Organizations often call me after they’re already in trouble with a significant change effort. They anguish: “We’ve been building the plane while we’re flying it, and now we are running out of fuel.”
They are in danger of falling prey to the stats: 55% of big initiatives fail due to inadequate change leadership and communications (PMI 2014). While this is an improvement from the 80% failure rate reported in previous years, it’s not good enough. The reasons why organizations struggle with this issue are complex, so I’ll share insights in a series of posts. This is the first.
Insight 1: Don’t doom your program with the wrong talent (and don’t doom your talent with the wrong program)
Picking the right person to lead change and communications is crucial. First, let me state the obvious: change and communication leaders need to be experienced in both change and communications.
They need to be able to influence without authority. And they need a seat at the leadership table.
They have to hold their own in a room of strong-willed executives with conflicting agendas. They have to make compromises that leave many unsatisfied. They have to find good ways to deliver bad messages. They have to be translators between business and technology, and between executives and rank-and-file employees. They have to be practical and not buckle to the all-too-common pressure to be unrealistically positive.
It’s a tough, often thankless, job that can kill reputations. It should not be assigned to someone who already has a full plate (or even a half-full plate). This is why outside consultants are often tapped for these roles.
Too many times I am brought into a program after a well-intentioned manager is given change and communications as a “stretch assignment.” This can be a disservice to both the individual and the initiative. And, because these projects usually have high profiles and high price tags, failure can have fatal consequences. Heads do roll. Don’t let one of them be yours.
Years ago, when I moved to New York from Virginia, I’d occasionally hear people comment that the service ethic down south was, in their opinion, not good. On the flip side, several Virginians mentioned they found New York service lacking.
Was service good in one place and bad in another? That depends on your priorities. In this case, one group placed a higher value on speed, while the other prized friendliness.
Different value systems like these play out everyday with business customers, employees and distribution systems. So, while many organizations have similar goals, their varying cultural environments demand very different approaches.
To forge a feasible path in any environment, you have to see both the forest and the trees. A good consultant can zoom in and zoom out with a perspective rendered hi-def by experience. Plus, our hard-won practicality means we can usually find paths that don’t require extreme clear-cutting measures, which is important when your environment won’t stand for clear-cutting.
On the other hand, if your organization thrives on “the next big thing,” then dramatic change might be just what the doctor orders (or what the consultant recommends).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A well-traveled guide in a diverse array of organizational cultures, Emily Porter has a distinct POV marked by large doses of realism, empathy and outright humor. She has lived and worked in DC, NYC, Boston, Richmond, VA, Minneapolis and now Portland, OR.