It’s time to shatter a few myths about change

Workforce of the future will need to manage numerous change initiatives simultaneously

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 3:36pm

Over the past 15 years, Accenture has studied 250 major change initiatives at more than 150 organisations, including dozens of Fortune Global 500 corporations.

We have now collected data from nearly one million employees, from frontline staff through leadership at all levels, including team managers, divisional heads, and corporate executives – and discovered a few myths worthy of shattering.

Myth 1: too much change, too fast, is destructive. Wrong! According to our data, the highest-performing organisations actually thrive on change. They have more change taking place – 30 per cent to 50 per cent more initially – and at a faster pace than their lower-performing counterparts. They have a strong capability to drive ongoing change and, as a result, they achieve far greater benefits from their change programmes.

The most critical drivers are strong business leadership, good systems and processes, clear vision and direction, and high passion and drive

Myth 2: change causes organisations to go off track. When we examined those groups with change programmes that had gone off track, we found that 85 per cent of them already had major underlying issues before implementing their initiative. People might blame a change initiative for their problems, but our research shows that a dysfunctional culture and behaviours – for example, poor management or a pervasive “silo” mentality that prevents different divisions from collaborating – are typically ingrained in the organisation before the implementation of change.

Myth 3: performance will dip during the early stages of change. False! Our research shows that for high-performing companies cost management and customer service levels usually rise continuously from the start of a change initiative to its end.

Myth 4: people need to understand changes before committing to them. According to the “commitment curve”, which is one of the building blocks of many traditional change-management strategies, people must first become aware of the need to change and have an intellectual understanding of it before they can embrace or commit to it. But our research shows that, although that progression is true for the lowest-performing groups, it is actually reversed for high performers, particularly in the early stages of change. For high-performing groups, trust in leadership is so high that people are essentially willing to get on the bus even before they know where it’s headed. They first commit emotionally and are happy to find out where they are going, as they move along. Organisations with trusted leaders can begin implementing and accelerating a change programme without first having to educate employees about the specific details. Getting this right up front can be the difference between failure and success with quantifiable benefits.

So what should businesses do?

They should “change smart”. This doesn’t necessarily mean rolling out stock standard solutions such as more communication, increased employee training, better team leadership and improved accountability. These might be the favourite “go to” items on many organisations’ change agendas, but they are not the most critical drivers of successful change. Our research has shown that, although important, those factors play only relatively minor roles in the success of change programmes. When it comes to improving business performance, the most critical drivers are strong business leadership, good systems and processes, clear vision and direction, and high passion and drive.

It is therefore key to develop a “fitness for change”, which is similar to athletes training for a competition. Training in the right way – focusing on specific muscle groups for strength and flexibility, for example – will build up their conditioning, enabling them to withstand greater exertion without any drop in performance.

Just as world-class athletes now rely on cutting-edge digital technologies and analytics to train, organisations should take advantage of insight-driven approaches using sophisticated analytics to better manage their change programmes. In the future, these advanced approaches will simply become part and parcel of the way organisations do business. The workforce of the future will need to manage numerous change initiatives simultaneously, and for that businesses would be wise to guide their efforts and systematically build their capabilities through the use of rigorous change analytics. Otherwise, they risk making bad decisions based on flawed assumptions and mistaken conventional wisdoms about what really drives successful organisational change.

Warren Parry is a managing director for Accenture Strategy and Randy Wandmacher is a managing director for Accenture Organisation Change