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What makes an organisation good at managing change?

In a recent McKinsey’s article, management consultants Scott Keller and Colin Price summarise their forthcoming book: ‘Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage’. The message is clear: organisational health is the “ultimate competitive advantage” and organisations need to build the capacity to learn and keep changing over time, if they want to achieve and sustain high levels of performance.

This confirms what we’ve been telling anyone who will listen for the past year: it’s what we call the organisation’s Capability for Change and it’s a crucial core value, if you want to survive in the face of the accelerating pace of change and rising levels of business complexity.

I took my definition of Capability for Change from Rebecca Henderson (Harvard Business School): “Attention and resources focused on people and processes, developing the organisation’s stock of capability and resilience”.

I also like this one:

Resilience: “The attitudes, skills and strengths, that enable individuals, and teams to thrive within organisational change” (The Taylor Clarke Partnership)

But like all aspects of an organisation’s culture and values, its resilience and capability for change requires continual investment and maintenance, or it will erode through natural entropy. In our opinion, any transformation programme needs these core values at the heart of its core deliverables, but in our experience, most don’t go there.

So, how do you know if your organisation has resilience and capability for change? How do you know whether it is good at managing change as a normal part of ‘how we do things around here’?

Try our ‘starter for ten’ list. Does your organisation have these characteristics?
  1. Strong, visible, empowering, leadership
  2. Clearly articulated and shared vision
  3. Attention paid to supporting core values
  4. High level of trust between managers and staff – decision-making devolved wherever possible
  5. People allowed to stop doing stuff when taking on new initiatives – overload issue managed well
  6. Innovation encouraged and well managed
  7. Good communication between departments
  8. Good communication/collaboration with customers and suppliers
  9. Adherence to standard ways of doing things
  10. HR benefits and rewards aligned to business objectives.

Yes? Then you are likely to have a good capability for managing change, i.e:

  • High level of involvement and commitment
  • Low resistance to change
  • Resilience in the face of challenges
  • Able to bring in changes rapidly and effectively in response to need.

No? Then you, like most organisations are probably on a ‘downward spiral to disaster’:

  • Senior management is taking a short-term view and focusing on cutting costs and hitting revenue or output targets
  • This may be succeeding in the short run, but it has diverted resources away from supporting your people and processes – your capability to manage change
  • As a result, it is actually becoming more difficult for the organisation to sustain its revenue performance – everyone is under so much pressure that even normal routine stuff doesn’t get done any more

Only reinvesting in your core capability will correct this downward trend and give the organisation a fighting chance to successfully manage the accelerating pace of change and rising levels of business complexity.

July 27, 2011 Posted by | analysis, business change management, change capability | , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Improve your Organisation’s Resilience and Capability for Change

I recently asked a senior director in a large multi-national corporation whether he was satisfied that they were building the resilience and the capability to handle the increasing pace of change and rising complexity of the challenges that his organisation faces today and in the future?

And he had to admit that they weren’t.

This is a question that all executives face, but most will (privately) agree that the answer is a resounding NO.

But those that fail to do so will not survive.

A recent IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs across the world confirmed that complexity is the single biggest issue for businesses and more than half doubted their ability to manage it.

In this blog, I want to explore how you can benchmark and improve your organisation’s capability to respond quickly, effectively and sustainably to these challenges – your Capability for Change.

In the past, this meant understanding your customers, knowing what your competitors were up to and putting in place the appropriate strategies to meet the challenges as they arose. You relied on your managers to run the operation, keep costs under control and implement the strategies (often in addition to their day jobs).

In fact, most organisations performed poorly in responding to the challenges that they faced. The need for change was often recognised too late and managers found themselves unable to galvanise their lumbering, bureaucratic organisation to respond quickly or effectively. However, the relatively slower pace of change allowed some degree of catch-up and the huge financial investment and sometimes sheer waste of skilled resources that were sacrificed because of the ‘too little too late’ response were rarely chronicled.

It is clear that the margin for catch-up and profligate spending and waste is far narrower in today’s more demanding competitive and economic climate. The organisation needs to build resilience into its core values and its infrastructure.

But how?

First you need to benchmark your organisation’s Capability for Change.

I am not talking about the capability of your programme and project management teams. It almost doesn’t matter how well-managed they manage the projects and programmes, if the people affected by the project do not have the capability to learn and embed the new ways of working. I am talking about the capability of the organisation as a whole to cope with the huge task of making change happen. And then do it again, and again.

Typically, CEOs underestimate the complexity of change and overestimate the capabiity of the organisation to cope with change. It’s the gap between these two variables that you need to understand.

How can you tell how wide a gap there is in your organisation?

A quick way is to look at how the organisation deals with overload. Are your managers working effectively? That means they are probably loaded beyond their ability to do everything in the day, but not so overloaded that nothing gets done properly or well. Or are they struggling to cope?

That probably means that change initiatives have been passed down for them to cope with on top of their day job. Sometimes this is disguised by redefining the day job to include the initiative, but the key question is: did you allow them to stop doing other stuff to make the time for the extra work? If not, the initiative won’t succeed.

