Managing Change, Acing Transitions
Krish, Director and Head of Consulting, Marg Business Transformation Pvt. Ltd.
The current scenario shows us businesses around the world rooting for multiple big changes in the way they function and position themselves. But these great changes are coupled with a number of small incremental changes too, which are perhaps harder to navigate. Stats suggest that only 30% change initiatives are actually successful, while 70% of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support. What is it then that we as managers are failing to understand?
Hi, I am Rajshree Shukla representing ISB’s Management ReThink – an online management practice journal, published quarterly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. Today, we are in conversation with Krish, who’ll help us find some of these answers. Krish leads Consulting at Marg, a leading training and consulting firm focussed on business transformation. Marg is the authorised affiliate in India of Prosci, who are global leaders in change management. In his 25+ years of leadership experience across Indian and global firms, Krish has coached numerous clients in developing change capability, helping them deliver complex projects, and also supporting leadership development in that area.
Welcome to the podcast, Krish! It’s wonderful to have you here with us today.
Same here, Rajshree. It’s a pleasure to speak to all of you.
Thank you. So Krish, I’ll begin by asking, how do you think has the change management practice evolved over the years and what kind of transformations are organisations witnessing these days?
That’s, that’s an interesting question. Change management has been around for the longest of times. If we take say, the 70s, and the 80s, that’s when you probably had it in the garb of say, sociology and psychology, and you had all those lovely experiments that were happening as we worked on … as we headed into industrialisation. And as we entered the 80s, and the 90s, and you had the reengineering wave, you had all those takeovers, you had a lot of inorganic growth, inorganic transformation of organisations, that’s when change management picked up speed, it started being called ‘change management’. And over the course of years, I think the biggest change I would say, in change management is, it stopped being a tool that a board of directors is going to say, “We should apply this particular tool on this upcoming change, because it’s got … because the change is complex, it’s got a lot of ramifications, let’s do change management.” That’s where it used to be. Or it used to be the norm for very large consulting companies to use with really large client firms. Now, it’s very different. Now, it’s almost considered a part and parcel of most projects, most changes that organisations seek, then seek to apply change management in, it’s a given. And that is … that journey from say the 90s to now, also has a part in the second part of your question, also has a role to play the second part of a question, where you said, “What kind of transformations are organisations witnessing now?” I think, in this journey between the 90s and today, these three decades, the multiplicity of changes has increased dramatically. The speed at which a change is introduced, and there are expectations about business results, that’s changed. And of course, the impact of changes, the footprint of changes, that’s changed. As these three things changed dramatically, the need for change management in every project has surfaced across organisations. And this, I’m saying across domains, across industries. There’s no one industry I can point to that needs more change management or does more change management than the others. Does that make sense?
Absolutely, that does make total sense. And I was wondering if you also meant to imply that it’s not really a boardroom decision or discussion anymore? You know, it is more of something that firms are planning to adopt, like on a daily basis. Is that right?
Yep, absolutely Rajshree. Right now, you have changes around, say, culture. Changes around the design of an organisation, which is restructuring and reorganising itself. Changes in technology, changes in the practices of the organisation. I was practicing client-centricity in a certain way till yesterday, now I’m going to do it differently. And as each of these changes, have, like you said, increase in pace and become almost daily needs of the organisation, change management gets applied across all of them. Plus, of course, all the usual inorganic changes, right? All the acquisitions and divestments, and the carving out, and so on and so forth. You’re absolutely right.
Wonderful. That’s great to know. So, Krish, given the above context then, how do you think has the complexity of the same changed? Could you please elaborate on tackling the technical vis-a-vis softer sides of change?
