Using Fact, Not Feeling, To Deliver Change

All too often, senior business leaders use intuition as the basis for organizational change decisions. While in some cases intuition may lead to sound change management decisions, today’s wealth of data and analytic capabilities can provide leaders with a more reliable, research-driven method that is more objective and effective.

Specifically, a more scientific approach to organizational change draws not just on a leader’s individual experience but also on hundreds of diagnostic, qualitative assessments and analysis of other organizations’ change journeys.

As client case studies through our work as change advisers for management consulting firm Accenture show, this scientific approach helps eliminate some of the risk and uncertainty inherent in decision-making based on intuition. More important, using an insight-driven process provides leaders with a more appropriate environment to accurately identify where to focus organizational change resources.

A Scientific Approach

While managing organizational change is inherently complex, the approach should boil down to two simple questions: How can an organization tell if a change program is on track? And, if not, what steps are needed to get there?

We have studied these two points at Accenture for the past 15 years by examining 250 major organizational change programs (Editor’s note: The authors work at Accenture). These include acquisitions, restructurings, technology implementations, cost reductions, downsizings and new product entries. We’ve worked with 150 companies in 50 different industries across 25 countries and collected data from more than 850,000 employees from all levels of the organization. We’ve spent many hours analyzing the data toidentify change patterns that inform predictive models that can guide other organizations as they work through similar challenges.

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This work culminated in the development of a multidimensional change map, which compares data across past and present change programs with groups — individual “travelers” and work units — on the map based on similar characteristics, behaviors and challenges (Figure 1).

Our research revealed that groups that land in these clusters on the map behave with general consistency when navigating organizational change. Perhaps more important, they achieve similar results. Consequently, it is possible to predict the outcomesassociated with any given path a company may choose. It is also possible to apply key lessons from an organizational change program at one company to another that is plotted in a similar area on the map.

Let’s take a look at this model, using an example from one of our client case studies. A global organization at the outset of an operating model restructuring program went through the change mapping process (Editor’s note: The authors, citing client confidentiality, declined to identify the company). Based on where the company plotted on the change map, we determined the actions other companies in a similar position on the change map used. In this case, it was apparent that the organization needed to sharpen its vision, strategic direction and leadership.

We also identified an important nuance that the company needed to address. Based on where they fell on the change map, the company needed to distinguish that understanding the vision and agreeing with it are two distinct issues. In this case, having leadership agree with and embrace the change management vision proved to be the more pressing point. As a result, the company was able to develop and deploy a plan that focused on helping people understand the approach to implementing the vision, thereby helping the organization meet its change objectives.

Would this company have focused on these areas simply by relying on intuition? Perhaps. But by using the change map, 15 years of scientific analysis contributed to a series of decisions that objectively addressed the organization’s most pressing change challenges. The change map also helped the company use a data-driven approach to identify where it needed improvement.

By using it to identify and apply the strategies and lessons from other organizational change efforts that landed in a similar place on the map, companies can focus efforts more precisely, plan for obstacles and deploy resources accordingly.

Drivers for High Performance

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As part of this process, our research sifted through thousands of variables that influence organizational change outcomes and distilled them to a list of 10 drivers that can be seen as universally critical. These markers represent important resources and capabilities that enable leadership to make a difference in the outcome of a change program (Figure 2).

While all of these drivers are critical to the overall success of an organizational change initiative, a company’s placement on the change map can determine the pieces that should be prioritized.

For example, a company that is introducing a new product may find that accountability and teamwork are the most important factors to success for this particular change initiative. On the other hand, team leadership may be the most effective driver of change when implementing a new technology system.

Likewise, it is important to remember that there will always be external factors that influence the outcomes of organizational change programs. These factors can be any type of market activity that affect performance — new market entrants, hostile takeovers, supply chain issues or even extreme weather events. These issues need to be accounted for, and it’s important to review the state of the organization often to execute against a current view.

Examining the drivers of change holistically helps explain why so many initiatives go off-track. For example, communication, training and even team leadership have been recognized as the traditional cornerstones of many organizational change programs. As such, these are areas where many organizations are comfortable focusing their efforts.

However, Accenture research has shown that these drivers, while necessary and important, have relatively little effect on improving business performance and achieving the benefits of change — at least, not on their own. Instead some of the high-impact drivers such as passion and drive, while harder to define and measure, typically have a greater influence on the outcome of the change initiative.

Two Case Studies

In charting the course to high performance, it is important to review many different types of organizational change journeys: those that were successful, those that had great potential but yielded mediocre results and those that failed.

The following examples, based on our client work using the change-mapping model, represent a composite of companies with similar experiences in change (Editor’s note: The authors, citing client confidentiality, declined to identify the firms).

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Let’s start with an example of a retail organization reorganizing the front office of its warehouse. Initially, the project showed signs of success. Two important drivers of change — accountability and teamwork — registered high, and leaders were confident that the project would be completed smoothly (Figure 3).

Then the company received a rush of orders for the holiday gift-giving season. While the uptick in sales is good for business, it caused management to focus its attention and resources on processing orders, not to manage the front-office change.

As a result, the organization experienced large drops in vision and direction, and the organization regressed to an area on the map that was marked by low performance.

The outcome of the project was at risk, and some of the initial benefits were diminished. After the holiday season, leadership needed to redouble efforts to make up lost ground and then attempt to reach the project’s initial objectives.

This case illustrates how change is a journey that requires constant attention. Just as the circumstances of the organization evolve, so too must leadership’s approach. Without such proactivity, the full benefits of change cannot be realized.

Near the opposite end of the spectrum is an automotive manufacturer that was able to improve its performance. This organization was in a relatively solid position: business was steady and employees were satisfied. Then leadership decided to introduce a new engine model, which would require new methods of assembly.

The plant manager sprung into action and conducted extensive workshops with existing supervisors to build skills focused on setting clear objectives and fostering cooperation. Thanks to those training sessions, teamwork increased, which contributed to a rise in business performance and benefits realization, particularly with respect to customer service levels and effectiveness.

In this situation, nearly all of the 10 drivers of change were critical. But while accountability, teamwork, passion and drive and communication each played an important role in the positive outcome of the project, the most important factor was strengthening team performance.

Most important, the company was able to hone in on this area and focus training efforts here because of the company’s placement on the change map.

A scientific approach to managing organizational change is especially critical in today’s high-tech, fast-paced world. That change will force companies to move at a faster pace, compete under greater pressure and be measured against increasing standards of success.