Sunday, 27 February 2011 00:00

Why Change Fails to Stick

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The Change U-Turn

Management comes up with great plans for sweeping change, it implements the plans, and three years later the organization has reverted to the way it was before the initiative. Changing to new breakthrough systems is hard; maintaining those processes and procedure is far more difficult. The reason progressive ideas can have a successful implementation only to have the organization regress to its prior state a few years later has its roots in societal practices and human nature.

Successful Change

Successful corporate change requires a management charter, funding for education, walking the talk, and integration into the corporate fabric. All of these are rooted in management. The genesis of the idea may be from anywhere in the organization, but management must sponsor and support the change through actions, not just words.

Change is difficult and the chances of successfully implementing the best of changes is very low. The entire organization takes part in implementing change; however, management carries it forward making it happen. Without management's commitment squarely behind the initiative, it will fail. Success is hard fought and available only to the best. The managers that achieves it must reap significant a reward.

Rewarding Success

Most firebrands that drive change have little interest in doing the mundane task of maintaining the process. They need the next challenge. Corporate culture provides this through promotion. Financial incentives help, but the stature of a new title or office announces the success to everyone. If the reward is not commensurate with the goals of the change agent, he or she will look for new opportunities outside the present organization. Regardless, shortly after the change has been deemed successful, the people responsible for the accomplishment necessarily leave its sphere of influence. Compounded by the normal influx of new employees, all of whom need training in these non-standard concepts, the corporate fabric around the change begins to fray. The desire for comfort brings more passive-aggressive pressure on the system quickly reverting it back to its original state.

Changing of the Guard

Recently a well-respected, forward-thinking, dynamic leader I know left an organization they had been running of many years. During his tenure he had made significant changes. The accomplishments included transforming the IT applications development group into a well-tuned, high-performance team. That team is still growing and embraces change. One of the many changes completed was moving from a waterfall project management methodology for application development to an agile approach. Many managers struggled to understand the value in failing early and that the list of items started at the beginning of the year were not necessarily the list completed at the end of the year. Their tried and true methods of measuring success were no longer valid. In this new paradigm, a successful year could deliver nothing if the teams determine in early iterations that there was insufficient value for the business. It remains to be seen whether the new management, unfamiliar with agile, let alone IT, will continue to use agile. This will worsen as the company hires other new team members and the expenses in training increase. Shortsighted management considers training low hanging fruit when trying to reduce overhead costs. The new leadership needs to look at the system as a whole, instead of trying to squeeze pennies out of individual pieces—unraveling it slowly, thread by thread.

Holding Change

It is human nature to resist change. The norm is comforting. Each of us subconsciously oppose it, and when the pressure to maintain it lessens, we drift back to the our old ways. This is exacerbated when we are thrown into a strange environment that needs quick action. We resort to what is tried and true—the comfortable—implementing processes and procedures from our past. These actions could replace new and innovative solutions that are unfamiliar to us and we simply do not comprehend there value. We need to take pause and understand the environments we walk into and only revert when there is evidence of failure.

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