Managing change has always been at the core of a technology leader’s job description but whereas 10-15 years ago the focus was on tech change, today it’s more likely to be people and culture change that a tech leader has to deal with.
But culture change has become something of an industry myth for business psychologists: we hear of its existence, but very few experience it delivered in real life. We know a friend of a friend has achieved it, but we’ve rarely seen it with our own eyes.
I’m not being flippant because the truth is that the overwhelming majority of organisational change projects fail whilst most of those that succeed do so because they don’t complete the entire change project only parts of it, more often than not changing its original goals during the process.
So what are the primary reasons behind this appalling success rate?
A key problem is that openness to change needs to be at the core of those leading the programme but it’s a personality trait where some people are genetically predisposed to finding it easier to try out new experiences, while others struggle. Organisations as a sum, are the ones that struggle.
In nature, all living systems present a function we call homeostasis, and that is their tendency to maintain their internal, physical, and chemical conditions at steady, despite environmental changes.
Organizations act like living systems as well. The concept of homeostasis means that the organizational system seeks to maintain its customary structure and functioning over time, demonstrating a strong tendency to resist change.
Put simply: Change is hard. Very hard.
For tech leaders in particular, culture change is much harder than tech change itself. It requires tons of energy and still might fail.
So why even bother?
Change is inevitable in life, and particularly in the modern work environment.
Refusing change is like refusing life itself.
Society changes, technology changes, people change. Organizations that fail to accommodate external change into their internal reality are doomed to die, like all living creatures that don’t adapt.
What works today, won’t necessarily be working tomorrow and to quote Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”.
So what are the common factors that lead to culture change failure, what goes wrong?
- Leaders don’t communicate the vision clearly.
Everyone knows that something is happening, but no one really knows what that is. Why are we changing? What forces us to change? Why is this change so urgent and vital? If you can’t answer these questions to your team-members, how do you expect them to commit?
When it comes to successful organizations, the hardest part when it comes to culture change is understanding the need for the change per se. How do you tell someone who’s making millions that they’re doing something wrong? Leaders of successful organizations more than often claim that they want culture change, but when the process actually starts, they don’t follow through with it, since, deep inside, they believe no matter what challenge appears in the future they will be able to address it on the spot.
- Failure to take into account people’s insecurity.
Have we made clear how change is going to affect everyone in the organization? Is everyone in the position to cope with it? Will they still have a role in the new reality? Are they able to succeed in this role, or do they need extra training and coaching? Leaving people with unanswered questions on their future after the change will only make them sabotage it, actively or passively.
- Management is weak.
Nothing affects change more than a manager who has the title but not the people. An influential leader will inspire others to follow them but a weak manager, particularly one who hasn’t earned the respect of their team, is a manager who will put the organization in danger, especially during the process of an existential culture change programme like a merge or buyout.
- Underestimate conflicting interests and multiple agendas.
Every time we earn something, someone else is losing it. In this life, resources are usually limited. Change needs to be actively organized and promoted because although someone/ some people will benefit from the current state, it might not be the optimum state for a majority or the organization itself. Conflict should be anticipated and evaluated upfront, otherwise if no preparation has been made, when it occurs it could have a dramatic impact on the change we’re trying to apply and even force it to stop.
- Start planning for the future without accurately mapping the present.
How can you plan a change for tomorrow if you haven’t defined where you are today? Are you sure that you know your culture today? All the elements of it? When deciding where you want to go, are you confident that you have defined the exact spot you’re starting from, and if you were to ask everyone implicated in the change process would they all give the same answer?
People have the tendency to leave what is hard for later. Imagine someone who constantly steps on a box and instead of putting on the extra energy to climb it and leave it behind, they keep kicking it forward, again and again, facing the same obstacle in their way all the time. When it comes to culture change, every step forward is a different box that has to be addressed and dealt with immediately otherwise the boxes will at some point create a wall that won’t be able to surpass, forcing the change to stop.
Change is always happening with or without us.
The question for the modern tech leader is whether they want to play a pro-active active role in managing the people that need to drive through that change, or stick to managing the tech change and let others make the key decisions around them.