The blame game
The kick-off meeting has taken place and time is ticking. Where in the past, one had all the time in the world, today nothing can be done quickly enough. This is the same during Implementation Projects - known as “change management” today. Managers want results as soon as possible: they should be sustainable, reach maximum potential and ideally, be delivered at the start of the project. And that’s exactly where the problem lies.
Text: Christian Raschke
Initially, the level of enthusiasm towards projects is always high. Especially when analysis and concept both speak the same, clear language – when for example, there is approximately €20 million to be saved by successfully implementing a new contractor strategy. The two primary goals are to reduce the number of contractor companies by half and engage cheaper companies. The relevant Business Units agree to the plan with appropriate speed.
And then? Just as quickly as it was ignited, the fire behind the consultant concept burns out. As things begin to get going, disputes arise, doubts emerge, quarrels begin and plans are disputed again – and eventually everyone agrees to test the new strategy in a pilot project. The next part is inevitable. During the pilot phase it becomes clear that the new contractor doesn’t know the plant as well as the old one, and therefore works more slowly. As a result, the new contractor is engaged less frequently.
After six months, he removes his team from the plant as the amount of work is lower than stated in the contract. He is actually making losses. In short: the strategy needs to be rethought; implementation has failed. Who’s to blame?
More Than Two Thirds Of All Projects Fail
Most corporations can likely tell a similar story about consulting projects – whether it’s the implementation of a new strategy or the reorganization of the interface between operations and maintenance – which haven’t run according to plan. This is the reason why change management exists as a discipline, why thousands of books have been written about it and millions invested in the necessary tools and training programs. Returning to the old, functioning way of doing things seems logical when the new way doesn’t work. According to the Harvard Business Manager 1 magazine, a number of studies show that up to 70% of all implementation (read: change management) projects fail. So what’s the point in making all the effort and bringing in external consultants, who in the end only cost money and don’t actually change anything? “It’s good to know why implementation projects fail. You can learn a lot from that and also sometimes read something amusing about it,” says Frank-Uwe Hess, Co-CEO at T.A. Cook. “But it’s more important to understand how change actually works.” Change management is a recognized discipline and there’s a reason for that. It’s natural that management is interested in the fastest solution to a problem. “The fact that the implementation is actually more relevant than the strategy is often missed,” explains Hess further. Managers try to accelerate the change process instead of allowing the necessary time for ‘ripening.’
An oversimplified formula for consulting services is 100:10:1, where consultants invest 100 hours in the analysis of processes, ten to discuss results with management and one hour to communicate that to staff. “The whole effort is only worth it when it works in exactly the opposite way,” says Markus Treiber, also Co-CEO at T.A. Cook. “It should be one hour with management to set goals, ten hours of process analysis and one hundred hours to implement changes with staff in practice,” he continues. There are essentially five key aspects to making implementation projects successful, he claims. “A management team which works proactively and makes fast decisions; a culture in which mistakes are used constructively to support learning and change opportunities; the provision of permanent feedback, as well as the viewpoint that a lot of small steps are better than one big step,” he summarizes from his 20-year experience.
Proactive Management – Walk The Talk
Management teams need to be personally engaged in the change processes. Proactive management means setting realistic goals, getting hands dirty, speaking clearly and sometimes, cleansing the culture and being a good example to others. “Walk the talk” – as Hess and his colleagues call it – means exactly that: doing what you say you are going to do. Only when management stop paying lip service to action and instead support projects actively, do they empower the department and team leaders to implement operative changes successfully.
Obviously, from the view of employees, it is not easy to be a good boss all of the time, unless managers do exactly what their employees expect from them. But that doesn’t always fit with what senior managers require. “Being honest and clear with people is extremely important,” says Treiber. Communication encourages trust, just as not communicating causes fear and mistrust. Teaching a child to ride a bike is similar, because we communicate very intensively then. The child keeps falling over because he can’t ride quickly enough and doesn’t have the right feel for how to balance. We know that we have to be proactive and be ready to reach out to stop our child falling over and hurting themselves. Only professional track cyclists or “stayer-racers” can master balance and speed simultaneously.
