Build a Change Platform, Not a Change Program

It’s not you, it’s your company. We believe that continuous improvement requires the creation of change platforms, rather than change programs implemented from the top.

October 2015 | by David Delaney

Transformational-change initiatives have a dismal track record. In 1996, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter claimed that nearly 70 percent of large-scale change programs didn’t meet their goals, and virtually every survey since has shown similar results. Why is change so confounding? We don’t think the issue lies with an understanding of its building blocks—Kotter’s classic eight-step change-management model is still a helpful guide. The problem lies in beliefs about who is responsible for launching change and how change is implemented.

The reality is that today’s organizations were simply never designed to change proactively and deeply—they were built for discipline and efficiency, enforced through hierarchy and routinization. As a result, there’s a mismatch between the pace of change in the external environment and the fastest possible pace of change at most organizations. If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t see so many incumbents struggling to intercept the future.

In most organizations, change is regarded as an episodic interruption of the status quo, something initiated and managed from the top. The power to initiate strategic change is concentrated there, and every change program must be endorsed, scripted, and piloted before launch. Transformational change, when it does happen, is typically belated and convulsive—and often commences only after a “regime change.” What’s needed is a real-time, socially constructed approach to change, so that the leader’s job isn’t to design a change program but to build a change platform—one that allows anyone to initiate change, recruit confederates, suggest solutions, and launch experiments.

The Problem with Change Management

Three intertwined assumptions limit the efficacy of the traditional model of change:

Change starts at the top. This mind-set implies that executives have the sole right to initiate deep change and are best placed to judge when it is necessary. Truth is, executives are often the last to know. They are insulated from reality by layers of managers who are often reluctant to sound an alarm. By the time an issue is big enough and unavoidable enough to attract the scarce attention of the CEO, the organization is already playing defense. That’s why most change programs are, in fact, catch-up programs. Moreover, risk-averse executives are seldom willing to launch a company-wide program that ventures beyond the safe precincts of best practice. The result: change programs that are too little, too late.

Change is rolled out. When change is imposed from above, with both ends and means prescribed, it’s rarely embraced. Traditional change programs fail to harness the discretionary creativity and energy of employees and often generate cynicism and resistance. Senior executives talk about the need to get buy-in, but genuine buy-in is the product of involvement, not slick packaging and communication. To be embraced, a change effort must be socially constructed in a process that gives everyone the right to set priorities, diagnose barriers, and generate options. Despite assertions to the contrary, people aren’t against change—they are against royal edicts. The alternative: change that’s rolled up, not rolled out.

Change is engineered. The phrase “change management” implies that deep change can be managed, like a large-scale construction project or an IT overhaul. But if change is truly transformational—if it breaks new ground—it can’t be predetermined. Think for a moment about how our lives have been changed by the social web—Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, and all the rest. No single individual or entity invented the social web. It emerged, in all its weird and wonderful variety, because the Internet is a powerful platform for making connections and because thousands of entrepreneurs were free to develop new business models to harness that power. When change programs are engineered, the solution space is limited by what people at the top can imagine. A change platform, by contrast, gives everyone the right to suggest strategic alternatives. The advantage: options that are diverse, radical, and nuanced.


Executive Editor

 Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan