Why Change Underachieves... (..and what you can do about it!)
Updated: Jul 1
For the last 10 years of my career I have been in the business of change. As change, project, transformation, improvement, etc managers we know the requirement to change is the only reliable constant in business. There is always a strategic step change to make, a challenge to overcome, a growth target or a business case to deliver, an innovation to make reality, an improvement potential to harness.
Organisations have divisions, business units, teams, think tanks, CoEs, programmes and an army of people within those trying to deliver on these changes. And then of course there are people like myself, consultants and contractors, who are brought in to accelerate what the internal team is challenged with. Yet, more often than not, targets aren’t quite met. Somewhere on the road to making the next change a reality, things don’t quite go as expected, don’t quite deliver what they set out to do or if they do, there is a lack of follow up or uptake.
A blame game happens – often we call that “lessons learned”. Do any of these sound familiar?
“Lack of sustainment effort!”
“Unclear process / system / tool / …!”
“Fantastic in principle, but doesn’t fit business reality!”
There is a lot of noise, some adjustments may be made until the organisation focusses on the next change target and does the exact same thing, with a largely comparable approach, change team and workforce again. If I was the inspirational quote type, I’d probably use the “definition of insanity” quote here. I am not, though. I am the “let’s do something different then” type.
So – what can we do to break this cycle? There is a quote I do love and will use. It’s a quote by Kevin Eyre, the founder and managing director of SoundWave Global: "The need to communicate with others is perhaps the defining feature of what it is to be human."
Is the solution as simple as good communication then? Sort of. But it's more than that. In my own business, we speak of three layers of a management process:
Physical Management – the process, the machine, the systems, the team that’s been adequately trained to do a job, the tools, materials, etc. The Taylorism kind of stuff. The things that improvement methods like Lean and Six Sigma can make work like a Swiss clockwork. Typically, organisations are OK at that. Typically, organisations focus a lot of their change effort here.
Visual Management – the layout, the reporting, the floor markings, the system workflows, the dashboards, 5S, Kamishibai, Kanbans, etc. The process of making defined KPIs and processes visible and understood without requiring explanation. Often, that is something organisations with an improvement focus spend a lot of time on getting right. Often, they are stand alone initiatives. And often, we believe to have achieved the holy grail of simplicity with a fantastic visual management system. So much so, that complacency sets in with regards to the third and arguably most critical layer.
Acoustic Management. That is where your culture sits. That is where the coaching seminar you completed a few years back sits. But it is more than that: Acoustic Management is using language in a dynamic fashion to achieve predictable and repeatable results. The way we talk affects others. It affects the way others think, feel and act. The way we talk has profound and interestingly largely predictable effects.
Acoustic Management is our ability to strategically and consciously use the exactly appropriate language for a situation: Should I ask open questions to make others feel engaged? Should I correct an error? Should I advocate a solution?
There are of course communications and leadership trainings that happen in organisations, the strategic importance of good, targeted and practical competency in Acoustic Management, however, is often undervalued and en gross left up to the natural ability of individuals.
So, to get back to the headline: Harnessing the full potential of a change is typically up to the wider organisation. Organisations are made up out of people. And while the subject matter of a change, more often than not, sits somewhere in the first two layers, sustaining it almost always sits in the third.
In order to enable a change to achieve its full potential, you almost always need good, strategic, focussed Acoustic Management. Organisations almost always undervalue the importance of actively investing effort (never mind budget) into this. If you want to do something different and give your change the best possible chance to achieve what it set out to do: Put some focus on Acoustic Management. Into – as we call it in the SoundWave Global Academy and my own business - this “Language of Improvement”.
Amazing things happen when we focus on shifting the dialogue and with it the culture first. Can you see it?