and the industry and even thinking about realigning the organization’s values and mission—has to be a deliberate effort with consensus about what the future will look like, proven techniques, the right tools, and a roadmap to get there.
But according to a McKinsey & Company study, two-thirds of these efforts fail or fall far short of their goals. Something’s amiss. If surgeons failed two-thirds of the time, there would be no confidence in the medical establishment. If a lawyer admitted to losing two-thirds of his trials, no one would hire him. But as perfectly adept leaders—often knowing full well that most change management efforts fail—we still sign up for these change efforts.
Given how much money and work goes into these efforts, that’s a shame. Resources are wasted, the organization can lose focus, people’s lives are upended, often with little to show for it. And with failure, the organization falls further behind the change curve.
So why do we keep trying? Are we masochists? Or are we optimists who simply believe we won’t fail?
Usually, we don’t have a choice in the matter. Globalization, changes in the marketplace, competitive pressures, changing customer expectations, threats like automation, and technologies like the internet, blockchain, and artificial intelligence all put tremendous pressure on organizations. As managers, we can’t sit idly without trying to change how we do business. We have to try. But the efforts fail and fail again.
Why is this? Well, most of the literature on change management and most of the change management work and research has been done by academics and consultants—people who’ve had a front-row seat to observe change efforts at many organizations. They’ve done great work and research—some of which I’ve used in this book—but it’s largely missing a giant dimension of what’s needed for full success.
In my thirty-plus-year career, I’ve spent four years in consulting and the rest mostly in leadership positions inside companies. In addition to my years leading communications and championing change at Travelocity, which was itself disrupting multiple industries at once, I’ve been on leadership teams at companies large and small, young and old, including American Airlines, GE, and Sabre. I can say beyond debate that there’s a monumental difference between being inside and outside a company. I’ve been change-managed; consultants and tenured academics largely have not. I’ve gone to bed wondering if my company would exist the next day, thinking with my peers about how to flip our business model overnight. Consultants and academics aren’t in the boat, paddling, taking on water. Their knowledge and observations are very useful to all of us, but I’m adding a needed dimension to it because—like you—I’ve been on the inside of this kind of change.