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The key to change and organisational development success

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SuccessWhy do so many change or organisational development (OD) initiatives fail, asks Mike Morrison? Change is serious and needs to be managed and cared for if you want to nurture success, he says.


After more than two decades of HR trotting out the mantra ‘change is the only constant’ why do we appear to make the same mistakes again and again? Are we learning? Do we listen to those who have ‘trod the path’ before us?

Why do so many change and OD initiates fail to deliver bottom line results? Indeed, many OD and improvement change initiatives don’t just fail to add to the bottom line, they often distract the organisation and absorb valuable resources and as a consequence reduce an organisation’s overall effectiveness. Organisational changes then fail to live up to expectations.

One change initiative is then superseded by another attempting to solve issues not effectively addressed by a previous change, and the spiral continues (see figure 1 below).

This starts to build a reputation in the organisation that change cannot be effectively managed internally, often resulting in external resources being employed. Stopping the cycle is a treatment – prevention is better.

Graphic 1

The reasons for change management failure are often a combination of the following:

  • No clear vision for the change

  • New activity not directly linked (or integrated) to organisational objectives

  • No overall agreed strategy for organisation development

  • Tactical rather than holistic diagnostics

  • Organisation’s existing culture not taken into account

  • Purchasers not clear about what they are buying

  • Suppliers of consultancy only finding solutions to problems they can solve easily

  • Lack of predetermined metrics and evaluation of performance and success

  • Time and financial pressures on management of the organisation

  • Change process not managed effectively within the organisation

“When the needs of the organisation are appropriately identified in the first place, often the measures for success and evaluation are obvious.”

None of these steps are on their own difficult, yet many organisations miss them out, or worse only pay lip service. These are the basics of effective change, which for some strange reason keep being missed again and again. It is unfortunate that many of the texts on change management and organisational development and training needs analysis encourage the diagnosis of a ‘problem’ in isolation from many of the factors listed above. For significant success all factors must be present and effective.

What do these things mean to us the practitioner? Let’s take a look at them one by one.

Activity not directly linked to the organisations objectives

Often organisational development activity is linked to improving a single issue and unfortunately, these issues and activities are not fully integrated with the current or future goals of the organisation.

No overall strategy for organisation development

Effective development requires an holistic or integrated approach, often business development activity (including sales and strategic development etc.) have no overall strategy driving them. Examples can include sales focusing on a high margin product where the organisation wants to change focus. Strategic initiatives introduced for tactical reasons – for example, Investors in People so that the organisation would be eligible for contracts.

Tactical rather than holistic diagnostics

Many organisational diagnostic tools in use today are based on either a single behavioural factor (traditional OD theory) or on a vertical diagnostic process ignoring much of the organisation as a whole. As success in one part of an organisation is dependant on the function of another we need to be more holistic in our approach to OD activity.

The culture of the organisation not taken into account

When change activities are implemented, they are often driven by a ‘fad’ or current model, blindly believing that it is the right thing to do. Examples may include changing the culture of the organisation without understanding how the existing culture supports the current success of the organisation. It is often taken for granted that culture can be changed easily – it cannot. When culture is changed for the wrong reasons, or without fully understanding its current strengths and weaknesses, it can bring an organisation to its knees.

Purchasers not clear about what they are buying

Buying consultancy or organisational change products can be complex and confusing, causing significant discomfort to the unwary. Many top providers spend a lot of money making their marketing messages look slick and promising to solve your problems easily. Unfortunately, many providers are packaging change as if it were a boxed product. Driving this behaviour, as purchasers we appear to be increasingly comfortable buying a product rather than a service. It is a ‘safe’ option. We assume (often incorrectly) that because it is ‘boxed’ it is proven and will work in our organisation.

“More often than not, those involved in change management also have a ‘real day job’ too. But change is a real day job! And as businesses we need to show that we are serious about success.”

In the 21st century the purchasing of products is something we as individuals think we understand, and when many people find themselves in the position of purchasing for our organisation, we use consumer purchasing strategies. These are not appropriate. As purchasers we need to fully understand the proposition and its impact on our existing culture and ability. I like to think of OD professionals as ‘intelligent purchasers’.

Suppliers only finding solutions to problems they can solve

Suppliers run a business – they want to sell what they can offer easily, if they can find a way of positioning their offerings to our stated need, they will.

Lack of predetermined metrics and evaluation

It is easy to talk about evaluation, but in practice much harder to do. When the needs of the organisation are appropriately identified in the first place, often the measures for success and evaluation are obvious. The justification of any future organisational development activity is easier when as developers we have evidence that what we did last time added value.

Time and financial pressures on the organisation

As the saying goes – when you are up to your back side in alligators, you easily forget that your job is to clear the swamp. Organisational change is like this too – more often than not, those involved in change management also have a ‘real day job’ too. But change is a real day job! And as organisations we need to show that we are serious about success, and that means allocating resources – time and money to the changes and organisational initiatives we desire and indeed require for our organisations.

Change process not managed effectively

Deciding that change is required is one thing, actually doing it is quite another. Effective change management requires a number of key factors in place, these include, but are not exclusive:

  • Written goals with success measures

  • An agreed plan of action for the organisation

  • An agreed plan of organisational resources

  • Availability of organisational resources in a timely fashion

  • An understanding of the psychology of change on the individuals impacted

  • An understanding of the psychology of those not impacted

  • An understanding of the psychology of the teams and groups impacted

  • A plan to manage the needs of individuals impacted and not impacted by the change

  • Regular communication – approximately 500% more than you think you need

  • A celebration on completion of key stages

  • A review of what went well/did not go well – for all parties and stakeholders – from their perspectives

  • Application of learning identified in the next stage

  • Communication that lessons have been learnt and specifically what is being done differently

This is not a magic formula – as each organisation and each change initiative will have different issues and requirements, when this is done, then success is highly likely. Change is serious and needs to be managed and cared for if you want to nurture success.


Mike Morrison is director of RapidBI Ltd, a consulting and training company specialising in organisational development and the development of high performing teams and individuals.

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