Sustainable Business Change: Foundations for Success

This is part 1 of a series exploring "Successful, Sustainable Business Change"

Having been involved in many transformation and change projects over the years I wanted to share some of my experience of what I’ve learnt actually makes change not just successful, but sustainable too.

So over a series of 4 posts, I’m going to share my experience about the approach I’ve seen work in the real world at various stages of change programmes.

In this post (Part 1), I’m talking about setting the initial direction, the foundation for success. Later on we’ll look at the need to capabilities; delivery to the wider business, and the use of training to help land change.

Creating the foundation for successful change

At the time of writing (February 2021), every business article I’ve read lately is centred on “the accelerating pace of change”.

This isn’t that surprising seen as we currently still find ourselves amidst a global pandemic. But one thing is true regardless of the general economic health: Businesses with the most longevity are those which have change baked into their DNA.

These businesses are constantly moving and developing; their core processes happen like breathing; their people are empowered because everyone understands the core aims, and they are free to upweight their focus on the future.

Very few organisations have reached or continually sustained this high bar so I’ve been reflecting on how organisations can improve their management of changes – ensuring that they see positive outcomes for the business, their people and their customers.

There are a number of elements that work together to support successful change, the most foundational of which is this: People are at the heart of successful change.

People are at the heart of change

New IT programmes are regularly set up with the best of intentions to give the business the new tools it needs, but people make the mistake of thinking that they are exactly that: IT programmes.

Buying and designing a new system looks like action… it feels like action… but it usually delivers little or nothing because the key people in the business haven’t been sufficiently involved.

The system might work strategically but delivers nothing if it doesn’t work operationally.

I often see this requirement for action over results – the perception that business functions slow IT down – but the result of that approach is wasted time and money.

In many ways worse than this is the narrative which builds in these organisations. That “the business teams are resistant to change”, or  “our IT isn’t effective”, etc. A wall is being built against future change.

Change requires consensus

I routinely meet CEOs and COOs who assume that change is straightforward. They see the absolute need for change and want to charge ahead to make that change – it’s so obvious everyone will want to do it and get the benefits.

These leaders are often hesitant to involve their teams in the creation of the change, worrying that it will affect their day job, that it will slow the pace, that they’ll have to compromise their vision and even that internal capability isn’t up to the task.

But without effective involvement in the decisions, that change will not be effectively implemented or be sustained.

Change management is about building consensus at the top and mid-tier management levels – creating a clear vision that the leaders can articulate and have bought into.

Time spent here is invaluable. Everyone is in a rush to implement tangible things, to build systems, to get started; but if we haven’t agreed and understood what we want our destination to be how can we all pull in the same direction? And how can we give our teams confidence that this change is real and empower them?

Start by agreeing on the outcomes

Starting with the senior/exec team agreeing on what they want the outcomes to be through one or a series of workshops can save a business an absolute fortune in wasted effort down the line.

Having run a number of these sessions there are some really common themes that come out and often have quite simple solutions if addressed with respect and openness rather than being left to fester:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Lack of confidence/understanding of the proposed change
  • Fear of losing power as a result of the change
  • Being overwhelmed at the enormity and connectivity of the change
  • Lack of tangible benefits associated with the change

Once identified, tackling each of these is often straightforward and I cannot emphasise enough just how critical it is to tackle them.

These stakeholders are the people who will lead the change. They are the boss in their area of the business, and their team’s career prospects rely on them – so the team will not implement changes their boss does not believe in.

And without these guiding principles, the teams cannot make progress in the detail; they have to be clear about what the aim is.

What are we trying to achieve? Why are we going through this change?

Communicate using a common language

Part of building this vision is ensuring everyone means the same thing. We need to get under the skin of terms like “being commercial” – which can mean wildly different things depending on the organisation and the background of the stakeholders.

Usually, part of agreeing this understanding includes identifying the benefits required – What are we trying to achieve? Why are we going through this change?

I find it really interesting how rarely any two members of a leadership team give a consistent answer to this question, yet the organisation is jumping to action – albeit, and inevitably, different and unconnected action!

Once we have a high-level vision agreed and understood – which the senior teams all buy into – and a set of clear benefits to aim for, then we need to build a high-level view of what this means for the business.

Make it tangible

It needs to become more tangible so that initially it can be stress tested.  For example, the company may have a vision for all of its business models to work the same way – but until you articulate the impacts and work through solutions you can’t be sure the approach will work.

Mid-tier management from across the impacted areas need to be involved. People who have a high-level understanding of how they operate today, are connected to the benefits aimed for and are open to finding a new, more effective way to do things.

Again, openness is the key here and the selection of the people to work on this next level – as well as the reward for those people – is incredibly important.

It’s vital that this step surfaces the awkward questions – the elephants in the room – and works to find potential solutions.

Too often everyone knows there’s a problem but it’s too big/difficult/old so it gets pushed to the side, But believe me: whatever this elephant is in your organisation, it is extremely unlikely that it’s going to disappear. On the contrary, if it’s not addressed at this stage, it’s going to bigger, uglier and much more expensive.

Retain ownership of the project

External expertise is invaluable in facilitating this journey but the ownership and increasing capability must remain with the business.

At each step, the process is ensuring that people from the business really own the change and are learning the behaviour and capabilities which will enable them to make a real difference to the business.

It’s incredibly exciting to see organisations that have had siloed business areas for decades, suddenly begin to see the benefit of working together through this process: they build networks and learn a lot about the wider business which they can apply in their own area.

With these strong foundations in place, change is much more likely to be successful and sustainable.

Explore the steps needed to progress this foundation to the next stage, in part 2…

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Victoria Ward

About the author: Victoria Ward

A consultant with over 20 years’ experience, Victoria had a long career in merchandising for blue-chip retailers before joining First Friday where she now supports and guides businesses through transformation programmes, enabling them to deliver sustainable change in her role as a strategic transformation consultant.

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