16 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Irrational Side of Change Management – Part 3 of 3

In Parts One and Two of this series of three posts, I introduced an article published recently in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled The Irrational Side of Change Management, and summarized their first seven of nine lessons about why common sense hasn’t helped improve the success rate of change. If you didn’t read the first post, please start there.

Condition IV: Capability Building

The skills of the workforce and the capabilities of the organization must change to support the change agenda.

Lesson 8: Don’t overlook employees’ beliefs when driving behavior change

McKinsey idea: Requiring behavior changes without understanding what employees believe may not have the desired effect. Behavior stems from personal beliefs, and without understanding those beliefs, mandated behaviors may run counter to employees’ self-perception.

Tenacious Tortoise comment: McKinsey’s example of bankers becoming uncomfortable with becoming salespeople is not convincingly applied in the general case. But it is easy to see that simply telling employees to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do will have less effect than patiently creating an understanding of why the new behavior is desired and understanding and addressing any discomfort that the new behavior creates.

Lesson 9: Skill-building programs aren’t enough

McK: Enterprises engaging in formal training programs in skills required for the change agenda see little effect if the training is treated as a stand-alone event. It is important to provide the opportunity to practice new skills, receive feedback, and share experiences with colleagues reinforces the training and ensures that new skills do not stagnate. Interspersing training and field experience with new skills enables new skills to ripen and mature.

TT: Sounds right, but there needs to be a bit of a reality check here. With increased specialization of knowledge workers, broad-brush training programs for large groups of workers have become far more rare than in the past. Leaders who pay lip service to the idea of training employees in new skills under-invest in training programs and the integration of training with the work itself. Outsourcing of functions to firms with lower labor costs or concentrated skills has decimated enterprise training programs. A surplus in the skilled labor market resulting from higher unemployment raises the incentive for organizations to simply hire proven skills rather than take the risk of training existing workers for new tasks. It seems unlikely that organizations will invest in the carefully-designed training and field integration called for by McKinsey’s authors.

Been There, Done That

In their article, the McKinsey folks have captured and consolidated some important lessons for anyone driving change in organizations. But reading through the article, I was struck with the extent to which these ideas are well-understood in the community of strategy and change professionals that I’ve worked with over the years. When consulting, we’re often in situations where we have to guide the decisions of our clients; big decisions about the strategy itself, but countless smaller decisions about the design of a communication program, how a leader should act in a meeting, how to tell a story, or what to do with incentives. It is easy for me to imagine much agreement and little interest in the lessons here among experienced consultants, simply because they’re already part of the practice of driving change.

What was missing in Kotter’s and later McKinsey’s assessment of the low success rate of change in organizations (see part 1) was the degree of experience in change management in each organization. The common sense lessons offered by McKinsey aren’t common sense to those leaders and managers with little actual experience in driving change. That the majority of change programs are led by persons with little experience is perplexing, that the majority of these change programs fails is not at all surprising. To drive change in the enterprise without the guidance of an experienced facilitator, is simply, ahem, irrational.

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