Leveraging ancient wisdom for change success today
September 15, 2016Inspiration
Change Intelligence includes the ability to adapt to change with curiosity and wisdom.
Which begs the question: “What change wisdom can we glean from the knowledge of the past?”
Lately, there has been a great deal of focus placed on innovation. It’s been intense both within project delivery and transformation and more broadly across both grass root start-ups, established large and small organisations and even in the public sector. Playing in this space has become the ‘new normal’, so much so that even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made innovation the central plank of his government’s 2016 re-election campaign. Let’s see how that plays out!
The term “innovation” can be defined as a “new idea, device, or method”. We believe there is no doubt that seeking new ideas, tools and methods are essential to ensuring relevance, progress and creating sustainability in the long term. For change management, this has meant adapting and innovating ourselves as we apply new ideas, methods, tools and incorporate new technologies in delivering change. Over the past decade, we have seen innovation affect project delivery with feverish zeal including shifts to a host of new or renewed methodologies (and permutations of these) from LEAN, to Scum, Kanban and Agile.
Many of us have seen plenty of game changing innovation within our lifetimes and whilst some of these have changed our lives forever, traditional ways and knowledge ALSO have relevance and place.
We believe that wisdom allows us to leverage innovations – respecting the experience and knowledge from the past to ensure we are getting the best possible outcomes from both. I remember when the microwave first entered the home; a real innovation and shift in the way we could heat and cook food. It now has a place in every modern kitchen and it’s hard to imagine life pre-microwave, there is still something special about a wood fired pizza or a steak cooked over a charcoal flame. In these applications our ancient cooking methods return far superior results than the new ‘innovative’ way of cooking. Mobile phones, Video conferencing, instant messaging and Skype are all exceptional innovations in communication that have improved our personal and professional lives but for many, there are few things better than sitting down with family and chatting over a meal or gathering the team in conversation or celebrating together at an event. In a world of innovation, many of our earliest and most basic methods are still retaining their relevance and place. With so much focus on what’s new, it is more critical than ever that in so doing, we don’t lose sight of the past.
Wisdom or sapience is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.
In 1994, Jeff Hiatt asked why some projects fail and others succeed and since 1998, the company he founded, Prosci has been collecting quantitative data on Best Practices in Change Management in an attempt to uncover lessons from practitioners and business representatives on the subject. Whilst they refine the survey each time with new questions, responses and topic areas, when we go back to the original objective (understanding why some projects succeed and others fail?) the results have remained pretty consistent.
Why is it then that with two decades of knowledge, experience and understanding that projects still continue to fail for the same reasons?
Is it due to our inability to truly innovate or can some of our failures be attributed to inadequately recognising the knowledge and experience previously gained? One thing that doesn’t change is that when things go well, we are quick to take credit for the successes but when things don’t go so well we are even quicker to find fault in others. Research in project success supports this tendency with information sought from Executives and Sponsors citing project delivery inadequacies as the cause for failure (lack of organisational understanding, solution not fit for purpose, failure to communicate issues, etc.) whilst project team members typically cite Business Sponsors and Executives (inadequate funding, support waned, failed to provide direction, etc.). Recognising our propensity to point the finger is important. As stakeholders, if we fail to identify our own role in leveraging our knowledge of project success factors we may fail to progress and improve ourselves, our industry and our professional outcomes.
In the most recent Prosci survey (2016), the single greatest obstacle to project success identified was a ‘lack of active and visible sponsorship’, which was cited three times more often than any other factor. This finding hasn’t changed much over the years and never has anything other than Sponsorship been number one in nearly 20 years of Prosci’s survey research. This same research shows us that sponsors are investing more and more in Change Management but are we reciprocating and are we, in turn, investing more time in our sponsors? Are we applying this wisdom or losing ourselves in relentless pursuit of innovation? Whilst Yammer and Virtual Reality technologies may very well affect our industry, wisdom also tells us that it would be prudent to direct a greater portion of the increasing investment in Change Management to provide our Sponsors with value adding support and guidance as research repeatedly shows how essential it is to our shared success.
If we focus less on what they aren’t doing and focus more on what we can do to support them (e.g. draft plans of what is required of them, enable efficient decision making by summarising considerations and making recommendations, educating them of the trade-offs in funding decisions and supporting and coaching them) surely we can at least begin to reduce the propensity for this obstacle to persist.
I was recently struck by the relevance of a Harvard Business Review article published back in 2005, discussing our propensity to make the same mistakes in managing change titled The Hard Side of Change.
