Despite the scale and scope of the change industry, the success rate of change programmes over the past 30 years has remained at just 20% - a grim figure indeed.
A major part of the problem is that there are many common misconceptions about the change process. By far the biggest is the notion that change can be ‘controlled’ – after all, that’s what the word ‘management’ implies: that you’re controlling something. But in reality, it must be properly led. And most of it, sadly, isn't.
Current trends show us how urgently senior figures must improve their approach to the leadership of change. I’ve now written multiple papers saying, “Look, if we assume that Covid is a tsunami – well, we’re facing a host of other tsunamis at the same time.”
We’ve got digital transformation, Brexit and all the complex challenges around climate change and sustainability – not to mention political tensions in the Ukraine and the South China Sea.
On a purely individual basis, any one of those factors would be absolutely massive. So, if you think that you can ‘control’ all of that, may I persuade you that you’re somewhat misguided?
Prior to working on a major, long-running change project in the technology sector, I was a ferry captain – a rank I reached after joining as deckhand – and that part of my career instilled me with a firm belief in the principles of navigation.
Glancing around various online sources of business wisdom has shown me that navigation has become a bit of a buzzword – which means that people don’t really grasp what it means. For instance, I’ve seen apparently quite credible people on LinkedIn talk about how we just need to “plough through the storm to get to the other side” – when anyone who knows anything about navigation would tell you that when you’re in a storm, you drop speed… or the storm drops it for you!
If you look at the complexity of change now, there's no single right answer – but there are wise answers, and there are better answers. To get to those, you need multiple inputs from multiple sources to build up the full picture of what you need to understand. And that’s how navigation works.
If you ask me in a shipping context to tell you where I am, that one, ostensibly simple question is very complex for me to answer. I could describe where I am in relation to weather fronts, shipping lanes, the height of the ship above the ocean floor, a location on the chart – the list goes on. And, by the way, if you ask me again in couple of minutes, all that data will have changed.
That’s really the sort of systemic complexity that leaders are facing now when it comes to executing change endeavours.
To tackle this complexity and drive the recovery effort, leaders must go more than one step beyond cooperation. One step further will lead them to collaboration – but they must go further still, into concordance. And the basis for concordance is asking staff, “How do we work with a singularity of effort, spur of mind, attitude, purpose and resources to achieve what we must achieve?”
Look at how the pharma industry has approached developing the vaccines. Across the board, they’ve worked with one heart, one mind and one purpose. That goes far beyond collaboration.
Essentially, if you only take a single bearing, all that will tell you is where you are on a single line. So, you need to constantly triangulate.
Effective change requires excellent leadership, supported by great management and informed by the principles of sound and vigilant navigation,
Voices from our community: Chris Lever is director of transformation specialists Teleios Consulting.