What To Do When Change Fails

OD and change management are not new concepts, yet there are varying degrees of success with change initiatives. While proven methodologies and tools can be applied, these are not enough to guarantee the anticipated outcomes. The recent 7th Asia OD Summit in Singapore provided insights into potential pitfalls that OD practitioners should remember.

Change Driven From One Perspective

Mr Geoff Bellman, author of the “Heart of Consulting”, reminded us of the importance of considering the perspectives of those being impacted by change. It is easy to be caught up with the business objectives or be too focused on your own requirements. Communication needs to consider the perspectives of the audience. Their perspective will influence how they translate and hear the messages.

An example provided was how a new product from a financial services organisation was initially misunderstood by potential clients. Research revealed that people are living longer yet people are not increasing the amount they save to cover the cost of living longer. This organisation launched a new life insurance product to address this. The initial response was disappointing and in reviewing the marketing, it became apparent that potential clients were “translating” the messaging in unexpected ways. For example, the product was initially called “longevity insurance” and resulted in people focusing on potential losses, including death. In addition, the target audience did not grasp that they themselves will live longer and as a result, did not see the necessity of this product. By focusing on potential clients’ perspectives and adjusting their marketing approach, this product is now a success.

The lesson I learnt is to never forget the audience’s perspective and how they can potentially “translate” communication to suit their reality.

Underestimate the Influence of Some of Your Stakeholders

Dr Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, Director of Quality and Equality Ltd, encouraged us to ensure we use politics and power to achieve our objectives. This of course came with a warning – it should not be used for egotistic gain. She discussed the importance of ensuring you know ALL your stakeholders. It is common to focus on influencing the most senior stakeholder, however ,there are other sources of power that can impact the success of an initiative.

This topic reminded me of the actions taken upon the arrival of the super fishing trawler Abel Tasman (Margiris) to Australia. According to the  ABC news media, the owners of this boat and spent two years reaching and overcoming all potential obstacles to this trawler fishing in Australian waters. They worked closely with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to meet every rule and regulation. Upon arrival of the trawler in Australia, there was public outcry over such a large fishing boat being allowed in Australian waters. When the House of Representatives passed legislation aimed at stopping the trawler, the owners were suitably miffed. My observation is that they significantly underestimated the “power” of public sentiment.

The lesson learnt is that when commencing a change initiative, consider all the stakeholders and different power bases. It is important monitor their power and consider how best to influence them.

Think “Outside the Box” for Solutions

As outlined in my previous blog on the conference, the speaker that made the most impact on me was Mr Clarence Ti, Chief Executive of Vital (Singapore Ministry of Finance). While he shared only a few of the initiatives implemented to change the engagement level of staff and clients, they were not your standard change tools (e.g. hire media specialist, writing letters, work to be staff’s sixth priority). Yet with these initiatives, the engagement of staff significantly improved within two years.

At the Summit, another case study provided by a UK financial services organisation and their acquisition of an Asian bank. Since 2005, there have been a number of initiatives to integrate the Asian bank and these have had various levels of success. After eight years, it may be expected this integration would be complete, but there is still more work needed to achieve strong business results expected from this acquisition. There had been an underestimation of strength of both the societal and organisational culture within the Asian bank, and how this would work against the change initiatives. One of the change managers said his key learning was the importance of implementing from others’ perspectives, not his own. This was particularly noticeable due to the difference of eastern thinking and his own western approaches. Going forward, this financial services company are focusing on the strengths and skills within the acquired bank, rather than imposing western solutions for change. They have identified a number of change principles which include “complex change can be nudged, not directed”. This is leading to more “outside the box” thinking for the change initiatives.

From this example, I learnt that it can initially seem easier to implement solutions that have worked in other situations. However, that is not a guarantee of success. When commencing a change initiative, consider a variety of possible interpretations of the current situation, rather than only focusing on the most obvious.

Change tools and methodologies are valuable to in guiding an OD practitioner implementing change initiatives. As outlined above, this is not enough to achieve success. It is necessary to go deeper and consider the perspectives of others, identify and influence all stakeholders and spend time consider a variety of possible solutions.