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Change Is Hard, Get over It

Editor's Note: Take a look at our featured best practice, Change Management Strategy (24-slide PowerPoint presentation). Seventy percent of change programs fail, according to the April 2001 Harvard Business Review article, "Cracking the Code of Change". According to Bain & Company, businesses that implement fast, focused, and simultaneous change programs can create enormous and long-lasting shareholder [read more]

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Recently, I was asked in an interview, why change was hard. I thought maybe this was a trick question: everybody knows that change is hard. Surely–it’s intuitive, as a leader, you can feel it in the pit of your stomach. However, seemingly, many are in denial about this, or they don’t pay enough attention to change and what it could mean.

So, from my experience, here is why change is hard.

  1. The world keeps changing. Damn-it, you thought the pace of change was going to completely stop while your transformation was completed. This is the problem with transformation and change programs that go longer than a week. There will be some event from the environment, that will impact some how and some time on the big plans. I have worked on a digital front end replacement, at the same time, a significant legislative change was announced, and a new disrupter competitor launched. Not only did this distract the best people I needed on the project, but it also meant that the ambition for the program, was significantly curtailed!

Plan for it.

  1. Change is the responsibility of the leadership team. If change is that important to your organization, its leaders must be engaged and leading as a coalition to deliver the program. From my experience, I have seen a change program relegated to the change manager, who often is a contractor, who has to push it up hill. Alternatively, I have witnessed transformation programs become the responsibility of Human Resources, Strategy, or by default the CIO. Transformational change must be led by the business, and by its leaders. Think through it.
  1. Get agreement on the problem to be solved and its importance. This is super important and needs to remain the driver of the change program. In my view, not enough time is spent on this, and that means a serious transformation program is always open for interpretation in both its ambition and its priority. If you continuously have to substantiate the program, and debating over what it delivers- then you haven’t agreed on the real problem to be solved. Work it through.
  1. Change involves people and emotion. You would think this is obvious, but when a transformation program comes to life, the emotions will start. This will manifest itself in so many ways; some will be passive aggressive; some will be absent; some will continuously question. It is important to understand the emotional barriers in any change journey and address them. One of my sayings is that change management is hearts, minds, and holding hands. You simply need to understand when to use what approach.

Make it happen!

  1. Organisations love inertia, no matter what they say. The eco-systems of organisations love stability; they crave it; they create systems, hierarchies, and committees that perpetuate the mindset of inertia. I have been involved in transformation programs, where the steering committee decisions require endorsement from another three committees- often with the same members. This is bureaucracy and inertia in action, and it is the biggest challenge.

Push through it!

  1. We are talking livelihoods here. No matter how great the ambition for a transformation program is, there will be people whose livelihoods are at stake, and I think this gets forgotten. Ultimately this drives real emotion, fear, and behaviour. What I find interesting is that Executives are more focused on what any change can mean for their career, especially when it comes to gaining and losing new portfolios. Meanwhile, non-Executives are worried about their livelihood and families.

Never forget this!

  1. Blind too reality. You can get so caught up in how a transformation and change plan can come together- you can miss out what is right in front of you. Sometimes it is like individual planning to lose weight and get fit. They go to the gym, take up cycling, and still eat fried chicken for lunch. An alternative way to lose weight could be to stop exercising and eat a salad. Organisations are like that too.

Open your eyes!

All of these ideas are intertwined. We, humans, seem to be hard-wired to resist change- and once we come together in a department or organisation, the resistance to change multiplies exponentially. There will be many more reasons why change is hard, and there is a long list of books, articles, and podcasts you could read. In my mind, as the pace of technology change continues to speed up, the reality is changing will only get harder. Consequently, it is time for leaders to own change, focus on what matters, and stop delegating it to a change manager. It’s all or nothing.

Change is inevitable; change is constant; get over it.

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"The only constant in life is change." – Heraclitus

Such is true for life, as it is for business. The entire ecosystem our organization operates in—our customers, competitors, suppliers, partners, the company itself, etc.—is constantly changing and evolving. Change can be driven by emerging technology, regulation, leadership change, crisis, changing consumer behavior, new business entrants, M&A activity, organizational restructuring, and so forth.

Thus, the understanding of, dealing with, and mastery of the Change Management process is one of the most critical capabilities for our organization to develop. Excellence in Change Management should be viewed as a source of Competitive Advantage.

Learn about our Change Management Best Practice Frameworks here.

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About Darrin Bull

Darrin Bull is the founder of Diffusion, a boutique consultancy specializing in strategy, orchestration, and leadership. He has built his career on leading strategy development and building transformation programs. He has experience consulting in financial services, education, emergency services, and the government. Darrin holds a Master’s degree in business and recently completed courses in Design Thinking (Stanford) and Strategy Execution (INSEAD). Darrin can be contacted through LinkedIn and would welcome any feedback.

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