Genuine influence

The art of implementing real change

Invite people to take part in the change and give them genuine influence

When a butterfly flaps its wings in London, the ultimate consequence may be that it triggers a hurricane in the Caribbean months later. This was one of the more spectacular conclusions that followed in the wake of the discovery that complex non-linear systems, such as the earth’s atmosphere, are extremely sensitive to the slightest change in the system’s initial conditions.

The art of implementing real change

When changes are to be made in an organisation, we face a similar complexity and are, thus, subject to some of the same chaotic natural laws that govern the weather.

The full implications of this relatively new recognition are difficult to grasp; for the managers responsible in the organisation, for those who make a living advising on how to implement changes and for those who deal with the topic in books and theory.

Major change projects must be approached with cautiousness

Basically, there are two schools of thought: Those who maintain that changes are linear, proceed through a number of well-defined phases and, thus, can be controlled, and those who maintain that changes are non-linear and chaotic and, accordingly, can be influenced, but not controlled. John P. Kotter and Ralph Stacey are good examples of management gurus representing each their school.

When you invite people to take part in the change and give them genuine influence early on in the process, you’ll lose control – do it anyway!

Kotter is popular because his approach is linear and creates order. On the other hand, it is our experience that Kotter’s logic underpins – somewhat excessively so – those huge change projects that look so enticing on paper, but are so difficult to execute in practice.

Here, it is important for us to stress that major change projects must be approached with cautiousness. The risk of initiating something that will run out of control is imminent.

A good Implementation example is a large Scandinavian company which, following thorough strategic considerations, planned and executed a divisionalisation of the entire organisation. Within less than a year, the company went from a healthy profit margin of 10% into the red. The fixed costs exploded, while the entire organisation’s focus was directed inwards at its own issues rather than at the customers. And it was not the plan that was at fault, nor was it the strategic rationale for executing the change. It was the change process itself.

This is where Stacey becomes relevant when claiming that we cannot predict the outcome of organisational changes with certainty, and that the uncertainty increases with the scope and length of the project. By analogy, it is possible to predict the weather tomorrow in Copenhagen, Stockholm or Oslo with reasonable certainty, whereas we have no idea of what it will be like in a month on a worldwide basis.

Split up large-scale projects into sequences of smaller ones

In organisational terms, this means that we can do ourselves a great favour by splitting up large-scale projects into sequences of smaller ones. More loops reduce uncertainty, the organisation’s “change muscle” is exercised, and it allows us to learn from our experience. With the addition, of course, of focused and intelligent planning and execution of the individual change projects.

Vast changes which in a single stroke impact the entire organisation or much of it should, as far as possible, be initiated only as a matter of life or death for the company. They look good on paper, but the art is not in planning – it is in implementing the change.