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Change Management

by Roderick McInnes


How To Manage Change When There’s A Skills Shortage

Since the turn of the century, organisational change management has earned itself a permanent place on the agenda of business leaders. Technology, changeable capital flows, new markets, new talent pools and new customer needs have been transforming businesses and whole sectors.

Constant change has become predictable, whereas the nature of that change is a moveable feast. Consequently, organisations are getting more skilled at managing change. And yet, the success of change management is still low.

According to a 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of global senior executives, the current success rate of most transformational initiatives is only 54%. Most projects involve significant time and financial investments, which means there are significant downsides when they fail.

Skills Shortages Prevent Successful Change Programmes

Transformational programmes can fail for numerous reasons. Based on the Katzenbach Center survey, three of the top reasons are:

  • ‘Change fatigue’ according to 65% of respondents. Being asked to make too many changes at once, or when programmes are rolled out too quickly without enough planning and management is a significant barrier to success. Change can come from senior leaders, but specific improvements to products, services and policies needs to be driven from the bottom.
  • Skills shortages are blamed for 48% of failed change strategies. Too often these shortages are reflected in an organisations’ inability to make operational and cultural improvements before bringing in the talent who can implement a transformation project. In our 2015 BOSS survey 63% of business leaders said that they engaged interim managers because of a short-term resource.
  • Too little input from front-line staff, resulting in 44% of those surveyed saying they didn’t understand what they were meant to be doing, with 38% disagreeing with the changes. Both responses are indicative of planning done in the C-suite, with insufficient understanding of the situation ‘on the ground.’

Ensuring you have the skills to transform a business is essential, whether this means in-house training, recruiting individuals with relevant skills and experience, or bringing onboard interim managers. But skills are only one piece of this puzzle. Change must be supported, from the top down. Staff must want to buy into the programme, since ultimately, they’re going to be living with the consequences of these policies.

The critical cultural factor

One key finding from the Katzenbach Center survey is that “culture is everything”, with 84% of respondents saying that it was always overlooked. Unsurprisingly, 76% of organisations that neglected culture failed to sustain change programmes over time. The architects of change often assume culture is malleable, “soft” and unimportant compared to formal processes, structural charts and policies.

Company culture may also be seen as a legacy of the past, something to break and get away from to move into a more profitable future. For those on the front-lines this is rarely the case, in fact, it is usually the opposite.

Staff are emotionally connected to the existing culture. Skilled managers implement change by working with what they have, especially when it comes to culture. New ideas are stronger when built on aspects of your business that staff feel strongly about.

When it comes to change, there’s an emotional energy that should be used when aspects of how the business currently operates are aligned with the new approaches. Highlight this alignment and use it to get the emotional buy-in necessary to motivate a team to want to get behind a transformation strategy.

New ideas will fail when the culture is overlooked, and the opinions of front-line are ignored. Those are two of the biggest mistakes change architects make when overhauling an organisation. However, they can also struggle when it comes to ensuring a company has the required skills to implement change.

How to solve a skills shortage

Working with an interim, a team of interims or outsourcing aspects of change, particularly technology projects, are the most obvious and widely used options. But doing any of these without fully understanding what needs to be done and how a project is going to be integrated internally could be a massive waste of time and money.

Interims and outsource partners are, by the very definition of the work they do, temporary. Otherwise, they would be on the payroll. Training and support should come from the top down to ensure any external provider of skills and knowledge will have delivered value long-term after the project is complete.

Support for this must come from the top. Transformation projects need senior-level sponsorship, with oversight from key managers to ensure new ideas carry weight when they cascade through an organisation. Senior managers need to be on the same page before committing to such a project, to avoid friction when departments are asked to carry out work on behalf of agents on the side of change. Again, it all comes back to getting the buy-in required to ensure this will be a success.

Ongoing Training

Aligning culture to the change lays the groundwork. Bringing onboard the necessary skills makes it possible, freeing up senior executives to steer the ship, whilst achieving buy-in. And training ensures the legacy of the project achieves the original objectives.

Ideally, organisations should embed this training throughout the entire process, to ensure staff are picking up new skills and ways of working from those brought in to lead the transformation. Skilled interim managers build this into project delivery, working closely with team members who will be responsible for implementation.

Key Takeaways: Managing change when there’s a skills shortage

Change management fails for three reasons:

  1. ‘Change fatigue.’ Being asked to make too many changes with too little support;
  2. Skills shortages;
  3. Not enough input from front-line staff and a failure to support and draw strength from the company culture, even when managers want to overhaul aspects of this culture. When staff disagree or don’t understand what changes are needed or the role they are meant to play, transformation initiatives fail.

Culture is a critical factor in ensuring change is driven through successfully. Ensure you have the right skills to make this happen is essential; otherwise, managers could soon find the important task (change) falls second place to the essential (looking after clients and other mission-critical tasks), even when the long-term aims could deliver dramatic results for the business.

You may also like to read this recent guest post from HR consultant Clayton Glen on ‘engagement champions’ and how to build organisational culture.

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About the Author

Roderick McInnes

Roderick is responsible for all aspects of the marketing and communications mix, ensuring Alium maintains its market position as the leading provider of interim and transformation talent in the UK and internationally.

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