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I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years advising, mentoring and supporting digital product, design, and research leaders and teams through change in their organizations.
Whether building new teams, restructuring existing ones, or helping embed the way product, design and research practices engage with digital delivery models, these engagements are often complex, fraught with anxiety, and in a nutshell, not always entirely successful.
Creating change, under any circumstance, is difficult. People in transformation know this. According to McKinsey, less than 30% of transformation activities succeed. I suspect it’s much less than that, but that the criteria have been loosened to allow for a broader definition of success.
Organizations are complex systems, made even more complex by the introduction of humans into the equation. Complex systems are difficult to map, understand, navigate, and change. Layering the human factor onto a complex system with all of our emotions, ambitions, fears, anxieties, and other psychology helps you begin to understand why making change is so difficult.
And though I said successful change, under any circumstance, is difficult…
It’s not impossible.
Identifying some of the basics for creating successful change
Some things that I’ve come to believe need to be present for successful change are: thinking, shaping, planning, clarity, teaming, collaboration, engagement, co-creation, communication, decisioning, vision and leadership. These are things that I either see get muddled up in organizations attempting to undertake change, or are missing altogether.
Let’s try to understand them better.
Thinking — Before “doing” take the requisite time to “think” about the problems you are solving for, e.g., who is impacted, how you will measure results, and why you need to do it. Are you trying to “boil the ocean” or is your activity achievable? Do you have the resources you need? How will it impact customers and colleagues? What will shareholders think?
Shaping — Understanding your organization is a deeply complex organism and building time to understand the complexity of that organism will help you to shape your planning process. You need to understand the interconnectedness of your organization to identify how change needs to be implemented — and what it will impact.
Planning — With an understanding of the problems you’re solving for and the underlying complexity of your organization, you need a plan. Is this a program with a beginning, middle and end, or is your organization going on a journey? Is everyone committed? Have you allocated people and resources to ensure change does not become a “side of desk” activity?
Clarity — Can your team articulate a clear vision to one another, and across the organization? If not, can you simplify what you are trying to achieve to ensure everyone understands your intended direction? Having everyone “singing from the same hymn sheet” is an important factor in ensuring people get — and are onboard with — your vision.
Teaming — Don’t underestimate the effort in getting everyone to work together as a team. Being successful delivering in a silo is not the same as coming together, cross-functionally, effortlessly to drive change. You need to ensure your board and your c-suite are aligned and that this filters down to people across all parts of the organization… one team, one goal. Success.
Collaboration — Aligning around goals and objectives is important, but real change will require a thousand little — and big — interactions. This requires flexibility around collaboration, knowing that you may need to form and reform cross-functional teams together to do deep work, and deliver. Teaming gets you there, but collaboration is key to delivering results.
Engagement — If change is localized you still need to engage other parts of the organization to keep them informed throughout a change process. If you are undergoing wholescale organizational change, it is easy for teams to get out of step with one another. Engage often and openly ensuring people understand the moving parts of the process, and their place in it.
Co-creation — Successful collaboration comes when people from different functional areas and perspectives come together to look at problems needing to be solved. Embrace the idea of change being asynchronous, a continuous stream of back-and-forth engagement, encouraging people to work together, create and design together, deliver and succeed together.
Communication — Large-scale change can breed fragmentation and disconnection. Communicate openly and often. There’s nothing worse than the vacuum silence creates when undergoing change. Rumor mills kick in, anxiety increases, guessing becomes that day’s facts, and before you know it your program begins to unravel and descend into a mire of “fake news.”
Decisioning — There are hundreds of decisions that need to be made daily and weekly, and no one person or change authority can hear, process, or make that many decisions. Identify people in the program who you empower and trust to make decisions to maintain momentum and unblock people and activities.
Vision — It goes without saying that any program of change requires a vision, a north star that everyone involved understands, can articulate, and make relevant to the work they are asked to do. Vision helps to guide people’s efforts and ensure everyone is aligned around core beliefs necessary to delivering successful change.
Leadership — Leadership cannot be subordinated or distributed without risking failure in any change program. Leadership should come from the top of the organization. If it is an organizational transformation, the CEO should “lead” that effort. Even if the change occurs further down the hierarchy, there should be a clear line of authority to the CEO.
Leadership is a Core Component of Successful Change
Let’s expand on the last point about the CEO “leading” transformation.
Leading won’t always translate to the CEO personally doing or driving all of the above. But they need to “own” change in their organizations. They need to understand the value of change, commit to the people and resources required, and ensure that change is understood and agreed by their c-suite and the board. Especially when that change cuts across teams.
Without this involvement, it would be very easy for any change process to feel that it doesn’t have the mandate or authority to deliver against its objectives and ultimately risk failing in its efforts. This failure represents a failure of authority to deliver change in an organization.
If organizational leaders are ready to own the potential for success they also need to own the possibility of failure. And the consequences that come out of poor engagement.
Some Final Thoughts
I like to consider Thinking, Shaping, and Planning as a “design” activity. Clarity and Teaming are about “selling” and “aligning” change. Collaboration, Engagement, Co-Creation, and Communication are about “delivering” change. And finally Decisioning, Vision and Leadership are about “leading” and “mandating” change.
It’s very difficult to align so many things across a program of change — you can see why so many efforts fail.
As I said at the beginning, change is difficult. But the approach to change can determine the level of success of the outcome. Great leaders understand the need to be involved in creating successful change in their organizations. They understand the necessity of getting people, purpose and vision aligned, agreed and communicated. They get that change is difficult and messy and requires attention to process and detail.
If you’re considering undertaking change in your organization, assess your effort across each of these dimensions to ensure you’re prepared for what’s to come. The outcome will be a good indicator as to the degree of success — or failure — you might experience.
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