Research over the past few months suggests that there is a tipping point, beyond which initiatives, however good they may be, cannot ‘stick’.

Conclusion: Unless one of the first things you do in planning a change project is working out how to allow key people to stop doing other stuff (‘the day job’), they won’t be able to give the initiative the time and attention it needs, so it will fail. That usually comes down to budgets and resourcing decisions, which are under serious pressure in today’s competitive and economic climate. So the only way an organisation is going to be motivated to build sufficient resource into supporting their projects so that people can pass routine work across in order to concentrate on a change initiative, is by making this a core value for the organisation. And the only argument for making it a core value is if you can clearly quantify the financial benefits of doing it this way – and the financial consequences of not doing so.

So when we talk about the gap between the level of complexity of the project and the capability of the organisation, that gap has to be quantifiable and its impact on the bottom line profits of the organisation has to be demonstrable.

That’s where the Change Equation tools can help.

By applying the Change Equation models and tools in a Change Readiness Assessment (CRA) process, we can:

  • Calculate the complexity of the project and understand the level of organisational capability needed for the project to succeed
  • Assess the actual cultural and process management capability in the part of the organisation affected by the project
  • Measure the gap and quantify its impact on the project’s ROI

The CRA takes very little time, but delivers significant benefits. If you undertook a CRA as part of the initial planning for all your projects, you would achieve a consistent improvement in project outcomes, raise your return on time and resources invested and see the financial benefits on the bottom line.

 But that’s just the beginning… Now improve your organisational resilience!

You can do something even more important with these tools. By carrying out an audit of a selection of past projects across the organisation, you can begin to define the common barriers to change inherent in the your culture, systems and processes.

Analysis of these barriers allows you to develop an enterprise-wide transformation programme that focuses on bridging the gaps, building capability into how you undertake projects, building resilience into the core values and infrastructure of your organisation.

So a large corporation – or public sector organisation – could integrate the Change Equation methodology into its standard practices at two levels:
  1. At Project level – build the CRA into your project planning processes to ensure Change Readiness and deliver consistent improvement in change project outcomes
  2. At Programme level – use the Change Equation principles, Route Maps and Action Plans to provide the framework and content to deliver organisational Capability for Change as a core value.

Now that you have a clear change strategy, you need skilled people to help you work through the change process. I have just read Marcella Bremer’s new book: Organizational Culture Change: Unleashing your organization’s potential in circles of 10 and can recommend the OCAI Online team.


July 5, 2011 Posted by | analysis, business, business change management, change capability, project and programme management | Leave a comment

Deduction, induction and abduction – or how not to keep doing what you always did and getting what you always got

The saying ‘keep doing what you always did and you’ll get what you always got’ is a great way to make people stop and think. You learned one approach and it worked, so that’s what you always do. But was the outcome you got, the last few times, actually what you wanted? If not, wouldn’t it be good to do something else and get a different result? Depending on experience and what worked in the past may not be the best way to approach a problem.

I have been pondering this. Because it’s actually not even true that if you do what you always did, the results will be what you always got… The world is changing so fast that it’s probably truer to say that you won’t even get what you used to get – you’ll get something less satisfactory, less useful.

So what to do?

The problem is that just knowing that you need to change your approach doesn’t actually tell you what to do instead. So you are thrown back on your capability to work it out. And the first thing you’ll do, because you are a human being, with the same wiring in your brain and as everyone else, is to apply logic to the situation.

Let’s see… if A is happening, then I probably need to do B. Elementary, my dear Watson! It’s obvious! If your car runs out of petrol, it will stutter and stop. Every time! If you forget to turn off the tap, the bath will overflow. Count on it! If I see a problem I can usually see the cause – and that’s all I need to fix it!

That’s called Deductive reasoning.


Using deduction is fine in a world where everything works logically and consistently, where causality is transparently clear and we can always understand what’s needed to be done. The trouble is, the world isn’t like that. Stuff happens and sometimes the obvious solutions don’t work. They can even make things worse.

And sometimes we think there is a causal connection, but it turns out, there isn’t. The sales figures are down again this month. It must be the sales director’s fault. So he is sacked and a new sales director comes in – and the figures continue to slide. Turns out it wasn’t the sales director’s fault – there’s a new competitor who is taking away your customers. You should have spent a bit more time finding out what was really going on, analysing the situation, digging around in the undergrowth to uncover the root causes and then working out how the pattern fits together.

And that’s called Inductive reasoning.


If my research suggests that B happened because of A, I can make the hypothesis that if you do A again, you’ll get B again. That’s called learning from experience and that’s how we function. We analyse the past, work out the ‘why’, try it out and repeat what worked. If B was an undesirable occurrence, like a train crash, the enquiry will identify the cause and recommend strategies to stop it happening again.

Which is fine if your research identified a true causal link and didn’t confuse the symptom with the underlying cause. And if the world around you doesn’t keep changing, so that what caused B last time won’t make it happen again this time.

