Part II: Simplicity is key: An adaptive approach to transformational change

by Amy Poynton and Dhugal Ford 

When it comes to large scale, complex transformation programs, what is needed is less talk, more action. Less planning for big interventions, more incremental, engaging activities. It requires relentless attention, testing and validation to confirm that the change really is being understood, supported, and sustained.

Fair to say, when it comes to how best to approach change, everyone has an opinion. The approach can range from a go-to change model through to a known and trusted approach that people have seen work well before. With dreams of a well-planned, beautifully executed approach, the reality is often more like a series of generic communications on project progress to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. Updates are important and needed, but it isn’t change.

Too often there is a reluctance from leaders to just get started. Anxiety grows as they ask, “What if we can’t answer all the questions people have?”; “What if the business case assumptions are challenged?”; or “What if we can’t explain what it means to everyone on an individual basis?”.  All relevant concerns, but no need for these to become barriers to getting change started.

There are three simple tips to consider: Start, Integrate and Adapt.

1.      Start! Choose a method and approach

Choose one. And start using it.

There are merits with all change methods and approaches. And there will be shortfalls if these are deployed without first understanding more about the situations for which they are being proposed. Complexity of the program of work, reach of change impacts and regional variations across a global business are common examples of situational variables, which can significantly impact the likelihood of success of a change approach, on a large-scale transformation. But talking about which change approach might work best isn’t the answer. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

2.      Integrate! Integrate change activities with project activities

With a selected change method and approach, the next challenge is how to ensure it is relevant and incorporated into all the other program activities being conducted at the same time. Being integrated means matching both the stage of a program of work and the project method. Understanding where all the points of integration are between change and the program work streams would allow for the greatest return on the effort invested in change activities, however it may not be realistic in a fast-moving transformation agenda. Therefore, it is critical to hedge your bets on a few “anchor” activities that will benefit from specific change interventions, which can further integrate the delivery of work across the program.

Also, early stakeholder engagement is encouraged, but there is a word of caution here – be mindful of the balance of time between talking about change work and actually doing the change work. Change only becomes “real” to those impacted when they can experience it (for example, through impact assessments or testing of new processes/ technology). Remember that the program team will be the most knowledgeable about the work being done, and should understand the important role they play in managing stakeholder expectations and enabling the changes being introduced. This is where developing a basic integrated plan can help.  This provides a useful change and communication tool, to maintain the focus on agreed work plans, inform people on why and how the work has been sequenced and to address feedback that will no doubt be coming in thick and fast!

3.      Adapt! Be prepared to change your change approach

Wouldn’t it be great if sticking to the plan and trusting the cascade of information worked all the time? Alas, one thing we know about complex transformation is that the longer a program runs, the more likely that other changes occurring in the business may impact on budget, schedule or quality. As a result, it is critical to take time to review and re-think about the best change approach. When constant change turns to white noise, we may need an entirely different approach to remain effective.

This might be a simple adjustment, being sympathetic to the broader business context when positioning change messages. For example, in a business that is in a period of contraction, with role reductions being an inevitable outcome, careful thought needs to go into the appropriate positioning of change messages about program progress or planning for the celebration of successes.

In other cases, top down adjustments to a transformation program may create a requirement to fundamentally shift the focus of change activities. Consider the requirement to accelerate progress to maintain required outcomes, in a compressed timeframe. There needs to be a trade-off. Change activities normally planned ahead of any “go-live”, focussed on establishing personal understanding, support and commitment, may need to be de-prioritised over post-implication change activities, focussed on stabilisation and embedding.

Keeping it simple is hard. When it comes to managing change on a complex transformation program, talk is cheap. It is easy to get lost in a debate on which approach might work best. Businesses can be lured into a sense of comfort that great service is being delivered, because the program is reacting to each and every bit of feedback received from stakeholders, but what is really happening is that the program team are getting buried in the complexity.

There is a very real risk that transformation teams may hit a stage of wanting to throw in the towel at the thought of a significant scope or schedule change which can feel like wasting precious time. However, making early decisions on the change approach, ensuring change activities are visibly linked to program activities, and being prepared to adapt the change approach to meet business needs are proven, simple steps that will help to deliver on promised transformation outcomes.

This article is part of a four-part series on large scale transformation including business performance, integrated change, stakeholder management and communication which is based on a Transformation Workshop delivered at Shared Services & Outsourcing week (Sydney 2017) by Dhugal Ford and Amy Poynton.

Dhugal Ford is a Director at The Terrace Initiative, with over 15 years experience working within a global business. He now enjoys working as part of an amazing team, with deep expertise and a sense of fun, delivering lasting and transformation change with predictability and speed for his clients.

 Amy Poynton is an advisor and board member with over 20 years experience in business improvement and transformation. She currently splits her time between board commitments, client engagements, mentoring, writing and speaking.

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