The adage that the failure rate of change programs sits at around 70% has become a truism not because we have the evidence (we don't) but because it accords with most people's experience... yet we face more change than ever before.
A more robust analysis of the success of change programs was conducted by Robert Half of Management Resources recently when he interviewed leaders and staff at 300 top US companies (Where Change Management Fails).
Their conclusion will shock none of you. The source of the failure of most change programs is poor communication.
To Robert's credit, they dug into that a little further and found that 65% of people felt that "communicating clearly and frequently" was the source of failure, 16% felt the source of failure was "managing expectations" and only 9% a "lack of clear goals".
So, communicating ‘clearly and frequently’ is important, but what does that actually mean?
Many people assume ‘clear and frequent’ communication means putting your mind on loudspeaker: telling people how they’ve pissed you off for example. Alternatively, many think (or default to) creating carefully crafting ‘strategic messaging’. This is the 'management speak' we've all come to loath yet feel constrained to replicate both at the podium and in the meeting room.
Increasingly, communicating like this simply occurs like manipulation (because it is!)
The Rules of the Change Game
There are many form of communication, but for the change manager, there are specific rules you must follow that are as old-as-the-hills and as relevant in your personal life as they are in the workplace.
The first thing to get is that communication is not just the transfer of information (though it must encompass that), nor is it the sharing of thoughts and feelings (though it must encompass that as well!). For someone committed to changing something, your communication must be premised on developing the kind of relationship you think is necessary to achieve the change you're after!
To successfully achieve change, communication must be wielded in a way that is unique to the change-game: it must be used in a way that creates and reinforces particular kinds of relationships.
Here are three basic rules the change-manager must follow if they are to see their commitment to change fulfilled:
1. You have to know what it is that you’re trying to achieve
Sound obvious? It’s not.
In twenty years doing this work this is the piece I find most commonly missing. We love to ‘do’ but thinking hurts and thinking about the future is particularly confronting … so we avoid it.
The important thing here is that the goal is CLEAR! It has to be a concrete vision: something that can be translated into specific and measurable outcomes; something that could be written and even drawn onto a piece of paper (something I literally get people to do in my workshops... with crayons!).
2. Everyone (at least everyone you need for delivery) has to AGREE that that is the goal
This is also not as obvious as it seems. In a recent workshop I led, everyone was excited and inspired by the vision they’d created until we started really drilling into specifics. Then it became clear people meant different things with the same words!
3. You need to create the relatedness (
not relationships) around the accomplishment of the goal
This is where the communication comes in.
Communicating for Change: being in a ‘relationship’ vs. being ‘related’
Being ‘in a relationship’ is personal, based on affection and grounded in a shared (presumably positive) past. Being ‘related’ is functional, impersonal and based on a commonly agreed (presumably positive) future.
Harvard Business Review reported a finding that, of 120 executive teams from top-flight enterprises worldwide were interview, fewer than 10% agreed about who was actually on the team!
The reason a football team exists is clear: get the ball into the net as often as possible.
The relatedness is also clear and described in terms of roles: goalie, striker, mid-fielder, sweeper, defender etc. Everyone knows their role and stays in place, even if the ball passes them by. Imagine a football team with 11 goalies (or worse perhaps, 11 strikers!).
To win the change game everyone needs to play their part (i.e. be related), but they don’t have to like each other (i.e. be in a relationship). In fact, recent research (precipitated by who-can-imagine what query) indicates that grumpy orchestras actually play a little better than orchestras that enjoy each others’ company which indicates (weakly) that liking each other might even be a draw-back.
In the change game, knowing your part comes down to knowing who you are for others in the team and then communicating from there!
This gives a very different modality to communicating for change than the loudspeaker or ‘strategic messaging’ approach.
Coming from a clear vision of the future and an agreement pertaining to what might be required for its fulfillment,
communication becomes a tool that transects the ‘normal’ use of language (transferring of information or expressing emotions) and becomes a tool for the creation and maintenance of particular kinds of roles.
Sound a bit full-on? It’s not, we do it all the time. The only difference for the change manager is that in most instances, rather than create forms of relatedness premised on the fulfillment of a new future, we use language to reinforce past-based (inherited) forms of relatedness to scaffold our relationships.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course, unless you want to create something new!
Trying to implement change using inherited roles is a bit like turned up at a wedding in shorts, it just doesn’t work!
What’s love got to do with it?
Marriage is a good model for distinguishing relatedness and relationship, if only because it’s an area where they can get so often mixed up.
Increasingly, the future people envisage for themselves diverges in critical areas from more traditional, inherited norms of marriage (e.g. promise to love and obey). Consequently, an increasing number of people are choosing to invent their own promises (vows). They do this because they intuitively know that there is something about the promises that is critical to the kind of future they end up with. They publicly make promises (because it’s harder to back out of public promises) about who they will be with each other (promises that usually include monogamy, mutual respect and being good with the kids).
If a member of a marriage doesn’t keep those agreements too often the partnership will most likely dissolve. Even if they stay together, it is unlikely the common future envisioned when they made their vows will be realised.
Why Change Works and Why It Doesn’t
Change fails because the rules of the change game are broken.
I know quite a few relationships that have broken down when the parties realized they are not in fact working towards the common future they had assumed they were (sometimes for decades). I’ve seen others break down when one party wanted to renegotiate fundamental agreements (often inherited and/or assumed) that had previously underpinned the relationship and the other person didn’t. These breakdowns in relatedness is often at its clearest when a specific measurable result is at stake: e.g. having children or not having them; stop working (often older men) or start working (often older women).
From the change managers’ perspective, the key points to distinguish in the marriage example are that:
- Marriage vows are grounded in the future the pair want to create, not the present and especially not the past’
- Life-partners make promises to each other that deliberately go beyond how they feel about each other in a given moment, and;
- Whether conscious or inherited, spoken or assumed, these promises fundamentally inform the roles people have and consequently the kinds of communication that is inherent or possible in that partnership (that is, without risking breaking it).
It is these promises, whether consciously created or inherited, that represent the true currency of change, the foundation of the kinds of communication Robert Half of Management Resources was looking for when he penned his report and a key, often overlooked source of a successful change program or a failed one.
Getting Change Done!
To create change-ready teams your purpose needs to be very clear and everyone needs to agree that it is, in fact, the goal. However, as Robert Half so poignantly identified, to actually achieve change people need to communicate effectively. That communication flows from the relatedness that exists between them, not how they feel about each other: don’t ask the striker to be the goalie (that won’t work) and don’t ask if they like each (that’s irrelevant).
Just as in a marriage, these promises are not random. They must represent behaviors that specifically correlate to the outcome (the vision) the team exists to accomplish. There are an endless number of wonderful attributes to choose from, it’s the one’s that will get you where you’re going that count.
So, to bring it back to organizations: if you want your change program to be successful, bone up on the rules of the change game, especially the rules that apply to the kinds of communication that make change work. Do this so you can consciously (with your team) create the relatedness required to see-the-game-through.
Don’t assume you can transfer the rules of other games you play at work or in life across to the change game because they don’t apply. Why do 70% of change programs fail? Mostly because that’s what we do.
At the risk of being a little twee… if you do want to actually change something, don’t be a statistic and learn the rules!
If this interests you, there may be a number of ways I can help: