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The Change Equation – an excellent tool to help make change happen

At a software quality workshop a few years back, I asked a group of 25 software project managers:
“When a new system is implemented to improve efficiency, who is responsible for actually achieving the benefits?”
“I am” said one project manager.
“Really?” I said.
“Oh, I see – it’s the software supplier” came the response.
“Really?” I said, again.
After a pause for thought: “You mean it’s the client”
“Okay – but who?”
Tentatively: “The department manager?”
Silence, from me… “The system users?”

No doubt you are way ahead of me… But this is a serious point. Unless the people actually using the new system or improved process are involved in planning and implementing the changes to the way they work, the project will not realise the anticipated benefits. As the comedian George Carlin famously put it: “I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.”

It’s people, not systems and processes that are the drivers for change. We all know this, so why is it so hard for us to put this understanding into practice? Sometimes it is the culture of the organisation that works against gaining involvement and commitment at the local level. Often the ‘technology push’ mentality still prevails – it’s the IT department’s responsibility to manage IT projects. Maybe the management board or the politicians have set the deadlines and they are unrealistic, so they haven’t allocated enough budget, time and skilled resources to ensuring that people are fully bought in. But unless people are fully bought in, of course, nothing will get done.

One of the best ways to articulate this – and a useful tool when trying to get change to happen – is the Change Equation:

 V * F * D > C

Originally developed by David Gleicher in the ‘60s , this has been adopted and adapted by consultants under many names and in many guises over the years. My version has evolved in use and differs in emphasis slightly from the original. Here’s a quick run-through of the way this equation works.

C = Cost of Change
Change is difficult and scary. It’s expensive and distracting. It takes us out of our comfort zone and demands that we confront our fears (‘Do I have the skills?’ ‘Will I screw up?’ Will I have a job afterwards?’). This fear creates inertia, or worse – it can push people in the opposite direction, fleeing and hiding from the need to change. If the cost of change is so great, what do we need to do to create the momentum to overcome it? Well, the first element is Vision.

V = Vision
Any project needs a shared vision to ensure everyone is moving in the same, new, direction. This vision will have emerged from the analysis of the problem being tackled. In most transformation projects, that analysis will have included carrying out a top-down diagnosis, followed by consultation and brainstorming to arrive at something tangible and coherent – the basis on which people can move forward together.

Is having a Vision sufficient to overcome the fear and inertia of change? Maybe not… How often have you been carried away with enthusiasm by a good presenter, setting out their vision, then found the enthusiasm dissipates little by little as you get back to your day-to-day problems? So having a Vision on its own is not enough to drive change. One of the reasons for this – and a primary cause for change projects to deliver poor results – is that the vision (the project’s objectives) is often not sufficiently clearly understood by all the stakeholders – it is not really SHARED. The degree to which stakeholder perceptions differ, provides a good predictor of the problems that will occur when implementing the changes.

Even where the vision has been successfully communicated, it seems that it is not enough on its own to drive change. Why? Because it does not place sufficient focus on the practical steps that need to be taken to implement the change. Which leads me to the next element in the Change Equation:

F = First steps
To drive change, we need to have the first steps clearly set out. These might be in the form of a route-map or project plan that people can understand and use to develop their own plans for the action they need to take. Only at this level of practicality can we engage people and gain some degree of commitment. Is having a Vision and clear First steps enough to overcome the fear and inertia of change? The research carried out when the model was first developed suggested that even when the first steps were clearly set out and everyone knew what they had to do, change still didn’t happen.

What’s missing? It’s the energy and momentum for change. And where does this have to come from? The project champion? The project manager? No… it has to come from the people who need to make the changes – the system and process users. It’s only when people have convinced themselves that things are NOT okay and that there is a need to do something about it NOW, that new ways of thinking can be introduced. Then you can tap into the energy that’s needed to overcome the resistance and inertia. John Kotter, in his book Heart of Change , calls this ‘Raising the sense of urgency’. In the Change Equation its:

D = Dissatisfaction
Unless people can tell you why things have to change, they won’t. A good approach to focus people on this issue and get them to think about it, is the use of the ‘Incisive Questions’ technique.

Here’s an example of a recent conversation:
“Do your projects come in on time and achieve their objectives in full?”
“Most of them”
“What percentage don’t?”
“Oh, probably 10-20%”
“How much does this mean you are losing in cost benefits every year?”
“I don’t know – maybe £xxxk”

“Really?” (showing your surprise should make your victim a bit less complacent about this loss) “Are you happy about that?”
“Well no, I suppose not…”

Notice how each question asks for more detail, driving the respondent to think deeper about his own statement. When they have expressed dissatisfaction with the situation they are in, you can come in with the new idea:
“Would it be useful if we worked out you how you can cut this waste in half so you could use the resources to deliver more projects and increase profit?”
“Er, yes – how do we do that?”

Notice that the idea was phrased so that ‘we’ would work together and ‘you’ could make the improvement. The final ‘yes, how do we do that?’ is the signal that you have triggered the necessary dissatisfaction and have their permission to start tapping into the energy for change. So now the equation looks like this:

Vision + First steps + Dissatisfaction > Cost of Change

Except that I need to do one more thing. The ‘+’ sign suggests that you could take any element out and the equation will stand. You have seen that’s not the case – all three elements on the left hand side of the equation are essential to overcome the inertia and enable change to happen. So I need to change the operands to ‘x’:

Vision x First steps x Dissatisfaction > Cost of Change

And that’s the Change Equation!

[This is an excerpt from my book: ‘The Chaange Equ>tion’, published Nov09 and available from Amazon]

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June 1, 2010 - Posted by | business change management, knowledge management, project and programme management | , , , , , , ,

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