The growing consensus is that change management as it is traditionally applied is outdated. There is however, some doubt about the validity of the — some would argue — over simplified view that 70% of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support, and that when people are truly invested in change it is 30% more likely to stick.
Reality is rarely that simple. Nevertheless, if we want change management to help our organizations realign towards an emerging future, then foresight and a focus on people within the change process seem to be critical prerequisites for a future-ready approach.
CONTEXT FOR AN EVERCHANGING FUTURE
The mantra of “change being a constant” has been part of the corporate lexicon for many years but increasingly the word on the street to describe the nature of the change we are experiencing is “exponential.” Indeed, some commentators talk about the likelihood of more change in the coming decades than we have seen in previous centuries.
As we think about the emerging future, we see evidence all around us that our world is increasingly subject to significant change.
While the focus is often on the potential implications of exponential technology developments such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, adaptive manufacturing, augmented and virtual reality for example, — political, economic, and social changes are also happening at break-neck speed. This range of future forces — together with off-trend disruptions such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the geopolitical and economic disturbances caused by the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and increasing tensions between the West and China — act on life, society, and business and add to our personal and organisational sense of complexity and uncertainty.
In the past, we have been confident in our predictions about how the external environment is evolving and been able to come to consensus about the way ahead. Increasingly we are far from certain about how the outside world is evolving and are less able to reach consensus about how to proceed.It's this situation that calls for a new focus to leading change in organizations. There’s a temptation to always do what we’ve always done to make sure we always get what we’ve always got. But the reality is that the world moves on, and unless we change, we risk being left behind.
There is interesting evidence to suggest that the change/future-resistant laggards disappear through merger, acquisition, or business failure ever more quickly.
For example, Innosight’s biennial corporate longevity report suggests that corporate longevity remains in long-term decline. Their analysis shows the 30- to 35- year average tenure of S&P 500 companies in the late 1970s is forecast to shrink to 15-20 years this decade. To me, this brings up several challenging questions:
When we implement change programs, how often do we futureproof the change by exploring the future?
Do the programs we put in place simply seek to change the past and present and how well does that set us up for an increasingly uncertain future?
And, if we believe that employee resistance, lack of management support, and a resulting dearth of people truly invested in change is behind the failure of many change programs — or at least the suboptimum outcome of them — why would we not want to address them?
PUTTING THE FUTURE AND PEOPLE AT THE HEART OF CHANGE
Change management/change leadership should ultimately be about people, but this obvious view is all too often lost in traditional, arguably over-complicated methodologies, especially when technology — either as a tool to support change or the reason for the change — is the focus. The people side of change is relegated to an after-thought and only becomes important once things are not going to plan.
In parallel, leaders often take a conditioned view of the future, extrapolating existing trends and shaping their perceptions of the consequences on the market place to meet the enterprise’s view of the external world and its evolution. Instead, they shy away from the idea of exposing the organization to the inevitability of uncertainty. The thought of broad engagement in exploring the future is fraught with difficulty, complexity, controversy, and alternative views and so it is avoided.
I would argue that there needs to be a new mindset – a future-ready mindset – to accept and tackle exponential change head-on, to do so with more than an eye on plausible multiple technology-centric futures, and on enabling a more sustainable, human-centric future to boot.
There are multiple reasons for deploying foresight in corporate change programs, from testing existing strategy and identifying gaps in the enterprise’s strategic portfolio to seeking to understand the breadth of the future environment in which we will need to operate and identifying the preferred future we want to shape. Any of these reasons ultimately points to a desire to make change to (and within) the organization. The sooner we can be aware of the nature of the potential external change, the sooner we can become future–ready.
But if we start with the perception that we need to change, then we need to ask: “Are we building a change program that fixes what is wrong today or prepares us for a number of potentially different futures?” Building flexibility, agility, and resilience into change programs by exploring plausible scenarios is crucial for the future growth and sustainability of our enterprises and the wellbeing of employees.
LEADING CHANGE WITH FORESIGHT FOR GROWTH
“Leading Change with Foresight for Growth” is a framework that together with Change Consultant Jennifer Bryan, we have developed to combine foresight and people-centric change methodology. The approach makes use of foresight analysis, and where appropriate, scenario development, imbedded with the change process. This process helps enable leaders to create a pathway through transition and embrace change into the future, helping to make the organization future ready.
Within the framework, there are four components to consider:
1. Case for Change – Establishing and articulating the imperative for change, including how to stay relevant to existing, emerging, and new customers in the context of an ever changing current and future operating environment.
2. Observing – Making observations about the internal/organizational and external world enablers and hurdles to change. This includes taking an organizational development approach to consider the existing resources, culture, systems, and processes available to help enable change. From the external perspective, we think about future change themes, identify the key megatrends that are impacting the outside world, consider the drivers, the trends, the weak signals, and the wildcards that might impact our external world in the future.
3. Sense-Making – Understanding implications is critical for designing the change plan, so here we pose the question, “What do our observations mean for us?” We are making sense of what we're seeing both externally and internally. Foresight tools help us make sense of the evolving future and in turn what it might mean for our external stakeholders.
This work will contribute to an understanding of how the corporate vision fits in; does it validate it or challenge it? With clarity about the change challenge (how do we want to change, what do we want to change, and what are we prepared to change?) we can consider a skills assessment (the skills we have in the organisation now and the skills we might need in the future), both to achieve the change challenge, but also to manage and lead the change process? Part of this work is to understand the nature of both the resistance to, and the motivation for change.
4. Actions – The actions that fall out of this process are then focused on planning and implementation; being clear what we are seeking to achieve and doing so with a people focus. This involves looking into change resistance, motivation, effective communication (mostly broadcast) and engagement (two-way). Naturally, monitoring and course correction are critical because the reality is that our world is ever changing, so elements of change might require changing in themselves. The organization needs to be open to challenge based on what we are learning through the process and to make sure that we make the appropriate course corrections. So when we've implemented a change, it's still the right change for the right future. These actions can only be effectively completed by ensuring that the leadership style and leadership skills being exhibited within the organisation match the type of change we are trying to implement.
COMBINING FORESIGHT AND HUMAN-CENTRIC CHANGE
Our world is facing more intense and wideranging change than ever before, particularly change driven by the adoption of ever more smart, effective, and pervasive automation technologies. As we embrace the change, I believe it is imperative to enable and create a more human future. Integrating foresight with a human-centric change approach can be a critical enabler of future success for your enterprise. It’s different, yes, but then again it was Albert Einstein who said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
Steve Wells (he/him) is a futurist, speaker, facilitator, and founder of Informing Choices Ltd (www.informingchoices.com), an insights business specializing in futures and foresight. Based in the United Kingdom, his work is designed to help individuals and organisations make informed choices about the emerging future. He is also co-editor and a contributing author to seven books including A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World and The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. To reach Wells, contact him through www.informingchoices.com.