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6 common mistakes businesses make when introducing change

Updated: Sep 14, 2018

According to different studies, 60-80% of changes in businesses fail.

Why is that?

Does it have to be this way?

The answer is, no. Some businesses are actually exceedingly good at introducing change. What makes change so difficult in the remaining businesses, is that the issues with change oftentimes have to do more with psychology and culture, with soft skills that are hard to pin down, rather than with hard-core measurable change techniques. Moreover, it is oftentimes the soft skills that are most sought after by managers in business as usual (BAU), that can present the biggest challenges in a change scenario.

Change needs a different psychology than business as usual.

BAU is like leading your army through known territory. You know the route, you've done it dozens of times before, you know where the crevices are, where your supply lines are, who the merchants are on the way, where to get your water supply from, and where to stop on the way. You've got procedures for every known problem that could crop up on the way, because chances are that whatever happens, it already happened before and somebody figured out how to deal with it. So they wrote a procedure, to either avoid the problem, or to give you the tools to deal with it. Not following the procedure would be stupid, you'd be re-inventing the wheel.

Change, especially rapid change, e.g. due to a regulatory deadline, or due to a sudden market change, isn't like that. It's like leading your army through completely unfamiliar territory, with very little chance of prior surveyance. Suddenly, things are up in the air. There are no procedures. Problems come at you from left, right, and center, and nobody has figured them out yet. There may have been similar situations in the past, but only the people who dealt with them in the past and wrote the procedures for those situations in the past for BAU people are likely to immediately recognize the similarities.

And then you come to a river. There is no bridge. There was one, but it has been blown up. You send guides left and right, like your manual says, and they come back reporting that a) there is river left and right also, because you ended up in a river bend, and b) the enemy's army is closing in from the back, and they are far superior in terms of numbers, weapons, and equipment. So you are stuck.

If you look at your procedures at this point, you will remain stuck. And then you will become dead. That is because your procedures tell you that if you are at a river without a bridge, you are to send guides left and right, and if you don't find a bridge, wait for the bridge builders to arrive, before you lead your army to the other side of the river. You are not to attempt to build the bridge yourself, as you simply don't have the skills and experience and you would kill your people. That's against the Health and Safety procedure. Even if you had the skills and experience, your people aren't trained to be good swimmers, so even if they managed to build that bridge, if they fall into the river, they will drown. It is just too dangerous.

That's where your change people come in. Your change people are the crazy people who keep moving on from one division to the next, instead of just properly staying in one place, who always question orders and ask whether things can't be done differently. In other words, they are a BAU manager's nightmare.

They are also the ones who picked up the skills to build a bridge somewhere along the way, and in a danger situation where there is no other way, they won't follow standard procedure. Instead, they will find a rope, shoot it over a tree on the other side, just swing over, and make a make-shift bridge that makes you sick just looking at it. A bridge that would never do for BAU. And they will risk their lives building it. Sometimes they fall in the river, but they are also excellent swimmers - also something they picked up in one of their other odd jobs, so they make it to the other side, pick themselves up again, and make the bridge steady enough, so you can send your people over one at a time. They break every rule in the book, the do things that seem foolhardy, but they may just save your skin. And although what they do seems foolhardy, they may actually follow their own rules, rules that have also been tried and tested, but that require a different mindset and a certain set of skills that is different than that of BAU skills.

Do you want to adopt those rules for your BAU people? Goodness no, you'd kill them, if they didn't run away beforehand. Do you want to keep that make-shift bridge as it is for future use? Goodness, no. After you saved your army, got reinforcements, and took the country, you want to go back and reinforce that bridge, put proper rails in place, and make sure it doesn't swing wildly in the wind. That is what your BAU people are good at. They make things safe. Then you will put procedures in place, to assure that the bridge is regularly checked and updated, that boards are replaced, and that a proper warning sign is placed on both sides that tells people exactly what to do. That is what BAU procedures and methodologies are for. BAU makes it safe for the long term.

So, while both BAU and change people are useful in different scenarios, change and BAU requires different skills and different psychologies. For a change to be effective, you need both kinds of people, working together.

This can provide a challenge - BAU people don't like change, don't like uncertainty, value steadiness and predictability, and therefore prefer rules that are followed - by themselves and others. Change people thrive on variety, on figuring out unfamiliar problems, and they oftentimes don't do well with rigid rules that restrict their creativity and ability to solve problems - rules just get in the way and make things more difficult, things that are already difficult enough in the first place. Some change people will still use more masculine energies and will do well with project management methodologies like Prince II, that give at least some form of structure and certainty, others will thrive more on feminine energy (whether they are male or female, heterosexual or not), and feminine energy flows freely from one development to the next, knowing the destination, but not knowing how to get there and intuitively finding their way. The latter are often the most effective in very difficult changes, as they will find a shortcut on the way that more structured change managers will overlook. Project management methodologies like SCRUM will likely be favored in those scenarios. However, to an average BAU person, this way of working will look as if they are just making it up as they go along, with no goal, no process, and no chance of success. There is actually a process there, but it is invisible, so it will look foolhardy from the outside.

To minimize tensions between BAU and change people, leaders are required to recognize the strengths of both, change and BAU employees/consultants/contractors, and combine both in the most constructive ways. This is where change becomes an art.

We have worked in both environments, BAU and change, in more structured change, and highly intuitive change, so we can provide the bridge between these methods of thinking, while keeping the end goal in mind. To assist you in whatever change journey you may embark on in the future, we have recorded a video that describes 6 common mistakes when introducing change in an organisation, mistakes that can easily be avoided, with a bit of training and awareness. To access it, please click here!

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