We see this when social workers fail to stop a baby being abused and a government enquiry makes recommendations for more controls and improvements in the management procedures to prevent it happening again. But it does – again and again. The underlying causes of the failure will be complex and may not have been fully understood. They will be context-specific and, as circumstances changed, new contributory factors will influence the outcome. And the very act of increasing controls may actually make the social workers’ job more difficult, adding to the problem rather than reducing the risks.

We can use inductive reasoning to make sense of the world, provided we don’t forget that it’s reductionist in nature – we simplify in order to reduce the data to something we can understand and use. And provided we recognise that it’s only based on what happened in the past. Retrospective analysis will often uncover useful insights – patterns which look causal and suggest worthwhile conclusions, but these patterns won’t necessarily repeat themselves in future. In fact they are almost certain not to do so.

So if we can’t count on inductive reasoning, based on experience, logical enquiry and analysis, how are we to decide what to do differently to get an improved outcome?

There is always intuition, of course… leaps of faith… gut feeling…

The technical term for this is Abduction


This is where we make a connection between two occurrences which are not causally connected. We are all very good at doing this. That’s how conspiracy theories arise. We put 2 and 2 together, and make 5. We see order where there is none. We assign meaning to coincidences.

Sometimes this is a good talent to have. It can help us gain a sense of purpose and create a feeling that we are in control, and not subject to random chance and the chaos of the world around us. It allows us to be creative, imaginative. But mostly it leads us into false assumptions and invalid conclusions.

The trouble is, the more uncertain the situation we face, the more we appear to depend on our abductive reasoning powers. The less we know, the more we convince ourselves that our view is right. This is the territory of prejudice, born out of ignorance and our overwhelming need to be able to come up with an answer that means we feel in control.

Unsurprisingly, until recently, scientists and disciples of management theory derided the abductive process and confined themselves to deductive and inductive methods of enquiry and decision-making. Occasionally discoveries and successes came from ‘accidents’ and ‘luck’ – but these were not capable of being repeated, so as a methodology, it was of little value.

But there are well-known problems with the scientific and empirical use of inductive and deductive reasoning, too.

Ask someone a question and, as any researcher worth his salt will tell you, you have immediately bounded the answer within your own frame of reference. So the answer will not be the ‘truth’ you sought, but just a version of the truth, biased by you in the very act of asking the question.

It gets worse: ask the question of someone and the answer you get will also reflect: how they feel about you at the time, how they think you want them to answer the question, their own mood and well-being at that moment… etc.

Of course, a well-managed research project will always work to reduce these influences, but they can never be eliminated. And by imposing confidence limits and statistical averaging on the data, you devalue the exercise – many potentially interesting opportunities to make useful connections are lost.

And remember, analysis of what has happened in the past can only tell us something about the past – often quite a long time past. By the time we have collected enough data, analysed it, drawn conclusions and decided what needs to change, the occurrences could be months or years old.

If we want to get the result we want or to prevent something happening in the future, we need a method of enquiry that doesn’t have this built-in time lag. Is that possible? Is there such a method?

Some work that is going on in the use of unstructured story-telling in research promises to overcome these fundamental problems and offers a new way to gain early and unbiased feedback and insights into what is happening around us in real time.


As we saw, traditional research and analysis methods tend to be limited by their dependence on the ‘expert’s role in framing the questions and interpreting the results. These issues are specifically addressed by SenseMaker®, which has been developed by Cognitive Edge (, a firm founded by Wiltshire-based Dr David Snowden, the former Director of Knowledge Management at IBM.

SenseMaker® applies the principles of unstructured, fragmented data, disintermediation (avoiding expert bias) and network intelligence (the wisdom but not the stupidity of crowds). It offers an innovative means of gathering and analysing feedback, which is quite different from conventional methodologies, such as surveys, focus groups or interviews.

Expert bias is minimised through the use of stakeholder-derived ‘signifiers’, which enable the respondents themselves to add layers of meaning to their own narratives.  That enables the findings and conclusions to be defined, not through the interpretation of an intermediary expert, but directly by the users themselves.

A significant advantage of the use of SenseMaker® is its ability to identify “weak signals”. These occur when small clusters of narratives emerge, sharing particular patterns of response.  These weak signals may indicate emergent trends towards beneficial or adverse patterns of activity; their early identification enables you to take early, small‑scale action either to dampen down negative effects or to encourage the development of beneficial outcomes. No built-in time lag.

So SenseMaker® supports abductive reasoning – identifying relationships between factors that would not normally be considered linked, or where relationships are counter-intuitive. And it provides a method of enquiry that can respond quickly to current and ongoing situations.

In summary

Wouldn’t it be good to do something different and get a different result? Well, now you can. Rather than just depending on analysis of what worked in the past, you can gather information in the form of stories, which will point to new and sometimes surprising approaches to a problem.

Here’s a great story to sum up:

A drunk, scrabbling about on the pavement under a streetlight, is approached by a policeman. “What are you doing?” “I’m looking for my keys. I lost them somewhere over there in the dark”. “Well, why are you looking for them here, under the streetlight?” ”I can see better over here.”

We all tend to look where our experience and methods provide the best approach – but they won’t necessarily provide the solutions we need.

December 16, 2010 Posted by | analysis, business, business change management, problem-solving, storytelling | 1 Comment