So, the way I would parse this, Rajshree, is that, like I said, the speed has changed, the numbers of changes, the quantity of change has changed. The impact of the change, the footprint of the average change project has also changed, right? And the immediate effect of all of this is, we are forced to stop thinking only about deployment, rollout, and go-live dates. Those were the milestones that traditionally, any change project had. Anytime I bring in a change, I bring in a change to say the management or change the way the organisation ticks, or I buy another organisation, or I roll out an ERP or an MRP. Name it, right. In any of these changes. I would have focussed on – this is the date when it goes live. This is the date when we start practicing it, and that used to be the focus and that was sufficient. In most cases, it was sufficient. But now the game changes and the game changes because the average employee is in the middle of a mix of changes reaching them. Some of them are driven by the region, some by the location, some by their own function. Some by their … a new manager has come in and says change the way you do your work. So, now the employee is not dealing only with this one large change, which three decades back would have been an ERP change. Everyone knows that we are spending a lot of money on the ERP. So, they would all be pulling, all the employees would pull the change towards them, they would all be curious. They would all wonder, ‘What does this mean for me?’ They might struggle, they might have concerns, and they would raise it. It would be the one topic in the organisation. And where we are today, when you asked, “how the complexity has changed.” It’s no longer the one topic. This employee is facing, God knows how many of these changes coming towards them, and they don’t even have a context or a forum in which they can ask these questions, because it’s just too many. How often am I going to ask these questions? And because of all this, we now need to handle the engagement, the adoption, and the usage of the employee, different from the designing and the developing, and the delivering of the change. I have to manage both these work streams independently.
While I’m focussing on what would be the best solution for the organisation, how do I customise these reports? How do I make sure time to market stands? While I’m figuring out all those things, I also need to ask myself, which groups are going to get affected in what form by these? And how do I make this change, not just palatable, but successful for them? How do I make sure that this lands and succeeds in a way that they can sustain it? And that probably is the last point I would make on this question, that before my drop-dead date used to be when I have given people enough training and let them pursue the change in their own workplaces, in their workspaces as they would like. Today, because of the number of changes being much higher, and the changes themselves being more complex, I need to make sure the employee has a certain proficiency in the change before I step away. So, the goalpost has also changed. That’s the reason why we are speaking about not just the technical side of the change, but also the people side of the change. How do you bring people along? Was that too much information, Rajshree? Did that make sense to you?
No no, it’s very, very important and relevant, Krish, I would say, because you’ve touched upon a very interesting point, again, because I think it involves a certain level of personalisation and customisation, so to say. It’s not just about probably instructing your teams to do things in a certain way, but also knowing them better, and then making sure that you know… making that probably more credible to them, and something that they would also end up believing in and accepting, and probably then contribute to its success. That’s what I was thinking when you said all those things.
Absolutely right. And as you spoke Rajshree, I hope you realise that this complexity is true, whether the change is scaled or not, whether I’m changing a 100,000 people or I’m changing, just say, one team. Let’s say it’s a founder-led organisation, and I want to prepare it for an IPO. And, as I’m preparing it for an IPO, I decide I must change this management team, bring in more professionalism into it. And I decide to change the founder-led team to a professional CEO coming in from elsewhere. I just need those 10 people flipping. But even that is … leads to some complexities that we need to pass, we need to untwine, unwind to make sure it lands well. So, you’re absolutely right. And perhaps it might not be as much customising as understanding what we need of each team, function, group, individual as we engage with the change. It’s just not a matter of putting it on the whiteboard and saying, “This is the grand chart for the change. These are the milestones.” And unfortunately, even having an agile mindset and a methodology doesn’t dissolve this particular problem. Iteration and incrementalism doesn’t necessarily bring an employee closer to the change by themselves.
Now, that’s … it’s very interesting that you said that because you know, the next thing that I was going to ask you was, what do you think are the typical skills needed in this function and this profession, you know, because how do you really make it happen?
