Strategy is a paper tiger – without change

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paper tiger

Aligning people behind organisational change is what drives success in an uncertain world

by David Ferrabee

  • Organisational change management is about making the strategic plans understood, aligning people behind them and helping people to take up their role in making the change happen. 
  • Organisations need to build the skills needed to deliver this change better. 
  • Once they have the skills and processes in place organisations can make the changes required to compete and succeed in the ever changing marketplace. 
  • With effective organisational change management people will drive business change, and success will naturally follow.


LONDON, JANUARY 2017— The need to manage and ‘engage’ with employees in large organisations is rapidly increasing. Whether in manufacturing, services, or in the public sector, people drive the economic benefits and value that organisations are seeking to deliver.  And people are not happy.

In some cases they are withholding their support, they are not doing what the organisation wants them to do. Sometimes this is by design and sometimes this is by default. Maybe they want more recognition. Or they want more time off.  But most simply don’t understand what we told them and they believe that that misunderstanding is our issue, not theirs.

Do you recognise this picture?  Have you been asking your ‘People Team’ or Human Resources department to fix it? Are you either ignoring it or trying to work around it?

You’re not alone. If that helps.

Organisations on all five continents are grappling with similar issues. (And it is worth noting that the recent political changes in places like Italy, the United States and United Kingdom most likely reflect a common and similar dissatisfaction. See Box 1.)


Relationships are changing

There was a time when the relationship between employee and employer were clear. The employer offered work for life and the tools and direction to keep you working. And in turn the employee showed up every day and performed the required tasks.

However, that deal has changed. And it’s not the employee who has moved the goal posts.

Today’s relationship between people and the organisation is marked by a very real knowledge that the employee will not be cared for in a consistent or continuous way – unless they are very lucky.  The organisation is no longer interested in ‘cradle to grave’ – or the loyalty associated with it.  We say people are now empowered to manage their own careers and lives. And what that really means is that people need to be industrious and entrepreneurial and look out for themselves. That might mean their own insurance and pension, or their own personal development and new technology adoption. In the future organisations will ask people to supply their own place of work and their own technology. Some already do. With measures like the UK’s ‘zero hours contracts’ some organisations can also tell people to work only the hours that the organisation chooses.

These changes are all real and they are seismic in terms of where the balance of power in the relationship appears to sit.

Some might argue that the change has been gradual, so people can adapt. Others might say it’s a reflection of generational differences, While a few might argue that pay and real standards of living increases have offset the changes.  But those arguments miss the point.  As the Swiss hotelier César Ritz said, “The customer is never wrong.”[1] If the people in a business feel aggrieved it is ultimately the business that must adjust its approach, not the people.

Additionally, the randomness of all this change has affected people. The reasons why their roles have changed are unclear or outdated. The argument for the loss of benefits has not been made. And, their faith in their organisational leadership has been diminished. And they are not wrong. It is not their job to discover why changes have happened. Their ‘deal’ of employment did not include making sense of seemingly random acts, or managing overwhelming demands on their time. They expect the business to be coordinated and coherent. And to them it rarely is.

Who would expect anyone to commit to a business that can’t commit to them?


People and institutions have fallen out of love

Many businesses and business leaders can make a compelling case that the objectives of people and their employers are the same – success for one is success for the other. But many people don’t see it. There is too much apparent evidence that suggests otherwise. And in this case, again, perception is reality.

In the last century’s regular routine of running a business, where the operations are consistent and people learn their jobs and get promoted, the occasional vacillations might have been excused. Sizable layoffs, a division that gets sold, or even a period of intense work and high stress, could be explained away and the “survivors” could be forgiving.

In this context, however, times have changed. Change is no longer an exception to the norm. Today’s change is more constant, the support is less forthcoming, and the future is rarely clear. When people perceive they are being asked ‘to do more with less’, they become less happy, less committed and less likely to go out of their way to help. Especially if those changes have not been proactively managed, with people in mind.

This is where organisational change management comes in.


The rise of organisational change management

In this context many organisations have discovered they have a new problem and it’s a business strategy issue that they haven’t seen before: people will not do as they are told.

They have not had the benefit of effective organisational change management.  Often the organisational change may be clear, but their expected involvement is not. And as a result they are at sea.

It used to be that a manager would tell an employee to do something and the employee would do it. But today, at a pan-organisational level, that does not work.

  • We will now be changing our HR systems across the business… here is your new way of working…
  • We have decided to acquire business X, please share your work and decide how you will work together…
  • We are restructuring or reengineering our business to take advantage of an opportunity in the market… so your job will be changing…

And employees as a body reply: Oh no we won’t.

This may be because they don’t understand what’s being asked. But it might also be because they have seen it before, and aren’t convinced their involvement will make their work and career easier.

This revolt does not happen by return email. And in the 21st century people don’t lie on the floor in some kind of civil disobedience. They simply go about their business as they always have. Or maybe they work a bit less. Or maybe they do something worse, like talk to the competition, or forget to sign a contract, or start to muse loudly about the business’ failings.

These are not fanciful notions, are they? They probably sound familiar. However organisations and their leaders are not inclined to think clearly about the cause and effect. We are not often willing to face the problem head on.

A programme of organisational change management ensures that we design change right, that leaders own it, that employees can understand and adopt it, and that the change is actually delivered and sustained.

Typically organisations have been taught to think about issues and future challenges in terms of strategy.  “We must have a strategy to move us forward.” Or “we have a strategy to change the way the business works.” But those strategies are what creates the change that people are reacting to. The implementation of the changes do not take people into consideration. There is not enough organisational change management to help the business and its people to respond to change.


What is Organisational Change Management?

Fundamentally strategy is only part of the equation.  Without organisational change management the strategy is just a paper exercise. For strategy to work there needs to be a programme or approach to ensuring people are clear on what they are being asked to do, and are able and made willing to respond the changes required.

We believe and have shown in many international assignments that organisational change management can have a significant and positive effect on business change.  And in today’s business environment, where people and their companies are increasingly growing apart, organisational change management can be the difference between success and failure.

There is some understandable confusion. Not least because the idea of Change Management is not new.  The first academic article to mention ‘change management’ was published in Management Science in June 1966.  Fifty years later the number of organisations that say they do it has increased dramatically. In one report on the UK consulting industry ‘Change Management’ accounted for 6% of the consulting industry in the UK. And that total industry is worth £53.9 billion. That means that British organisations spent £3.2 billion on Change Management in 2016[2].  And we believe few of them are actually ensuring these changes are made, or that they get the desired results from it.

So, with 32 million people working in the UK[3] and therefore a spend of £100 per UK worker on Change Management, it can be easily argued that British industry is not noticeably more adept at change than it was in a year ago.

And that is why we talk about ‘organisational change management’.  Organisational change management is about people in organisations and how they can better manage and adopt change. The processes and tools are distinct and different.

The number of organisations who can do real organisational change management is surprisingly small.


How businesses can make it work

Effective organisational change management essentially helps answer some of the underlying issues outlined at the start of this article.  People who are not convinced of the direction of their business can be convinced. Employees who need to adopt and deliver new organisational strategies can…


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[1] Piccadilly to Pall Mall: Manners, Morals, and Man by Ralph Nevill and Charles Edward Wynne Jerningham, Quote Page 94, Duckworth & Company, London.  (1908)
[2] Industry at a glance, Management Consultants, IBISWorld, January 2017
[3] UK Labour Market: January 2017, Office of National Statistics


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