The authors cite their research from 1994 which identified 4 key factors affecting success rates and discusses the inability for many projects to avoid the same predictable outcomes, despite the knowledge and strong correlations found not only in the 1994 study but also in the findings from the subsequent 11 years of data collected through to the publication of the 2005 article.
The article begins:
“When French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“the more things change the more they stay the same”) he could have been penning an epigram about change management.”
Eleven years later in 2016 and this still rings true for change management!?
The 4 key factors identified in the study include Duration, Integrity, Commitment and Effort which formed the basis of the D.I.C.E framework of scoring and predicting project success developed by the article’s authors. I found their findings from 22 years ago still relevant to our experiences today.
The study found that executives equate a longer duration of project with a higher likelihood that a project would fail when the study found that in reality, there is not a strong correlation with project duration but a strong correlation of project success based on the frequency for which projects are reviewed (i.e. a long complex projects reviewed frequently are more likely to succeed than a short simple project that is seldom reviewed).
These findings align and support Prosci’s Active and Visible Sponsorship finding which persists as the number one factor affecting success.
As change professionals, we need to leverage this wisdom when establishing our project engagement and governance plans ensuring we maximise our prospect of success and share this knowledge to ensure that our time with executives is protected when under threat from the numerous competing priorities affecting today’s business leaders.
Integrity in the context of the article pertains to those assigned by executives to work on projects. Facing into the reality that despite our wishes, or effectiveness as managers our teams are not all perfect. With high degrees of pressure for operational performance (often measured as frequently as monthly or quarterly) executives must decide where to allocate the finite top talent and best leaders.
Interestingly Prosci’s research identified lack of investment in dedicated change management resourcing and Manager and Supervision resistance due to focus on daily operations and lack of inclusion during decision making as the second and third most cited reasons for project failure.
By defining a pragmatic engagement plan, quantifying the impact operationally and communicating the importance and return of the resource investment is essential to project success. Whilst no one wants to hinder their short term operational performance, we can inform sponsors in a meaningful way of the consequences of compromising the integrity of the resources assigned to work a project.
Change requires the commitment of both the Executives seeking the change and those affected by it. The 2005 article states that ‘If employees don’t see that the company’s leadership is backing a project, they’re unlikely to change’. Fast forward 22 years and active and visible sponsorship still top the charts.
Executives were often found to be reluctant to openly support a change if it affected people’s jobs and often underestimated the role of managers and staff as they inadvertently alienate those affected most by a change. 22 years later and Prosci’s research shows us that Employee resistance, largely due to a lack of awareness of the need for change is the fourth most cited obstacle to managing change.
As Change practitioners we need to ensure the perspective of those affected is understood. It is critical that we identify and resolve the conflicts in the messages they receive. Often sponsors are quick to communicate the efficiencies of new systems or ‘innovation’ but reluctant to discuss the changes to the size and makeup of the workforce that will also result. More often than not the former implies the later and if not addressed leads to anxiety and resistance in those affected.
Basically, if we fail to recognise that employees are busy in their day to day responsibilities, and fail to recognised the additional effort required to shift to new systems, processes and ways for working, employees resist the change. Still today I see project and transformation teams setting lofty expectations with Executive’s right from the very earliest stages of a project’s lifecycle, submitting business cases that do not account for the operational impact of the transition. Whilst what is in the scope of a project’s cost estimate and the assumptions cited in the benefits calculation is beside the point, we need to constructively and honestly discuss and manage the true effort associated with a change in order to be successful. Ultimately, this is the most economical path to the desired outcome and not a ‘nice to have’ expense.
Over 50 years have passed since Everett M. Rogers published the first edition of Diffusion of Innovations where he suggested that change must be understood in the context of time, communication channels, and its impact on affected participants putting people at the center of change. It is also in this work where Rogers first introduces the term ‘early adopter’ which is now common in change and transformation vernacular.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since the initial research took place that led to the D.I.C.E framework of scoring and predicting project success and 22 years since Jeff Hiatt asked, “why do some changes succeed and others fail’ that led to the ADKAR model. It has also been twenty years since John Kotter first published Leading Change where he outlined his 8 step model for change.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, (‘the more things change, the more they stay the same,’)”? Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890) French Philosopher
With a wealth of consistent and aligned knowledge, experience, understanding, and insight in successful change, are you adequately applying the power of wisdom to ensure your next change is successful?
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English Naturalist
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By Kurt Hunziker, Principal Consultant