Great, great, great … great question! I think it’s becoming a function in the last decade, just so you know, right? Because till before, this … this role has been performed by people outside the organisation. So, you would bring in experts, because your thought process was, this is a once in a while change, um, how often am I going to roll out an ERP? How often am I going to roll out a CRM? How often am I going to change my culture? So, I need this one off, I’m taking experts help anyway to define the change. Let me also take their help to help me manage the change. I would probably say, a decade, decade and a half, the thought process has changed. And now I see many organisations having change management as a leadership skill that they look for. It’s already sitting in many competency maps as a part of the expectation you have as you grow within an organisation. Right? So yes, it is moving to being a function. And in that storyline, I would say, (a) it is the skill of change management itself. Change management is not something you do, as … okay, here are three things I do while I work, I’m more approachable, I’m nicer to people, and I’m going to understand the change well and explain it to them. Apparently, that’s all I need to do, no longer is enough. So, there is a skill set associated with leading employees through change. That’s one skill set that’s absolutely required. Project management is required. It’s important for someone who’s in this function, to be able to project manage change management- meaning understand the value of milestones, understand the value of resources, understand the value of meeting deadlines, understand the value of working with stakeholders. So, there are a lot of things that we do in project management that a change practitioner needs to be comfortable executing. The third is my favourite—statistics. Anyone in this field needs to be quantitatively comfortable with, ‘What does it mean to talk of the organisation?’ When you say, “Yes, the organisation is probably going to have anxiety around this change”. What does that mean? What does that imply? Are we talking about the whole organisation? Are we talking about a sample? Are we talking about a representative sample? This is where I’ll connect you to the fourth topic, which is understanding organisational behaviour—OB, OD, all those areas. Those areas teach us that the organisation is not one single organism. It is a society, it’s a social community. And that means it has very many demographics. During times of change as a change practitioner, as I seek to bring these different demographics through the change, help them each succeed in the change, so that the change will stick, I need to ask myself, “How well do I understand them?” Hence, statistics. Statistics help me understand how many groups are there in say … middle manager level? How many grades are we talking about? And how…what kind of demographics are there, how many are long tenured, short tenured? So, stats and understanding the organisational stuff, OB both are important? Fifth, I’d probably say, understand technology. Many changes today are driven by technology. Technology underlies much of all what the organisation does. Again, what say two decades back, used to be said about communication- Communication is how the organisation interacts with each other. Now, it’s fair to say technology is how the organisation interacts with each other. So, we as change practitioners need to understand technology well. In my head, if we are comfortable with these five topics, there is nothing that stops us from being successful.
That’s very well-articulated, actually. I was just thinking about how, you know, you made it sound like this change is pretty much measurable and that’s how we should aim for it. So, I think that these five things that you spoke about, would really give that much-needed direction to that initiative of change management.
I would hope so. And again, this is not an expertise that we need to build overnight. This is not what we need to start with from day one. As everyone in the management field understands, it’s not the lone geniuses, minus Steve Jobs, it’s not the lone geniuses that make an organisation tick. It’s how that lone genius brings other … other experts around them. Since I mentioned Steve Jobs, think about the fact that yes, as much as we read and learn and like or dislike about Steve Jobs, think about the legacy, think about the fact that there was a seamless Tim Cook who turned up, and between Tim Cook and Craig and everyone else in the game, the organisation is still as successful, if not more successful. Hence In the context of change management, you don’t need this expertise built from day one. But you need to be able to connect with others in the organisation who lead these functions, or they’re comfortable with these areas. And you form alliances, and you engage with them, you connect with them, you help them understand the value of managing the change well. You recruit them, you onboard them, if you like, and that’s how you build for yourself a change management group. And that’s how you bring the change of rotation.
Absolutely. And in fact, I know you’ve already mentioned about the significance of change management in our day-to-day functions. But I also wanted to ask more specifically, where do you think this role sits in organisations? Is it recognised now?
Fair question. It is recognised. There is, again, from the perspective of someone who’s aged in this field, again, a decade and a half back, a couple of decades back, it was still an area which I need to explain a little more to… to leaders and clients. Today, that’s not a problem. People understand change management pretty well. That said, where it sits is a varied quantity. I represent PROSCI, and PROSCI is, at its heart a research organisation. It likes to speak from understanding what organisations are doing and practitioners are doing in the field of change management. And PROSCI research on this topic tells us that very often this function, this role, this group that does change management, ends up sitting with the CEOs office, ends up sitting with the Technology Office, and if not in either of these, it often ends up sitting with the HR teams, right? Any of these existing functional groups, existing organisational boxes are where change management as a function attaches itself. And if you think about it, that … that makes sense, doesn’t it, because presumably, these are the three groups that are generating most of the changes. And they are possibly in the position of seeing that these changes stick, don’t stick, or here’s a roadmap of these changes that are coming along, and hence, I need this function. So, in practice, we are seeing these … these groups as places where we often find the change management office. There’s a fourth group too, and that is the Project Management Office. Sometimes we even see the project management group, having a change management group working with them. So those are typically where the role sits in an organisation. Does that sound logical to you?
