Most leaders have faced this question before. Your organisation needs to change. Will you be building a sand castle or a sustainable transformation? In this post, I will argue for why a continuous improvement process most often is better than a “big push.”
This post was originally published on Sept 18, 2011, and revised on Dec 4, 2018.
Being First, one of the leading change methodologies divides transformation efforts into three types: Developmental, Transitional and Transformational. Simply put, the first type is a continuous improvement process. The two others are for radical changes. Let’s call them “big push” methods. In theory, this means that if you know which type of change you require, then you can select the appropriate change strategy. So big change means a transformational strategy. The problem is just that the assumptions that big, transformational transformations rest most often are wrong. The success factor is simply not there. A lot of research shows that two out of three transformation efforts fail. The bigger the scope the more likely that the transformation initiative will fail.
Let’s explore the assumptions behind a successful “Big Push strategy” (roughly translated from ProSci’s ADKAR model):
Every employee must be aware of the purpose and be able to relate it to their own jobs
Clearly, this is much harder to achieve the more roles, offices, functions, business processes and KPIs that are involved. Most of the time, you end up with very large documents and countless business process diagrams that are distributed through a few emails to the organisation. This is then combined with a “one-size-fits-all” message from executives. Does this bring clarity and purpose for the individual employee? No, it does not. This assumption often is not there. A continuous improvement process would mean that everybody had a chance to get onboard gradually.
People should desire the change
Most organisations only act decisively when they are being disrupted. This means that most often a Big Push is only likely to happen once the company is on a burning platform. No people like being pushed from a burning platform. If this happens then chances are that regular employees only will resent top management for not acting before it was too late. So, most often this assumption is also not there.
People should know how they must change their behaviours
Changing your business model or entering a new market requires new behaviours by most people in most functions. Knowing how hard it is to change even small things is it realistic to expect a big change in behaviours during the few months that a typical big push lasts? Hardly.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
As they say. Well, you can but it is hard and it takes effort. Again, this reality speaks in favour of a continuous improvement process.
People must be able to translate your new work instructions to their daily work
Even if people know what to do differently and they really want to, they still must be able to apply the new way of working in their daily work. Studies have shown that only 8-12 people out of every 100 attending formal training programs put ANYTHING new into practice. So, the only way to transfer new skills effectively is to use methods that closely relate to people’s everyday work setting. This implies a continuous improvement process such as apprenticeship-style learning. The trouble is that such methods take time to work. And they require experimentation and trial and error. Again, this favour a continuous improvement process, rather than a big push.
You need to reinforce the new behaviours to ensure a sustainable transition
Most Big Push change initiatives run as multiple projects within one or more large programs. The more activities that take place at the same time, the fewer attention managers can devote to each. In reality, this means that the same frontline staff has to talk with all the project managers. People become stressed, tired and cynical. The result is that once the Big Push stops so does the change. People then make a sigh of relief and go back to what they used to do. Again a success factor that is easier to achieve through a continuous improvement process.
The Big Push should be a last resort
When a successful Big Push effort rests on shaky assumptions then why do larger companies use it so often? I think there are at least three reasons:
- Leaders only get started when it is (almost) too late.
- A transformative approach allows for top-down control (like a military campaign). Most leaders love control.
- A big push transformation is very visible and dramatic (and shows everyone that top management acts decisively).
The trouble is that leaders start off on a journey without knowing if their organization can handle the complexity, they then claim victory when the first signs of change show only to be replaced when results prove elusive on the longer term. A new senior manager starts and the whole process starts over again. Such organizations become very stressed and they start to resent change.
A continuous improvement process is the better way
What about the alternative continuous improvement process? Surely, this can’t replace the Big Push. To that, I would say that one the sisters of the continuous improvement process are agile which is becoming very popular. People change through experimentation and learning and the more involved they are, the more motivated they will be.
“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
Inspiration for your own continuous improvement process plan
Want inspiration for your own continuous improvement process? Check out this 8-step process improvement plan that builds ownership.