Often, information and communication are seen equally. However, the more one is informed, the more questions one provokes, which can’t always immediately be answered. This is known as the information paradox. It’s not about communicating as much as possible, but giving information in a goal-orientated manner. That means explaining which goals we have, why they make sense and how we are going to reach those goals. A change (project) manager who lacks communication skills and gives too much information causes mistrust among employees. It may seem simple, but it is often the key cause of failure.
Freedom To Fail
“Trust means that team members do things without permanently asking their managers about them,” says Bernd Zanger, Director at T.A. Cook and active in the process industry for over twenty years. Nevertheless, trust is one of the things that is often lacking in change management projects: it’s hard enough when the change manager is “external” and many different aspects of trust, such as reliability, empathy and commitment are involved. Trust is a very subjective term which is based on individual experience and where it exists, individuals operate as autonomously as possible according to their best knowledge and conscience, and everyone believes in what they do. But when trust is replaced by mistrust, the costs will be high. A culture of mistrust will always ask about blame: “that is Management by Complaining,” adds Zanger. While during implementation mistakes happen, often performance dips and time will be needed until everything is functioning at 100% again.
German management consultant and author Peter Kreuz highlights the important of having the courage to fail via juggling. Instead of trying to juggle three balls in the air at the same time, he begins by asking participants to throw one ball high into the air and letting it fall to the ground. The idea behind it is as good as it is simple: the fear of failure cripples success. He who learns not to try to prevent every setback, that is, allows the ball to drop to the floor, is less disappointed when it happens.
Without the fear of making another mistake, he will get better more quickly. The Indian conglomerate Tata has taken this approach one step further. The “Dare To Try” award is regularly given to teams or employees who have groundbreaking ideas but which have essentially failed during implementation. By actively rewarding a constructive culture of failure, the intention is that it is easier to actually get things done.
Making decisions isn’t difficult. Every day, we make uncountable numbers of immediate decisions. Shall I stay in bed a bit longer, or get up as soon as my alarm goes off? Shall I drink coffee or tea today? We make these decisions without really thinking about them; they are mainly decided by habit and we refer to them as routine decisions. But when it comes to making really important or unique decisions, which is normal in change projects, things are a bit different. And it becomes even more complicated when others in different fields will be affected by the decision. Then the decision-making process can take a long time, either because of fear of making a mistake or due to the decision-making culture. Decisions can be made according to different levels of cooperation: tell, argue, advice, or consensus. The larger the level of cooperation, the longer the decision-making process and the more open the result.
On the whole, at the end of the cooperation huge compromises have been made, which can be helpful in some cases. In change management projects however, this approach is deadly. Making wrong decisions is problematic, but they can often be relatively quickly corrected. A larger problem is the length of time needed to make decisions, a so-called “decision-vacuum.” This leads to a sort of stalemate and the consequence is that the cyclist falls of his bike. We tend to make decisions only once we have fully understood the implications of them. Depending on individual personality profiles, we need some level of detailed information. A change process by definition means treading new ground. There is precious little guidance and that sometimes comes from sources which may not be 100% trustworthy, such as consultant benchmarking systems.
In order to make quick decisions, the “trial and error” mode should be turned off. Making perfectly well-balanced decision is sometimes less important than making the decision quickly. That requires managerial courage and is exactly the behavior which T.A. Cook tries to inspire during its change process projects – even when the decision is not perfect and seems like a mistake in hindsight. A Chinese proverb states that those who don’t take the most direct path develop the best knowledge of their surroundings. Speed will only be reached when not all decisions are top down and not everything has to be approved in advance. Obviously some rules need to be observed, amongst others, the ability for senior managers to veto certain decisions. When decisions are seen to be “wrong” from a senior perspective, then they should be corrected without calling the decision-making competence of others into question.
