Establishing the Conditions for Change Success

David Trafford discusses the challenges faced by those responsible for delivering change and asks whether sufficient attention is given to putting the necessary conditions for change success in place.

It is widely acknowledged that only a very small proportion of large-scale change programmes are successful. In fact this figure is only 5% according to John P Kotter, author and professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. Yet over the past 30 years there have been thousands of papers and books published on how to manage change. So what’s going wrong? Are we not following the methodologies described in the books, or is there something more fundamentally challenging about the very nature of change?

Whilst there are probably as many reasons for this situation as there are change managers – and change gurus who write the books – my contention is that there is one underlying reason change initiatives rarely meet expectations, and that is because the necessary conditions for change success are rarely identified, established or maintained.

Good gardners understand conditions for success

One of the best ways of describing what is meant by conditions for success is to draw upon a gardening analogy. For those of you who know about gardening you’ll understand that certain conditions need to be in place in order for a garden to flourish, fertile soil being the most obvious. The more successful gardeners know that some of these conditions can be controlled and others cannot. For example, they know that soil quality can be improved and that particular plants will never do well in certain types of soil. They also know that some plants need to be pruned in spring and others in autumn.

If these conditions are not understood or are ignored, gardening can be a costly and disappointing pastime.

Identifying the conditions for change success

A good place to start when looking for the necessary conditions for change success is to begin by fully understanding the target outcomes and then asking “what needs to be in place to ensure that they are achieved?”. Whilst they typically include things like management sponsorship, governance and engagement they could include more context-specific conditions like cross-functional collaboration and working relationships with off-shore partners.

Example conditions for change success

Listed below are a set of conditions for success that typically need to be in place for a change initiative to have any chance of success. It should not be taken as a definitive list and used only to prompt ideas. It’s important to first understand the context of a particular change initiative and then use the list to help identify which conditions for success need to be put in place, remembering that it’s very possible that additional conditions are needed that are not on the list below.

  1. A compelling case for change. The ‘default future’ is not a desirable place to be and the organisation needs to move to an ‘improved future’.
  2. There is clarity of what success will look like, a definition of the ‘improved future’.
  3. The chosen approach to delivering the change is appropriate to the type of change and organisational culture.
  4. People who will be impacted by the change are engaged in the process and thereby feel ownership.
  5. There are sufficient resources, in terms of numbers and experience, to lead the change.
  6. The change is supported by appropriate programme management and governance.
  7. Leaders of the organisation understand the target future in sufficient detail to enable them to ‘pull’ the rest of the organisation into the future state.

 Typically there would be between 7 to 12 conditions for success. If there are more it suggests that the key conditions have not yet been identified. One of the benefits of having a small number of conditions for success is that they can be easily monitored over time. This can be done in two complementary ways.

Self assessment

The aim is to get a ‘pulse’ check of how people view the change initiative by inviting a representative group to complete the self assessment, ideally online. The assessment essentially asks people to give their views on:

  1. How important they consider the condition for success to be, on a scale of 1 to 5. If the condition is considered to be of low importance then it’s unlikely that it will be given attention. Equally, the fact that people consider it to be of low importance does not mean it’s not important, just that they don’t currently recognise it as such.
  2. The extent to which the condition is currently in place, again on a scale of 1 to 5. If a condition is generally considered to be important and not in place, it helps to identify where priority attention needs to be given. 

The results of the assessment can be presented in many ways. One useful way is to present it as a ‘spider’ diagram as illustrated on the right. In this example it can be seen that Programme Management and Governance are important, but not yet sufficiently in place. It also shows that the leaders of the organisation are ‘pulling’ to the future, but it is not considered to be important.

These diagrams can be presented for each individual who completed the assessment or overlaid with many assessments to get a composite picture.  

Qualitative interviews

Often undertaken in conjunction with the self assessments described above, these interviews aim to understand the thinking behind the assessments given and identify if a condition for success has been missed or a new one is emerging. Furthermore, they are a useful source of ideas as to what actions could be taken to strengthen the conditions for success.

Whilst not trying to stretch the gardening analogy too far, in my judgement all too often the focus is on doing change stuff (the equivalent of buying and planting) rather than spending time understanding what conditions for change success need to be established and maintained.

It is not the purpose of this article to describe a comprehensive approach to change, but simply to highlight a common mistake that is often taken when shaping a change initiative. It is hoped that the ideas presented in this article will stimulate you to think about whether you have the necessary conditions for success in place for your own change initiative.

I welcome your thoughts.

David Trafford

Formicio Insight Article: Establishing Conditions for Change Success

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