How to Undermine Your Change Project

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XYZ, a global services company, is implementing a large CRM system intended to improve their customer service and enable proactive and authentic customer relations.

Matthew De Lange, Non-Exec Chairman, Steps
Steps spoke at IRM UK’s Business Change & Transformation Conference Europe 18-20 March 2019 on the subjects, “
What is Key to Achieving Lasting Behavioural Change?” and “Steps to Change: Putting People at the Heart of Transformation“.
The next IRM UK Business Change and Transformation Conference Europe will take place from 16-18 March 2020, London

A project steering group was set up under a senior leader. The CEO is fully supportive and has made a video to explain why it is so important. The steering group is made up of high performing people from around the business who understand the business well and have good and well-grounded ideas on how to improve the current way of working. Having worked together for a while, they are excited about the ideas they have come up with. They have workshopped with the senior leadership to get their buy-in and a roadshow has been arranged for the steering group to explain the new systems and ways of working around all the divisions and geographies.

A large budget has been committed for the IT development as well as for a two day training workshop for all customer-facing staff globally. There will also be a planned series of communications from the steering group reinforcing the importance of the project and the CEOs commitment.

Sounds promising?

According to our research it has all the hallmarks of a disaster.

We at Steps work with clients on large-scale behaviour change projects and we have a view on how to achieve such change which appears to work well and which goes down well with clients. However, we wanted to be able to back our approach with research and we were astonished that we could not discover a single piece of actual research on the subject: loads of opinion pieces but no real research. So last year we undertook a qualitative research project ourselves, interviewing 14 senior leaders of large-scale change programmes from around the world. We conducted in-depth interviews with them asking them to compare two specific projects they had worked on – one successful and one unsuccessful or less successful, so we could draw out what made the difference.

The results are fascinating!

So what does the research suggest is wrong with XYZ’s approach? Here are just four of the main problems:

If people are required to change how they work, they have to have the opportunity to see for themselves what is wrong and what needs to be different. Statements of importance and commitment from leadership don’t create that necessary “I get it” “I see it”. This has to happen all down the organisation – at every level people need to experience that “I see it” moment for themselves and no amount of messaging from on high will create that. In our research summary we expand on why that typically doesn’t happen in less successful projects and also what are the successful methods for achieving it.

Having “got it” or “seen it”– people also need to “own it”. They have to feel personal conviction that the change is not just necessary and possible, but that they are going to have to work to make the change happen and that they themselves must change. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Logic is not persuasive, so how is this ownership to be achieved? Our research threw up a number of factors, but probably the two most important elements that can create this sort of buy-in are (1) that
all individuals need to feel listened to and (2) they need to have had an element of co-creation. Attending a briefing and having the chance to ask questions is NOT the same as being listened to. Being listened to means that the project team have to demonstrate that they really want to hear what people have to say and to understand their issues. Likewise with the co-creation – people must feel that their ideas and needs have become part of the solution.

Once people see it and own it they then have to learn how to use the new processes and to work differently – in other words to change. The most interesting thing about this stage in our research was that this stage is well focused on. Almost all the budget is provided for developing the new systems and processes and for the accompanying training workshops and support materials. So what is the problem? The problem is that these are not the areas that are going to lead to the project failing. The project failure or difficulties will arise because of the lack of “see it” and “own it” yet almost no thought and no budget is typically put into these stages in the less successful projects.

Getting to this “change” stage is only half the story. Yet this is often where the project ends and the steering group celebrate and move on to new things. But the change has, of course, to be embedded. People have got to “live it”. This takes time – so much more time than almost all organisations allow for. There may be as much to do post implementation as there was preimplementation. Most organisations understand this intellectually and yet they consistently fail to put in place the necessary activities, support and budget. Leaders need to change their behaviour, to role model the new behaviours and to be consistently asking about it – encouraging, supporting and requiring management information about continuing implementation and success. Other processes and systems need to be aligned such as performance appraisal and management reporting. There needs to be reinforcement and reminders for many, many months after implementation with buddying, coaching, reinforcement training et cetera. And of course there needs to be recognition and reward put in place for those who demonstrate the new behaviours and indeed sanctions for those who do not. Our research suggested that these embedding needs are almost universally underestimated and under provided for.

If you would like further information about the research and the findings please contact

Matthew has 30 years experience in business and, in particular, organisational learning and change. He is a skilled facilitator as well as specialising in learning design and evaluation, and recent clients include The Co-operative Group, Oxford University Press, TFL, IBM and Deloitte. Matthew recently led our ground-breaking research project exploring the key factors in achieving lasting behaviour change in organisations. In addition to his work with Steps he is a partner with MetaforePartners LLP, a consultancy working at board level to help organisations create alignment between their strategy and the behaviour of their people.

Matthew was a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers where he led the Learning and Organisational Change business having previously been UK and European Head of Learning and Development. Matthew is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Copyright Matthew De Lange, Non-Exec Chairman, Steps

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