The Six Core Conditions for Change Success

David Trafford and Peter Boggis argue that one of the reasons for the poor success rate in delivering change is that leaders focus on the wrong future: the one they hope to get rather than the one they’re likely to get. What is all too often ignored is that the destiny of an organisation is determined by a set of powerful forces that act as invisible ‘rail tracks’ taking it to its default future. Only by understanding these forces and putting in place the necessary conditions for change will leaders be able to alter the trajectory of their organisation away from its default future to an improved future.

In previous Formicio articles we have argued that all organisations have a default future: it’s the place they will end up if no action is taken, other than that currently planned. We’ve further argued that the default future is determined by a set of driving forces that define the trajectory. Some of these forces are easy to observe, like technology and regulation, while others, like mindset, values and culture, are often hidden deep within the organisation and not immediately apparent. Equally, some of these forces are generated externally, like regulation and economic conditions, while others are a result of past internal choices and actions, examples being legacy technology and product strategy.

Based upon the premise that all organisations have a default future we believe it’s the role of leaders to understand the default future for which they are accountable and, if they consider it unacceptable, to take action to create an improved future. These actions are likely to take the form of a new strategy, acquisition, divestment, merger or reorganisation. All of which involve some form of change.

The classic approach to creating an improved future goes something like this: firstly, devise a strategy – ideally one that has a compelling vision with audacious goals – then, secondly, implement the strategy through a change programme. Simple – if it were only so.

The inconvenient truth is that most organisations don’t really have a meaningful strategy. Yes, they have ambition and stretch goals, but as Richard Rumelt argues in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, there is more bad strategy than good strategy. By ‘bad’ he doesn’t mean that a strategy is wrong, just that the strategic thinking is not complete and goes no further than a set of aspirational statements. Furthermore, he argues that the heart of ‘good’ strategy is having insight into the hidden power of a situation coupled with a response that contains appropriate policy and action. In addition, according to John P Kotter, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and a leading authority on leadership and transformation, only about 5% of large-scale change programmes are successful. Of concern is that all the evidence spanning the last 25 years indicates that our ability to deliver successful change has not improved: in fact it could be argued that it’s actually getting worse.

In this article we offer an explanation as to why the success rate is so poor. We don’t offer a complete solution, but we do present a framework that we believe can increase the chances of success. The framework comprises six necessary conditions for successful change. If these conditions are put in place and maintained throughout the change journey we believe the chances of delivering successful change will be significantly increased.

Focusing on the wrong future

Before we describe the six conditions, let us first set the context by challenging some of the traditional thinking about delivering change. Firstly, the purpose of any change initiative is to deliver a vision of the future, where the vision is part of a strategy. Furthermore the change initiative should be justified by a business case that defines tangible financial benefits that exceed projected costs.

In our view this approach is fundamentally flawed as it focuses on the wrong future – the future leaders hope to achieve rather than the one they’re likely to get. As a result, leaders are often surprised and disappointed when the organisation doesn’t respond in the way they hoped and continues on the same path as if nothing had happened. What they don’t realise – or in many cases ignore – is that the destiny of their organisation is determined by a set of powerful forces that act as invisible ‘rail tracks’ taking it to its default future.

If a change programme is to have any chance of success it must identify and act to change the influence of these forces. It must and lay down ‘new tracks’ that take the organisation to a different (improved) future. It’s also often forgotten that these forces can be very powerful and create a momentum that makes it very difficult to change trajectory. To make a difference, the effort expended by the change programme – in terms of energy, resources and commitment – must be greater than the power of the driving forces. If not, the trajectory will not change and the initiative will fail.

This view on organisational change is contrary to contemporary thinking, where the popular view is that successful change begins with a compelling vision, ideally one with audacious goals. The logic is that if an organisation is planning to a change it must, by definition, be dissatisfied with its default future and therefore there is no point in spending valuable time studying it. Surely, the argument goes, the focus must be on the future we aim to create rather than the one we might get if we do nothing.

This perspective on change has one fundamental flaw. It assumes that the organisation can easily change; that it is agile, and therefore able to change without constraint. While this may be true in small start-ups, the reality is that most established organisations are not agile: their decision-making is slow, resources are difficult to mobilise, established mindsets stifle innovation, and legacy technology makes any change complex and expensive.

Most organisations therefore need to accept that they are not agile and that successful change requires a significant level of insight and effort to change the trajectory away from its default future.

Conditions for change success

When asked to give examples of the conditions for successful change we often ask what the questioner knows about gardening. While gardening may not be as popular as it once was, we all know that the condition of the soil is important and that plants need nourishment. We know that certain plants will only flourish in certain types of soil and that some plants need to be pruned in spring and others in autumn. We may not all be expert gardeners, but we know enough to realise that that certain conditions need to be in place if we are to be successful. If not, gardening can be a very costly and disappointing pastime. It’s the same with change: if certain conditions are not established and maintained it can be very painful and costly.

Below we describe what we believe to be the six core conditions for successful change. Other conditions may be necessary depending upon the particular nature of the change, but in our experience these six are universally applicable for all types of change.

  1. Targeted
    Our view is that the purpose of any change initiative is to change the trajectory of the organisation away from where it’s currently headed (its default future) to an improved future.

    Some initiatives will be small and therefore make a minor contribution to changing the trajectory, while others will be ‘transformational’ and aimed at making a significant shift. Some initiatives will be implemented through the line organisation and others will require the creation of a temporary project or programme organisation. What’s important is that individually and collectively they change the influence of the targeted driving forces, thereby changing the trajectory of the organisation. If a change initiative is not aimed at one or more driving forces it will have little or no impact on the current trajectory and nothing will change. It will be change for change’s sake. While this may give those involved a satisfying feeling, the reality is that the organisation continues to steam ahead to its default future.

