Can Change Agents Avert the Course of Project Failure?
Whilst a great deal is written about the need for organisational change and how a vision of change is important to inspire and motivate the workforce, not enough has been said on what to do when change initiatives get stuck.
Like so many academics and researchers, Franklin (2012) states that change “is difficult and disruptive”, but if change is not managed correctly, then “at best they will fail to embed, and worst, organisations will have taken resources away from the ‘day job’ realising no benefits from this effort”. Keller and Aiken (2006) suggest it’s not just about managing outputs, as more consideration must be given to understanding how people work in change and getting the change process understood. Realistically, it is going to be rare and unlikely to find change initiative without a project or series of projects to be undertaken for managing and delivering change in an organisation. Projects usually consist of “a set of processes, activities and roles for defining, planning, implementing and embedding change” (Franklin, 2012). Activities usually include identifying requirements, establishing objectives, balancing demands for quality, scope, time, and cost, and meeting stakeholder expectations (Hutchings, 2011).
The Change that Fails
There is a good anecdote from Beer, et al., (1990) that change plans, however well intentioned, can achieve little returns, even from significant investment in time and resources. Their story describes banking executives “painstakingly” trying to change the company purpose and culture. They created a mission statement; recruited a change champion; devised a set of projects to change the structure; appraisal systems to align performance; along with incentives and training to turn managers into Change Agents. This was followed by staff surveys to check progress, “only to find after two years, nothing had changed. What had gone wrong? The answer was everything”.
This is quite a common phenomenon that most change initiatives fail to deliver the expected benefits. Businesses and government agencies alike report high failure rates, even after spending considerable sums on time, resource, and even change management consultants to move the change initiative forward (McManus and Wood-Harper 2010). Many researchers, (Kotter, 1996; Keller & Aiken, 2006; & Blanchard, 2010) put the failure rate at 70% whilst a recent IBM Corporation study (Jørgensen, Owen and Neus 2008) reports a failure rate of approximately 60%.
Even if a project team could produce a clear set of outputs, the project can still fail because of issues, such as a lack of stakeholder engagement or political behaviour (Saka 2003). Likewise, without project management and reassurance from knowing how to plan the work, being clear on the purpose of each step, and knowing what comes next will be missing, which inevitably leads a project to miss its targets (Wideman 2006). Given these ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ considerations (Senior and Fleming 1997), it is not surprising that change can be difficult and disruptive (Checkland 2000). The consequences of badly managed change initiatives can often lead to “workforce uncertainty, fear, and resistance, which if left to feaster can ultimately lead to low morale, low productivity, a lack of focus and diminishing performance” (Koehn and Adler 2010). It is certainly my experience in change initiatives to see the results of internal surveys that show “disturbingly low levels of employee trust in management and chronic dissatisfaction with working conditions” (Ibid).
The Causes of Failure
So why do change programmes fail more often than not, and fail to meet expectations? The reasons are numerous and range from: a lack of expertise; poor plans; misalignment between the project team, the business and other organisations; misused methods; inadequately trained and/or inexperienced project managers; leadership at all levels; inadequate communication, including project tracking and reporting (Gantthead, 2003; Johnson, et al., 2001; Zwikael & Globerson, 2004). The list seems endless (McManus and Wood-Harper 2010).
(Koehn, 2012; Platie, 1993; Reiss, 1996; Grey & Bamford, 1999) suggest a narrow view of change prevails: a strong focus on system, structure, or process, with little emphasis on achieving change through people. Preliminary research in this area provides a variety of reasons: a strong human element is needed i.e. leadership commitment (Beer, Eisenstat and Spector 1990); stakeholder’s engagement, understanding staff perception of value is essential for realising project success (Ford and Ford 1995). To substantiate this point further, Balogun, et al., (2004) believe ‘user’ involvement is critical in developing strategy into operations, for a variety of reasons: acceptance, participation, collaboration.
The Value of Change Agents
Ulrich, (1997) views organisational change as much more than a change in structure or process, instead recognising that “a renewed organisation is the deliverable expected from the Change Agent” role” (Rajeswari 2010). In the same article, Virginia Murray, an Executive Search consultant agrees that searches for senior roles require change leadership in the job specifications (ibid).
The label “Change Agent” is often misunderstood (Caldwell, 2005; Rajeswari, 2010). Moreover, they question the value of this role, or the use of consultants to perform this role. Nevertheless, both accept that “as organisations continue to face unrelenting changes in their environment, the search for individuals who are capable of turning strategy into reality” is beginning to create a new legitimacy for the “Change Agent” role (ibid).
Rajeswari begins to raise important questions about the role and value of the Agent: “Is it to represent management with employees as change is implemented? Is it to introduce and champion new initiatives intended to improve organizational performance? Is it to monitor and influence climate and morale?” (ibid). .