Absolutely, yes. It’s good to note which roles have the power to initiate these changes within a particular organisation. So, the different people who could take this step ahead in the right manner, right?
So Krish, as an experienced change practitioner, who has seen both success and failure, what would be your advice to future change leaders?
Wow, that’s a good question, Rajshree. I think … so you’re right, a lot of war stories, a lot of horror stories. More than anything else, a lot of battle scars. And what that’s left me with is, (a) a respect for where the organisation wants to go. I think the challenge that I see most, I struggled with, and many of my practitioners that I work with struggled with, is, we are still observers to many of the change—whether we are a senior employee in an organisation, who has been given the portfolio of managing such change, or we are an external consultant being given the responsibility or the mandate of delivering a particular change—we have a ringside seat. And with that ringside seat, we can see that, well, there are many facets to this change, and this is working, this is not working, perhaps we should define it differently. We have a lot of opinions. We have a lot of thoughts. And most important, we have our own set of values. So, I guess the number one thought I would share with anyone else, anyone getting into this field is, be comfortable with guiding the organisation through the change ‘it’ wants, versus the change that ‘you’ think is more appropriate. This is something that bites us in the backside at very many junctures of a particular change, right. As you engage in a change, the first thing might be okay, it’s perfect. But as you run into issues, you might say, why not this, why not that? Keep in mind that the organisation chose to change in its form and shape for a set of reasons, and we might not know all of those reasons. That would be my first comment. I think, to that extent, the thing worth keeping in mind is appreciating the organisation as a system. View it, not just as, okay, this function is going to this change, and it’s applying to these employees, etc etc. It’s not just about getting … getting it done as simply as that because the employees undergoing the change are interacting with the rest of the organisation. This function got the budget from the rest of the organisation, things may not be as seamless … as seamless as the organisation chart looks. The organisation chart says this group applies this change on this team and we are done. But it’s not as simple as that. The organisation is a living system, and that entails us to think beyond the specifics of the change itself. And notice my first two points are pulling us in different directions. The first point I’m saying, leave the changes definition, the vein in the form and shape you saw it. And the second one I’m saying, remember that this change is like a drop of water in a lake and it’s going to have ripples all through the organisation, I’m saying both. Which means the one thing that holds us anchored doing change management well, is having the integrity to be able to call out these issues as you face them to the right roles, right positions, but maintaining the credibility of steering the organisation towards change. You’re not at any point saying, ‘Ha, if this is the form of the change, I’m not going to do this anymore.’ You’re instead signing on to making the change successful. These are, as a professional, in the change management field something we need to be very comfortable with. Viewing it as a system, while understanding that your mandate in this change is X, Y, and Z. And as you run into issues with this, having the right conversations with the right people, whilst staying in your role, while having the credibility, maintain the credibility of delivering that change. To do all this, metrics help a lot. Being objective helps a lot. Making sure that you’re having the right set of goalposts, helps enormously. So, you’re not talking emotions, and opinions and anecdotes, you’re instead pointing to data and saying this data is pointing to this direction. How, what decision should we make? Which means you’re also helping others do change management really, really well. This is not about you doing change management. Research, PROSCI research tells us that employees like to be led through the change by their chain of command. We know this intuitively, but data also points to the same direction. They would like the people who have a shared context with them, lead them through change, which means use the data in these conversations, use the data and be objective to help those leaders give the right guidance to their teams.
And probably the last couple of points I would make is – be aware that there is a short game here and a long game here. The long game, of course, is that the change comes through, it flies well, it sticks. That’s the long game, no doubt about it. But the short play over here is that you are working well with your fellow travellers. Who are your fellow travellers? Again, wearing a PROSCI hat, the fellow travellers in this case are, one, the sponsor, the leader who said, “Let this change happen, I want this change in the organisation, I need this change.” That’s one fellow traveller. The other fellow traveller is your project team. Your project team who’s figuring out the technical aspects of this change and making the change land. So, in the short play, if you’re not … if you’re not able to work with these fellow travellers, guide them, help them make the larger decisions, clearer decisions, you’re not going to get … you’re not going to be able to succeed in the overall change. I hope that was not a lot of things to keep in mind. But these are very real things, and as a change practitioner, I run into these all the time.