    Understanding how the portfolio of change initiatives will alter the influence of the driving forces and thereby the trajectory of the organisation is probably the most important condition for change success. In fact, we go further and argue that the portfolio of change initiatives needs to be intentionally designed to change the trajectory, and that the design must be based upon a thorough analysis and understanding of the forces driving the organisation to its default future. This design should not only include the list of initiatives, but the logic by which the trajectory will be changed. It should define which driving forces are being targeted and how their influence will be changed.

  2. Power
    The second condition for successful change is ensuring that the collective power of the change initiative is sufficient to have impact on the targeted driving forces, thereby changing the trajectory of the organisation away from its default future to its targeted improved future. The power comes from the number, capability and experience of the people accountable for delivering the change, the level of commitment of senior leadership and the chosen approach.

    Determining how much power is needed comes from analysing the driving forces. For example if it was concluded that mindset was the principal force driving consistently poor customer experience, more power might be needed than putting frontline staff through a one-day training programme. The ‘power’ of this training alone would be insufficient to change mindset. At best it could increase awareness; at worst reinforce perception that management is not really serious about change.

    The first condition for success ensures that the change initiatives are targeted on the forces controlling the current trajectory; this condition ensures that they possess sufficient power to have impact to change the trajectory to the targeted improved future.

  3. Infrastructure
    The third condition for success is having the infrastructure in place to support the ‘mechanics’ of change. By this we mean having clear roles and accountabilities, plans, project structure, programme office, communications and reporting. In effect all the basics of good project, programme and portfolio management. Over the past 25 years, most organisations have improved their project management capabilities; some have improved their programme management capabilities – where the ‘family’ of inter-related projects collectively deliver the desired outcomes. However, portfolio management still remains a relatively weak capability in the majority of organisations.
  4. Organisational capabilities
    The fourth condition is having the organisational capabilities in place to ‘pull’ the organisation into its target improved future. Here it’s important to distinguish between organisational capabilities and individual competencies. Whereas competencies are held by individuals, capabilities are held within organisations. Obviously individual competencies are important, but in the context of moving to an improved future, having the necessary organisational capabilities in place is key. Organisational capabilities form part of an organisation’s DNA. They are embedded in the way things are done and are not lost when individuals leave. They are formed from shared mental models, frameworks, language, skills, mindset, beliefs, conventions and experiences that collectively drive organisational behaviour.

    Organisational capabilities are important from two points of view. Firstly, new ones will almost certainly be needed to pull the organisation into its target improved future – particularly if the nature of the change is significant. Secondly, existing organisational capabilities are one of the forces driving an organisation to its current default future. The risk is that people who embody the current organisational capabilities will not see the need to develop new ones; as a result they are unlikely to take action and the organisation’s trajectory to its default future is unlikely to change.

  5. Leading indicators
    The fifth condition is having the measures in place to know that the trajectory of the organisation is changing, and for these to be leading as opposed to lagging indicators. Lagging indicators like costs, revenues, technology implementations are examples of measures that are covered in condition 3 – infrastructure. Leading indicators, as the name suggests, tells us whether we’re on track, whether things are moving in the right direction much earlier than would appear in conventional management information.

    Most leading indicators tend to be qualitative rather than quantitative. For example, if a professional services organisation aimed to be more client centric (as opposed to product or service centric) an early indicator would be feedback from clients, not necessarily from formal reviews but how the content and tone of conversations had changed. Leading indicators tend to be based more upon peoples’ feelings than traditional management or financial information.

  6. Governance
    The sixth condition is having people in place who have the decision rights and accountabilities to ensure that these six – and possibly more – conditions for success are established and maintained. Such governance needs to cover individual change initiatives as well as the whole portfolio of change. One of the common misconceptions of governance is that the role of the steering group – which is usually the name given to the governing body – is to steer and review progress. The danger of this perception is that it puts the steering group in a reactive mode, responding to issues as and when they emerge. This is the responsibility of people leading the change initiatives, not the steering group. The role of the steering group is to ensure that the conditions for success are put in place and maintained.

    If people on the steering group don’t have the decision rights (and resulting accountabilities) to put the conditions for success in place, either because they don’t have the authority or expertise, they are simply the wrong people.

These six core conditions for successful change are summarised below.

To increase the chances of success, a change initiative needs to:

  1. Be targeted on the forces driving the organisation to its default future.
  2. Have the power to change the influence of the driving forces, thereby changing the trajectory.
  3. Have the infrastructure in place to support the ‘mechanics’ of change.
  4. Have the organisational capabilities in place to pull itself into its new (improved) future.
  5. Have leading indicators in place that provide evidence as to the extent the trajectory has changed.
  6. Be governed by people who have the decision rights and resulting accountabilities that ensure the conditions for success are established and maintained.

The conditions must be maintained throughout the change journey

Our belief, based on many years of experience, is that if attention is given to putting in place the necessary conditions, change is likely to be more successful. However, it needs to be a continual process as things change, both as a result of the change itself and also as a result of external factors. The conditions for success are powerful leading indicators that can give insight into whether a change initiative will be successful or not.

These conditions for success can be assessed at the outset of a change initiative or at any point along the way. Assessing the degree to which the conditions are in place can lead to corrective actions to ‘power up’ any that are weak and to identify any new ones that might be needed. Periodic assessment of these conditions – and reporting and discussing their state of health – is a powerful way of creating the right ‘dialogue’ with different stakeholders.

We welcome your thoughts.

David Trafford

Peter Boggis

Formicio Insight Article: The Six Core Conditions for Change Success