Change Series, Part 2: The Pitfalls of Haste v the Needs for Action

By Andrew Manley

Any new CEO or executive faced with an under-performing organisation is under immediate pressure to start the journey of change. But as any seasoned traveller or successful explorer will tell you any journey needs sound preparation if it is to reach its destination and objectives with the greatest efficiency and least effort. It is in the haste for action that we find the greatest cause of failure and these still far outweigh the success stories related to change in industry, enterprise and public organisations at large.

Taking time to prepare

The need for good preparation and the time to do it is the key for any leader whether faced with organisational change, process and performance improvements, better customer service, the revision of a complex contractual landscape, the construction of new infrastructure or the installation of a major new IT system – and often a combination of some of these or other major elements.

However, we have found that it is not the urgency of action, but the balance of that pressure with the leader securing time for engaged and well thought out planning ahead of implementing changes that has distinguished success. Successful leaders allocate as much as a third and in some cases nearly half of the overall timeline of a change project to preparation rather than proceeding to implementation or action; few have done less.

Kotter’s 8-stage Change Process

In his 1995 seminal book “Leading Change” John Kotter identified a “Sense of Urgency” as the first of his famous eight stage process for creating major change. Second to that he framed the creation of a guiding coalition, following by developing a vision, communicating it and leading to “broad based action” as the fifth stage of the process. Whilst subsequent academics have refined Kotter’s approach it is still the “propensity to action” that is mistakenly lauded amongst leadership behaviours, and the timeline for getting there is almost always undiscussed.

Of course definitions are important but in our experience an underlying sense of urgency needs to be tempered with sound planning and a healthy caution about committing to big expenditure too early. The argument runs that it is best to run longer along the overall timeline with lower project costs and less risk in the early project stages than rush to the action phase or implementation where the commitments ramp up, the risks increase and the price of changing even within a change programme becomes prohibitive.

Most projects start with some smaller core team where the expenditure is relatively small. Where the big costs come is in taking a full project team out of the line, back filling often with hire-ins or interims, committing to expensive IT solutions and new investment in equipment, facilities or infrastructure, training and the costs of third parties and consultants to support the change.

Avoid the pitfalls of haste

Some of the common mistakes in the early planning to which we will return include an underestimation of the commitment required of the guiding coalition, a similar underestimation of the resources required both from outside the organisation and surprisingly, more commonly, from inside as well. Good leaders will take time to feel, sense and sound out the organisation by taking the time to literally and metaphorically walk about, to sense, to engage and to test their ideas. From that a core team will be selected and inducted to understand the remit, to build their own norms and behaviours and to plan.

Too often that plan fails to estimate the impact of change. As leaders and project teams build familiarity, as they progress and deepen their understanding they can too easily forget the impact for colleagues who meanwhile are often working to “keep the (current) show on the road”. But ultimately success comes not from having success “done unto the organisation” but from the organisation taking ownership of the change.

An organisation “shocked” when “go live” happens, structures shift and in many cases jobs are downgraded or lost is an organisation set to fail in change. Few plans provide for adequate communication of change and more importantly the engagement of the whole organisation in the formulation and implementation of change but those that do are surely the products of sound planning and time given over to that more than any seemingly but untimely rush to action.

Planning requires time and specifically time upfront. In change projects it is arguable that the old “20/80 rule” probably applies – it is in the expenditure of the first 20% of the project’s costs that 80% of success is found. But in terms of the timeline it is arguable that that 20% of cost needs to be spent over the first 40% of the time line.

Plan, plan and plan some more

Few successful change leaders have come to regret the time spent in planning. They plan with a dedicated light team and are prepared to defend the time to do that. Once they decide to implement, they go hard, incur the costs knowing why and on what basis they are incurring them and with their guiding coalition behind them based on fostering engagement from the outset they are ready to engage and communicate beyond the immediate implementation team.

On all of which more to follow…….

Look out for part 3 of Andrew’s Change Series, coming soon.



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