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What is a Change Strategy?

Top teams involved in organisational-level change are good at coming up with compelling visions, along with appropriate measures and targets.

The next step is often then to ask a programme manager to come up with a plan for delivering it. However, this misses out a key step which is still the responsibility of the top team.

Creating a change strategy

The change strategy is a description of how the vision is to be realised. There are some key choices to make at this point – get them wrong and the whole change initiative may fail. Many of the choices will be influenced by the style and skills of the CEO and other senior stakeholders. Others will be influenced by the nature of the organisation itself – its history of managing change, its appetite for risk – to name just two.

So what are the big themes to consider at this point? Here are ten to get you going.

1. People or system ?

Each change initiative will be unique but there is often a fundamental question to ask regarding whether we are going to try and change the people, the system or perhaps both. Fans of system thinking will say that you change the system first, and the people will then be able to deliver.  “People” people will tell you to focus on the culture, motivation and skills of the staff – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” ? – and you will then be able to achieve anything. Which applies to your change programme? Do you need to tackle both in parallel?

2. Top down or bottom up ?

Sometimes the top team decide upon a vision and then share it with other levels of management, inviting limited contributions and perhaps input on the detail. Implementation is strongly driven from the top. On other occasions the top team may involve staff at all levels in shaping the core vision or in fleshing it out at a local level. This can then be followed by significant scope for difference in implementation at a local level. The approach taken to the vision will influence the strategy for implementation.  If you’ve gone for lots of involvement from the start you may well have created an expectation regarding how implementation is to be achieved.

3. Explicit or implicit change ?

CEOs, once they have developed a vision, may well then be keen to get out there and sell it to everyone. This may be a good idea if the organisation needs to be jolted out of its current mind-set but is this always a good idea? How many change initiatives have shot out of the blocks with a fanfare only to peter out in delay and disappointment? Is it best to get everyone excited and energised so that things get off to a good start or is a subtler approach best ? How about starting small and tackling a few long-standing bug-bears which people care about and then building on that ? How about starting with leaders behaving differently? How about getting people involved to see what they want changed and then marrying that with the top-down vision?

4. Project or through the line ?

Assuming that substantial change is planned how do we best manage all the activity ? Do we need a strong project structure to drive the key activities or do we focus on letting line managers push change through with their own teams and with appropriate support? What is the right balance between empowering people at a local level and ensuring that there is adequate oversight and perhaps consistency of approach ? Is it ok to just set change targets and let managers get on with deciding how to deliver them ? What exactly are we expecting middle-managers to do in delivering change and what do they need? What they do will be one of the key determinants of success or failure.

5. How do we measure progress ?

As well as tracking key business measures and monitoring project plans are there other things we need to track ? What will tell us if the change programme is working ? Do we need to monitor “leadership behaviour” ? Do we need to modify staff surveys or increase their frequency and focus ? What would constitute major milestones ? How best to get real feedback from key stakeholders about how things are going – can we come up with something different and impactful?

6. How do we build in challenge ?

How do we ensure that we are periodically reviewing what we are doing and getting real challenge into the mix? Do we involve outsiders – customers, partners? Are we prepared to regularly fundamentally question what we are doing and change course if necessary? Are we going to seriously seek out views from staff and act on them? There will be plenty of bad news and moments of doubt – is it best to be proactive and to go and look for them ourselves? How do we create a culture where challenge is seen as healthy? Can we role-model it?

7. How do we get the right resources and skills involved ?

Are we going to try and do this all ourselves or do we need to involve outside assistance? Do we have the right calibre of people to deliver the change and do they have adequate change leadership skills? Are we going to effectively outsource large chunks of the change initiative to suppliers? Or are we going to hand-pick a few trusted advisors and drop them in where they can create maximum impact? How do we knit it all together? Is money a constraint?

8. How best to communicate ?

How do we ensure that communication, including feed-back is most effective? Are we going to use existing channels or do we need something different? Are we going to weave change themes into most of our organisational communication so that they stay at the forefront of people’s minds?  Are we going to create a change agent-type role with specific communication responsibilities?

9. What do we expect our change leaders to do ?

Whatever approaches are taken the success or failure of the change programme will depend to a large extent on what the key leaders do. Do we need an explicit agreement regarding what we expect leaders to do and how can we ensure that they do it? How do we expect them to carry out change sponsorship, role modelling and coaching activities? What help do they need? How can we ensure that these activities form a key part of their personal objectives?

10. How do we deal with barriers and resistance ?

How bold are we going to be in tackling sacred cows? How are we going to find out what the big stumbling blocks are? How tolerant are we going to be of poor performance? How can we signal that things are now being done differently?  How are we going to publicise success and support initiative? There will come points when big calls will need to be made. People will be looking out for indicators that things are really changing. Can we identify a few and make sure that the signal is loud and clear?

If you’ve thought these and other questions through you are now probably ready to create a proper change plan. There will still be things which are not clear and the strategy and plan will need regular reviews. However, you should stand a better chance of delivering successful change.