Where have you seen change stick?

Comments on our online survey

This survey is particularly interesting and captures lessons learnt from practitioners who have had years of experience with many companies that sought transformational change.  The replies are mostly from change consultants, but there are a handful of employees who managed change from within their organisation.  Responses relate to change programmes in Asia, Canada, Europe, Middle East, UK, USA and South Africa.  

Overview of responses (n = 14)

The introduction to the survey and the questions are included above (here).  

Thirteen out of fourteen respondents to the first question said that they recognised the pattern of short-lived transformation from their own experience or observation.  Other responses, however, seem to suggest that, somewhat contrary to our expectations, the chance of achieving sustainable change is close to 50:50.  But in nearly all cases reported, successful or not, there are lessons to be learnt.

A.  Statistics on initial response to transformation (Question 4):

  1. Most people found their expectations exceeded: 5
  2. Mixed results, hard to say:  5
  3. Most people were disappointed: 3

B.  Statistics on sustainability of change (Question 5):

  1. Forever, Years: 6
  2. Until new manager took over:  7

It was noted that two out of the five cases (A1) where people found their expectations exceeded, the systemic change was not sustained. It is as if the change was on the right track, people responded positively, but there were forces in the system, which ensured that the new ways were eventually uprooted and the old ways replanted. Just think what that must have felt like within the organisation.

Two interesting results then, out of 13 cases:

  • In eight (A2+A3), the change itself was not really successful,
  • Three reported a positive change that was sustained.

C.  List of techniques used in the change process (Question 3):

Action Learning, Appreciative Inquiry, Coaching, Improvisation, Lean/Six Sigma, Management by Objectives, Mindfulness, OD, Quality Circles, Storytelling, Systems Thinking, Theory of Constraints, Viable System Model,

Interestingly, ‘Storytelling’ was one of the techniques listed in half of the replies.

D.  Reasons posted from the 3 respondents who reported a sustained, positive change:

Report by external change agent: 

The inward/self priority affects roughly 90% of organizations while the team/process improvement priority exists in only about 10%

The program included succession planning that would bubble up a next generation of leadership that supported and sustained the progressive approach.

Report by internal change agent:

Pretty much everything. Self-managing systems are like roundabouts and NOT like traffic lights. The big difference is the physical layout. So it is with organizations; you have to properly understand what the system layout of an organization needs to be and then self management simply occurs and gets better and better.

 [We] systematically redesigned the organization from the point of view of its legal, regulatory and fiduciary constraints – this primarily means setting boundaries for the activities and resources. The arrangement of these activities and resources can then be determined by the people IN the organization, autonomously, in the secure knowledge that the legal, regulatory and fiduciary boundaries are not being crossed. In essence, this is about designing a container in which human magic can take place rather than designing the activities of people (which constrains their magic). We call this “Designing the Void”.  For more details cut & paste into browser:


Internal change agent using Action Learning, Coaching, Lean / Six Sigma, Storytelling, and Systems Thinking. 

Achieving change(s) that are OWNED by leaders all the way through the organization is critical. It starts and its foundation is on the SHOP FLOOR with the core work force and 1st line supervisors.

E.  Selected postings from those whose experiences were mixed, and the reasons they identified.

1.  External change agent: 

Seven separate initiatives over 16 years, each costing CDN $100M or more: two in a support role, five in a transformation management role. Outcomes were mixed.

Of seven initiatives, two exceeded expectations (dramatically in one case). Four met expectations in terms of change goals and objectives, but took too long and generated angst and anger within the organization that required more management time and attention, and coloured perceptions. One was stopped after two years as no longer suitable for the changing environment. The most successful change program was accomplished over a four-year period ending in 2010 and has demonstrated continuous improvement since then.

In the organizational transformations I have experienced, the ‘people’ costs (restructuring the organization, redesigning positions and jobs, transitioning people from the old structure to the new, training, updating and practicing new performance management and compensation systems, buyouts, etc.) always exceeded the costs of transformation planning and project management, and the redesign and implementation of new policies, processes, procedures and information systems – by as much as a factor of ten. The very simple reason for this usually had to be explained to the organization’s executive: the latter costs are spent once per organization, whereas the former costs are spent once per affected individual, because each experiences a personal change journey that must be managed effectively.

