Anyone who has been involved in a serious change project knows the challenges this can involve. (If you really want to step into the fire, try doing change management as a profession!)

I have had the interesting experience of carrying out or consulting on, a number of change projects and it seems to me, they fall into two distinct categories:

  • Urgent change on which the survival of the company depends
  • Incremental change / transformation that is future-focussed.

Nothing surprising there, so which should be simpler to execute?

A reasonable person would assume that urgent change should be the easiest to get under way, yet it is often the most challenging to carry out successfully.

While this might be counter-intuitive (If the change is urgent shouldn’t it get everyone’s support?) there are stranger things at play.

Usually, by the time a company decides that it needs ‘urgent change’ to stave off catastrophe, the ‘denial delay’ has seen lots of time wasted and by now, things are very serious.

At this point many organisations bring in change management consultants or appoint an internal manager from another division to lead the change.

Logically, a fresh set of eyes and someone without any political investment/alliances/baggage can quickly see what needs to be done.

Serious company problems can result from a variety of factors such as:

  • The internal focus on innovation, customer service and value has been lost and market share has declined or;
  • External economic or competitive factors have emerged and the company must work much harder to retain customer loyalty and deliver quality, even in the face of price or cost pressures

If this is combined with a situation where the agility and focus that created the initial success has been left to atrophy during the ‘good times’, corporate inertia can make change almost impossible to generate quickly enough to save the organisation.

Many companies large and small, even previously dominant brands, have through poor leadership and management, succumbed to this disease and are no more. (how many can you name?)

So if you are confronted with an organisation that has suffered from years of complacency, accumulated fat and consequent employee lethargy, is there a place for organisational emergency surgery or should the victim be unplugged from life support?

No surprise if I (as a consultant) say there is usually a possibility of survival and growth but with a caveat:

You must determine as thoroughly as possible:

Is the patient willing- really willing, to do what it takes?

“Why wouldn’t they be?” Ahhh but there’s the rub. Human nature can be quite perverse.

One only needs to observe otherwise intelligent people who are clearly aware of the dire consequences of smoking (read death) but cannot summon the will and persistence to quit!

Rationalisation and denial (often in concert) are key hallmarks of human behaviour, so it is no surprise when the members of the management team, who by inaction or incompetence, have for years been complicit in driving the company towards a cliff (these things rarely happen quickly) see the leader (CEO/MD) get the chop and collectively breathe a sigh of relief, chanting in unison “We never agreed with his policies”.

Having survived the spill,they will then often appear to embrace the new leader/change-maker to show the senior leadership or the Board that they are all for the change, after all as Churchill once observed:  “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

However, when leader/change-maker begins to identify the causes of the problems and some of them point to existing managers, procedures and behaviours, the mood can quickly turn hostile and be demonstrated in passive-aggressive behaviour.  

Unsurprisingly, some managers are far too attached to the comfort of their positions to want to commit to change – even if the company is at stake.

Sometimes people will even turn on each-other or the change-maker because after all, if the change effort succeeds, then by definition, they were part of the problem and are likely next for the chop.

So before commencing any change project, several big questions need to be asked and answered:

  • Is the new CEO or senior leader willing to lead the change and be brave enough to withstand the resistance that comes with it?
  • If the new CEO has hired a change maker, are they willing to support this person or organisation, as they do what must be done?
  • Is there solid support from the Board or governing authority?

I have asked these very questions and been assured of full support only later to be disappointed, so I have developed a few rules to help in deciding whether to take on a change project:

Rule 1: 

If the change sponsors don’t have the courage for the task, you are better off walking away.

  • There is nothing worse than watching the ‘change champion/s’ turning to water when things get tough because as soon as the doubters smell wavering they will run for the ‘safety of inaction’ and the impetus for change visibly dissolves around you.

But let’s say that you and your change team are guaranteed full support to execute your mission; well there are some other things to consider:

Rule 2:

In order to create urgent change there must be a commitment to boldness of action and persistence of purpose. 

Things to consider:

1  Rapid change when needed, can work very effectively as long as the ‘Boss’ offers effective communication before and after the urgent tasks have been handled.

2  Virtually all change doctrines stress ‘bringing everyone along’ with the change but when things are desperate, there is often not enough time to massage egos and in the process, you can guarantee that you are going to hurt feelings and cause insecurity. 

3  People naturally resist change (organisational inertia) but in the heat of battle you can’t form a committee to discuss everyone’s feelings, you just have to get on with the job. (In an emergency, you won’t see pilots taking a passenger survey on what to do next )

4  Most will go along with urgent change if there is a compelling reason to do so and the new direction has been expressed unambiguously.

5  If you have been given the job (as a consultant or internal manager) and are leading the charge to save the company, the senior leader must commit to ‘covering your back’.

Rule 3

Don’t assume that initial successes mean that the need for change is over.

Change initiatives whether personal or corporate can suffer from ‘the antibiotic effect’.

  • In medicine, this is cause for enormous concern. When a patient on a course of Antibiotics begins to feel better, they often stop taking the medicine, assuming that it has done the job. The problem is that the drugs have only killed off the majority of weak bacteria and stopping the medicine means that the drug doesn’t have time to wipe out all of the more resistant bacteria and as a result, we create super bugs.
  • Because change is painful, everyone wants it to stop as soon as possible, so when leaders ‘chicken out’ and fail to persist in bringing about lasting change, the seeds of the original condition can remain and they often return to haunt us.

The company may appear to be healed only to lapse into disarray at the first stressor.

This is why some companies just seem to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Any kind of change takes a robust understanding of human nature and a strong dose of realism accompanied by courage and persistence, or it is doomed to failure.

Sometimes ‘slowly, slowly’ isn’t appropriate and there is no other option but bold action.

As WW1 British Prime Minister David Lloyd George once said (quoting an old maxim)

“There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.”