Change is hard. Because standing still feels safer. Reformers are rarely trusted. Our identities grew out of ‘the old ways’.
And it’s getting harder. Staff are fatigued with ‘new’. Executive teams are scattered across continents. Competition comes from unknowns outside your industry.
So when you start on a change journey you want to know it’s got a better than average chance of succeeding. (Average, by the way, is three in ten.)
And then there are ‘change programs’. In the mid-nineties Harvard professor John Kotter found that seven in ten change programs fail. Fifteen years later, and with more than 2,000 new books for sale in Amazon’s ‘change management’ category, McKinsey reckons the number of failures is still… seven in ten.
Blame for failure isn’t hard to come by: the program was run by people who lack practice; the organisation got too used to trading on last year’s results; the objectives weren’t well understood; nothing got measured; the staff weren’t involved, etc., etc., etc.
Yet after two decades of change science, corporate reorganizations, new software systems, and quality-improvement projects, the failure rate remains at an unswerving 70 percent.
"URGENCY HAS LOST ITS, WELL... URGENCY"
Change the Change Game
In our Game Changers report, Wolff Olins explored the five behaviours that drive growth in some of the most interesting companies the world has seen.
At the heart of these behaviours is being ‘purposeful’. It’s the ‘know thyself’ moment that great companies use to create energy. A smarter way of using what already exists in the company. What Pfeffer and Sutton referred to as the “knowing-doing gap.” Piling more and more knowledge onto a problem doesn’t make people smarter. What they need is a reason to do something different.
And that reason probably already exists within your business.
That reason, when framed correctly, is your purpose.
In Kotter’s world, change management starts with a sense of urgency. If there is no impetus, he argued, then nothing gets moving. And without momentum, change is no more than pretty words on a PowerPoint slide.
But over the past decade urgency has become an everyday panic attack in the workplace. The urgency to develop new propositions (which clutters the market). The urgency to drive new growth out of old products (which starts a price war).
Service sectors like travel and retail know that squeezing every last drop out of their old business model hasn’t stemmed the tide.
Content sectors like publishing have seen social media overtake their commissioning credentials while their funds dried up thanks to unbundled content, bad pricing decisions, and piracy.
And countless other industries from banks to car rentals harbour a suspicion that it’s poor customer service that’s killing their growth.
Less urgency, more energy
Everyone knows what urgency feels like. Urgency is as much a part of the modern tired jargon as ‘social’, ‘convergence’ and ‘efficiencies’.
Urgency has lost its, well… urgency. The relentless amplitude of “FEAR THIS!!” does little more than inspire cynicism when, as sometimes happens, there was no wolf.
On the other hand, explaining why we’re on this journey in the first place creates motivating energy, leads to meaningful engagement, and asks forgiveness when things don’t always go to plan.
Even in areas where the most basic food and shelter is at risk, there are better ways to encourage change. Economists have long believed that escaping poverty demands significantly more effort than just eating a few more calories or working a few more hours a day.
Reporting her data results, MIT economist Esther Duflo showed the quantitative benefits of ‘Hope’ in West Bengal. Her analysis showed that if an anti-poverty program lifts the self-belief of its recipients, then the positive effects, such as eating more and earning more and saving more, are considerably greater and considerably longer-lasting beyond the end of the program.So consider how some of today’s most effective companies create energy instead of urgency by being really clear about why they are in this world. Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” says the ‘why’ is what convinces us to take this amazing journey with them.
Most companies tell us what they are doing, then lay out the points that will prove how they will deliver it. Finally,they land on the ‘why,’ usually in the form of a problem solved.
“We have this widget,” they tell us, “and it is made like this. Buy it. And your no-widget problem will go away.”
But a reason to move is far more motivating than a fear of standing still.
Companies like Apple, Google and Starbucks reverse that message. They begin with ‘why’ they exist. To challenge the status quo. To organise the world’s information. To inspire and nurture the human spirit.
Then they talk about 'how' they’re going about it. By designing for humans. By making every millisecond count. By focusing on the neighbourhood.
And only then, when there is the right level of energy around their mission, only then do they talk about 'what' they plan to do. iPad. Adwords. Chai Latte.
Put alongside this kind of directional leadership, the urgency of an everyday ‘change program’ looks shrill and petty. Telling us “We’re all going to die!!” as a way of getting us to sharpen our pencils less often doesn't make for long term productivity.
But if we put purpose at the head of a change program it creates an energy that is differentiated, longer lasting, and more generous. It gives everyone in the organisation something to believe in, something to take part in with pride.
Purpose is the positive drive that will outlast urgency’s panicky scaremongering.
Purpose is the sun in Aesop’s fable, inspiring the man to remove his coat, while urgency blows harder and harder, barely succeeding three times in ten.
After all, how effective would Martin Luther King have been if he’d started “I have a nightmare”?