Lesson learnt:  To partition the organization and design transition plans in such a way that the end-state vision with increased performance and improved quality of working life is experienced and demonstrated totally by successive parts of the organization, rather than by forcing the entire organization to endure wave after wave of blanket changes over a long period of time.

2.  Internal change agent: 

Highly motivated peers in this educational and research venture knew what to do and eventually made it happen. Don’t need a chief to tell us how or what to do. [Used] Appreciative Inquiry, Improvisation and Systems Thinking [as well as] high-level policy promoting collaboration and integration as an opportunity to innovate.

Too soon to say [if successful]. Very long time to develop, but concept is widely accepted. Be happy with any progress. Doesn’t have to happen quickly in government, and rarely does.

3.  External change agent:

I have found that this problem is particularly pervasive in companies that manage for short-term share price results. However, that said, in all my career, I have yet to see a truly successful transformation/change initiative. I believe it is largely due to the intellectual recognition of leaders and managers of what needs to happen and why, but the inability to not succumb to daily pressures.

I believe that there is too much time focused on the theory of models, and not enough on truly understanding the DNA of an organisation, upon which can be built a customised change programme.

The HR services (where I worked as a consultant) went through massive change itself – repeatedly. This was due to constant turnover in CEOs, each determined to imprint their own way of doing things on the organisation. in the end, employees just did their job and hoped not to lose it.

There is massive opportunity to help organisations improve how they manage and lead people. But, in most instances, one needs to hold the leaders’ hands and take baby steps and keep expectations realistic.

4.  External Change agent:

My experience reinforces over and over again that (a) not only do our brains naturally think in categories, we really like viewing problems and issues from our own lens or silo; (b) it is popular to say “we’ve always done it this way” is bad business, but our actions aren’t consistent with the words; and (c) because our brains like simplicity and cause-and-effect relationships, we often look at the wrong aspects of a successful example to mimic instead of exploring root causes.

I find the problem here is often the consultant is supposed to ‘do it, make the change happen, that is why we are paying you’ without any desire to participate or take coaching guidance.

We need a reframe for organisational change and transformation, or perhaps more training and expected qualifications for practitioners? I believe psychology and other social sciences are a must, given we are talking about people, their views and beliefs, and behaviours.

5.  External Change agent:

I have spent my life working together with key leaders in organisations who desire to enable a profound and fundamental transformation in the way that their organisation performs and operates. This is difficult, but great progress has been made in terms of leadership, culture and operating systems and processes. These changes rarely continue after the leader who began them leaves.

F.  Final reflections on survey returns

There is a clear message that people-oriented issues dominate the change agenda and consume the major share of the change budget. Convincing senior management and maintaining their commitment to the process is still a challenge; lack of spare capacity, in time and resources, also means that for employees at all levels, any change effort is in competition with keeping the organisation functioning.

External change Consultants report using a remarkable range of approaches and tools; nine of which relate to system improvement, and only four relate to enabling people.

From the reported success stories Matt Black Systems is particularly interesting due to its radical approach of removing managers from the enterprise. And it seems to be a rip-roaring success, with productivity up 300%. Below are extracts from the company literature.

Everyone at Matt Black Systems is fully trained to cover all operations from processing customer orders and purchasing material, through manufacturing capabilities and assembly techniques and into test, inspection and dispatch. This approach demolishes internal barriers and allows our staff to take control of (and responsibility for) every unit from start to finish.

It takes but a moment to realize that if you push a pendulum from rest it swings back and forth until it settles down to rest again. You didn’t change the system – you only perturbed it. Consider instead you move the pivot point of the pendulum 6 inches to the right; how much it swings you don’t care, but it will stabilize in a new place. Gravity does the work for you. 

Least human perturbation, most permanent change, least interaction to achieve it.

It is well worth following the web-link given above for Matt Black Systems (D.2) and reading their ‘defence’ of their strategy.  It is a very well argued case for self-management, but they have chosen an extreme flavour of freedom and responsibility, which may not be to everyone’s taste.

Finally, it seems that when dealing with a behemoth of an organisation, any thoughts of transformation are unlikely to be productive. The enterprise will have too much momentum, to much history, to be able to change its ways.  The way forward will more likely come from the more agile SME sector. The Black Matt Systems of this world with owners who are both thoughtful and decisive, and have a compelling reason to re-invent themselves.

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