No, absolutely, you’re right Krish. What I heard was that, of course, you … as a manager, you would have to lead your employees through change and also lead by example, in a certain sense. And, of course, stats would always probably lead you into the right direction. But having said that, how would you spot if things are getting derailed? You know, I know you’re trying to follow a plan in a systemic way. But what if things are not going as per plan? And then, you know, how do you tackle that situation?
Fair Point. But let me take a couple of examples here. We were working with a very large manufacturing organisation, based in India. They were in the midst of being absorbed by a French organisation. And that’s the context in which we ran into them. They were working on rolling out an ERP and this was their third attempt to doing so. Third attempt because as we walked in, we already knew that there were some groups in some locations who were not very comfortable with the transparency and the predictability, and the consistency that an ERP brings to work, to managing inventory, to managing their business. Right. And that’s the context in which we walked in, and we made our change management plans, we got the right people involved, everything was going shipshape. Where it derailed in this particular case was, we had changes in leadership. And this is one of those things that always happens. It’s one thing to be prepared for, the fact that you’re going to end up with changes in the change management plan itself or the change program itself.
The leader who was driving the change moved, and that in hindsight obviously, because the organisation is getting restructured, right. So, people are going to move on. So the sponsor, the primary mover behind the change has now shifted. And at this point, everyone who, with whom we had had those alignments saying, yes, you’re going to be doing this yes, you didn’t do it two times before, in this rev, in this version, you are going to be practicing this ERP well, using the forecasting, using predictive analytics, you will be doing all that. We had trained them, we had convinced them. The leader moves, two-three other leaders moved, some of the critical users that we were working with, moved. And that’s… that’s the status, which made us rethink the whole change management plan. We said, okay, if this is not working, what is the cost of not touching this group for the moment? Till the situation, till the politics behind the situation settles down, till we figure out who the new sponsor is going to be, till we figure out whether the new sponsor has the pull, has the interest and the passion and the understanding to hold the organisation together through this change. And we did that. We took the call, and this was a production planning and control team. It’s a nerve centre in any manufacturing organisation. We took … we made a gamble there. We said we are going to choose to not work with that team and wait till the situation stabilises. Data helped us, because by then we had data which told us how much is each team changing, and to what extent are they changing, and that guided us to which were the most critical other teams with whom we could work and make the change a success. We had, what we call from PROSCI methodology as ADKAR data, ADKAR dashboards, which told us where different teams were heading in their change. How much ahead some teams were versus the others. And that’s the basis with which we made that gamble. It was a period of nearly three months of a very large budget, large project, which has high impact for the organisation, where we were literally rudderless. We didn’t have direction, but we went with this plan. And by the time the new leader came in, the new Board of Directors was instituted, and things settled back down. Our project was almost a success, minus of this production planning and control, which turned out to be an absolutely smooth walk in the park because they saw the success elsewhere and they wanted to be in. That’s what it often looks like when you’re doing this in a very planned fashion, when you’re leaving behind the realm of intuition, and instead looking for data to guide you on where you’re already successful, which gains you can leverage and capitalise on. That’s what we do. I was going to give a couple of examples, but let me pause there and ask, does that make sense?
Of course, it does! Thank you for that example and a lot of helpful advice there, Krish! I’m sure our future change leaders would really benefit from these tips, and it will help them be the agents of sustainable growth in their respective organisations.
Summing up, I’d say it is important to remember that ‘change’ actually happens one person at a time and fails because people don’t adopt it. Given this very complexity, it’s on to the leaders to make a compelling case for it by understanding what is expected of each function and team, and the team to appreciate the organisation as a system and respect where it wants to go, rather than pushing personal viewpoints. On that note, I’d like to thank you for spending your valuable time with us today, Krish. It’s been truly insightful! Thank you, again.
Absolutely, Rajshree, it was my pleasure. And I wish the very best to the audience, to all your future leaders.
Thank you so much, thank you.