Do you have goals? That’s good. What is decisive is how you reach your goals. No one goes from zero to hero: that much we know. But somehow we still expect it, even when we are aware that it is unrealistic. We all know that. But when “impossible” goals are still reached, it is either due to exceptionally strong lead or because the organization has a goal requirement that is not right. On the path to reaching goals, people need feedback.
“Feedback always improves performance, not just sometimes,” says Treiber. In change projects, employees rarely receive enough feedback. He refers to an example from tennis. “If I hit the ball wrong, then I get immediate feedback – instant even.” But in change projects, employees hardly ever get feedback, sometimes in the worst cases, as late as the Project Review. Often it is indirect, and displayed as rumor, such as: “I’ve heard that things aren’t going to plan with you.” Giving feedback is not about the judgement of personal behaviors and ways of doing things, but about the valuation of successes and barriers on the path to reaching goals. Feedback should be complemented via intensive coaching and training. “That is exactly the way in which people should lead implementation projects,” says Treiber. In that way, it is easier for employees to be motivated for new processes and ways of doing things that they often view as more work or obstructive. “After a certain amount of preparation time, changing an organization is actually quite fast,” adds Zanger. “On day X you change the switches and the new organizational structure is active. Until that is lived and really working more time is needed, and above all, until the “aha” effect occurs.”
Psychologists have long known that people are creatures of habit. They tend to only do things regularly which make them feel good – they are willing to do the things they are good at. In the context of change projects, the recognition of this fact means that in order to motivate employees, managers need to awaken an understanding regarding the necessity of change. “In a professional setting, we call feedback ‘performance management’,” says Zanger. It lends itself well to the measurement of measures, for which Zanger stands for a reaching of goals via iteration. “First the big changes, then the small ones and finally amendments.” 70 to 80% of the maturity level is reached quickly, then comes the detailed work, albeit first once the consultants have already left the company.
The people factor is the decisive one in change processes. We are all motivated and led by personal interest. We want to see the value and use in what we do. This is not just private but also true of our professional lives. On this basis, motivating employees is for many the “holy grail” in change projects. But what is motivation and how can we motivate others? It is clear that motivation does not just appear on its own. It is the result of different reasons for movement, handling people in a way that the most difficult results are also achieved. Dr. Reinhard Sprenger 2 divides motivation into the following categories: performance environment (such as formulation of tasks, recognition), capabilities (as well as skills), and motivation (personal attitude). Many managers find it difficult to understand whether their employees want to be motivated or not. A person’s individual attitude can rarely be influenced by management. The focus of change should be on designing a performance environment that fits the people who will exist in it – there is a lot of room for that in change projects.
By using small steps, in the “micro-habit” principle, behavior changes can be made. “You can’t introduce new processes in a Big Bang approach, as they will just immediately be disconnected, as we well know from uncountable software projects,” says Hess. When it comes to developing skills, you can’t turn a recreational cyclist into a professional one overnight – the willingness to learn and change in an organization requires training, time and patience.
Who’s to blame?
The environment in change management projects is often volatile and affected by uncertainties and complexity. However, change actually needs insecurity at the start. Stability is the result of change, but on a higher level. Too soon, and stability leads to stalemate, which prevents change. People love and search for stability, a clear view and order. That makes sense, because with order, the result of stability, we achieve peace and security. Or put differently, more time for important things.
However, as paradoxical as it may sound, insecurity helps us to ask the right questions. It is a requirement for creativity, consideration, the learning process and a responsible approach to risk. As a result, in change projects, pragmatism is more important than sticking to principles. That can mean that we accept “as good as” or alternatives. Every plan, every announcement about the future, every prognosis carries the unknown with it. “If you try to plan in too much detail into change management process, you will just create false security and controlled madness,” says Hess. It’s more pragmatic to focus on results and milestones. Now we owe you an answer to the question “Who’s to blame?” Usually the answer is: “everyone else.” But we have asked the wrong question. The right question is: “Who takes responsibility?” Let’s really step on the gas, ideally with a lot of small detours, instead of making a beeline for the summit – quickly, with agility and individuality.