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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Phil Merrell and Nicola Cull, Directors at Towers Watson


Phil Merrell and Nicola Cull are Directors in Towers Watson’s Communications and Change Management practice.

1. Change is not a new process – there’s been a lot of progress in how companies streamline other processes, such as technology delivery and onboarding, but change seems to be lagging behind. Companies still seem to struggle, often with the ‘human’ aspect of it. Why is this?

Most change efforts are driven as projects – which is good, the problem is that the emphasis on deliverables can skew focus to the tangible (is the technology in on time and in budget? Have we achieved the cost savings? Have we trained people for new skills?) and away from the people elements necessary to achieve sustainable change. From our 2011 survey we found that companies that involve communications and change management processes early on in new programmes are more effective at bringing about change and embedded that change for the long term. Organisations with both highly effective communication and change management practices are more than twice as likely to significantly outperform their peers as organisations that are not highly effective in either of these areas.

We all know that stakeholder management is a key component of successful change, so the effort and time required to truly obtain commitment and acceptance and buy-in should never be underestimated or short circuited. One key group is middle managers, as the case for change is communicated from the top down, we see that the clarity of the message is significantly reduced.

That survey also highlighted the need to train managers, but it also showed that training was rarely effective. Managers play a pivotal role in embedding change but seldom are they effectively trained and equipped to embed change.

2. Can you tell us precisely how organisational transformation differs from organisational change and, also, why organisational transformation has become so popular?

The difference between the two can be difficult to spot as the terms are often used interchangeably – which is a mistake. Transformation occurs when there is a deep embedding of changes into behaviours, values, capabilities and processes. When all those aspects align then you see the realisation of strategic intent where the change plan – a series of programmed interventions – delivers the organisation to a new state which typically enhances competitive advantage or delivers a new proposition. Transformation is the goal – change is a means to that end.

3. What are the main reasons employees resist change?

Lack of line of sight and understanding of the business case. It’s not unreasonable for employees to resist change if they are not receiving clear and transparent messages, consistently from leadership and managers.

Usually because people don’t get it. the assumption of many leaders in change is that the rationality of the change plan (reduce costs, build capability, restructure to deliver to new markets) will be enough to generate acceptance. This is rarely the case – emotion trumps logic and resistance to change is often because those impacted by the change do not feel sufficient ownership of the agenda or do not have a clear answer to the question ‘what’s in it for me?’

There can also of course be sound reasons for resistance based on vested interest – e.g. people feel they will be worse off as a result of the change. Resistance often arises when people do not see the need for change, have no clear view of what the future state looks like or do not feel confident about their ability to perform in the post change world. All of these are manageable in a carefully thought through change plan that focusses on stakeholder engagement and the critical role of leaders and line managers through the change process. Resistance is usually thought of as an obstacle to overcome – this is a mistake. Resistance is a source of intelligence that should inform the planning and leadership of change.

4. Identifying whether employees are truly resistant to change or whether they are just going through the natural resistance to new ideas can be very tricky for companies. What advice would you give for HR managers who need to make this judgement?

You need to very clear about the different impacts change will have on different stakeholder groups and support each group accordingly as they make their way through the change curve. People are often more worried about loss associated with the change rather that the new world itself, so focus on these aspects to help people understand and adjust to change. Being meticulous on understanding the change readiness state in the organisation and undertaking detailed change impact analyses will help those responsible for change understand how different groups might respond to change and how to manage them accordingly. For example, if you are changing a core process that requires people to use new skills and connect with people in a new way there sources of resistance are likely to come from a lack of clarity and confidence about how they need to work in the future so help them by providing sandpit examples of new ways of working, give them sight of the tools and skills training they will get and, if new behaviours are required, show them how these will be reflected in performance objectives.

5. How has change management theory evolved in the last 10 years? What are the new insights, ideas and opportunities that HR might now know about?

Change management theory has not undergone any radical revisions in the last 10 years. There are important frames that help guide the planning and execution of change – Bridges focused on managing transition, Kotter’s 8 steps to successful change, Litwin’s freeze-unfreeze model – but the most important thing is to understand the dynamics at play in any particular change situation and then, using the foundation of a clear understanding of what makes people tick in a change situation, plan and execute change interventions with a robust plan.

When planning for change I think it is important not to assume that organisations are mechanical with predictable cause and effect (e.g. like a watch – you wind it, the set of moving parts interact in a uniform manner and the hands move round the dial). People create complexity in organisations and their reactions to change cannot assume simple cause and effect. Change plans need to be sufficiently sophisticated and appropriately focused to avoid simplistic assumptions about what will work. We have come a long way since McGregor’s Theory X view of human nature in organisational management. As a result of extensive research and experience, Towers Watson has built a model of change that ensures a combination of appropriate rigour and focus on what works.

6. We often talk of ‘buy-in’ when it comes to change, but what is this exactly? Approval? Acceptance? Tolerance?

Buy in suggests that people do not just accept change but feel a degree of ownership of the change and are invested in its success. It may be that some stakeholder groups will not reach this point and that it is enough for them to know and understand. But those that are directly impacted by the change and are responsible for enacting it need to feel as if they have skin in the game. This can be achieved by giving them influence in the design of the change – how it will play out at local level, and by ensuring that the change is wired into the routines and measures of the  business so they feel obligated and committed to the change.

7. Is time an important pre-requisite for the success of change initiatives? Do employees always need sufficient time to adapt and prepare for the change or is this a myth?

Pace of change is an important factor in its success. Too slow and it can feel like periods of uncertainty are protracted, people get fatigued and momentum and energy for the change can be difficult to maintain. Too rapid and people may be left behind by the change, they have not had enough time to adjust and buy-in (it feels like a fait accompli) or they just are not yet ready to be part of it. There is a ‘Goldilocks zone’ for change timing – the nature of the change and the culture of the organisation will determine what is ‘just right’.

8. Are change management initiatives more successful when directed at the macro level (divisions, teams) or individual level? Isn’t there an element of employees going along with new ideas if others are already supportive of them?

You have to address both. The advantage of thinking macro is that it encourages a whole systems approach which pays attention not just to the change itself but the other aspects of the organisation that need to be aligned to the change to support its implementation and sustain it in the medium and long term. Big picture change also encourages leadership advocacy and creates a sense of gravitas around the importance of the change. It can also provide a sense of community which will be supportive and encouraging for those going through change. It’s important not to make the mistake of using change as a blunt instrument – understanding the motivational impact on small groups and individuals is important. Similarly, making sure communication is targeted to different segments of the workforce and that line managers are ready and able to manage and support their teams through change is of fundamental importance to its success.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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