When General Stanley McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operation Task Force in 2004 to lead change management, he had no way of knowing what he was in for. The seasoned veteran—a four-star general with more than three decades of service in the Army—soon realized he had the nearly insurmountable task of fighting an enemy (Al Qaeda) that was both a chameleon and formidable.
While the U.S. had the organization, technology, and strategic know-how to defeat any foe, the ability of the enemy to change tactics and move easily across and through difficult terrain—often blending into crowds or staying well-concealed in caves or mountains—resulted in McChrystal re-thinking the way the U.S. Joint Forces and its support staff operated.
The resulting change amounts to one of the greatest undertakings any organization has ever endeavored to accomplish, and it provides a veritable playbook for how change management can be done successfully by organizations of any size.
“We had to unlearn a great deal of what we thought we knew about how war—and the world—worked,” writes McChrystal, now retired, author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For A Complex World. “We had to tear down familiar organizational structures and rebuild them along completely different lines, swapping our sturdy architecture for organic fluidity, because it was the only way to confront a rising tide of complex threats.”
Though the theater might have been war, the language sounds a lot like that used for business, doesn’t it?
Formidable competition. Difficult terrain. Unforeseen threats. Organizational bureaucracy that won’t allow for easy change. A dynamic world theater (business climate) that necessitates change.
In today’s ever-changing business climate, the companies that embrace change will not only set themselves apart from the pack and ensure they have the best chance of survival, but they’re also likely to look on as much of the competition fights obsolescence.
There appears to be no singular, concrete source for the figure, but it dates back decades, and management thinkers have used it to describe the difficulty surrounding organizational change.
“Most traditional organizations have accepted, in theory at least, that they must either change or die,” wrote Nitin Nohria and Michael Beer in a 2010 piece that appeared in the Harvard Business Review titled “Cracking the Code of Change”:
“And even Internet companies such as eBay, Amazon.com, and America Online recognize that they need to manage the changes associated with rapid entrepreneurial growth. Despite some individual successes, however, change remains difficult to pull off, and few companies manage the process as well as they would like. Most of their initiatives—installing new technology, downsizing, restructuring, or trying to change corporate culture—have had low success rates. The brutal fact is that about 70 percent of all change initiatives fail.”
What makes change so necessary is what makes it so difficult.
When companies change, it’s not out of a desire to change. It’s almost always the result of competitive forces, a change in the landscape, an unusually harsh operating environment, or all three. To make matters worse, there is no definitive rulebook for change.
In this way, change management becomes a sort of pick-your-poison experiment, where winning and losing has as much to do with luck as it does skill.
In the ’70s and ’80s, when private equity firms bought and consolidated companies in preparation to sell the businesses to the highest bidder as quickly as possible, change management amounted to slashing under-performing divisions. This immediately lowered head count (the largest drag on revenue) and boosted profits. It also led to historic lows in morale and resulted in employees thinking more independently, refusing to see the companies they were employed by as deserving of their loyalty.
Unfortunately, even the businesses that refused to change experienced similar upheaval. Competitors passed them by (or gobbled them up), legacy technology or infrastructure precluded them from keeping up, or, as was often the case, their best talent defected for greener pastures.
If your business is to avoid this fate, you must be willing to welcome aggressive change instead of allowing unwanted change to gobble up your business.
The research on change management is cloudy at best. It seems that every consulting firm and business has a different view, theory, or philosophy. The best you can do is draw from some of the latest and most significant research on the topic of change within organizations.
Fortunately, there are two excellent works to draw from, both of which have won widespread acclaim for the impact they’ve had and continue to have in helping organizations and individuals work through change successfully. The first work is Team of Teams, mentioned earlier, which is an agglomeration of research on organizational change throughout time, drawing examples from business, historical events (including wars), and innovation across a wide swath of industries. The other work is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, written by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, brothers who are professors at Duke University and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, respectively, and who are widely considered experts on individual and organization change.
Synthesizing the information from both works yields five strategies that organizations can put to work immediately to be successful in managing change.
“Remember, you don’t need to develop the complete battle plan, you just need to take a substantial step toward your final destination,” they write.
For example, your team may want to lower the number of days it takes to find suitable candidates for C-Level positions. It’s best to break the process into small, concrete steps. The recruiting team looking to revamp its process for filling job roles for clients might operate accordingly:
– Broad outreach
– Get 10 strong candidates into the pipeline by week two
– Pare candidate list to five by week three
– Make offer to candidate by the end of week four
In large part, effective change is about having strong parameters by which to discern and measure progress. This way, it’s easy for the team to know what they’re being measured against, what’s expected of everyone individually, and by what time frame.
You’ll have to determine how much information you’re comfortable sharing with your team, but if it doesn’t make leadership uncomfortable, you’re likely not sharing enough.
Transparency makes it possible for the team to share information widely, have everyone work together on the same objectives, resist silos, and build trust. Without transparency no change is likely to be real or lasting.
But, as McChrystal makes clear, creating empowered and informed teams is one of the best ways to ensure change takes place and, most importantly, sticks. He calls his approach “Eyes on-Hands off,” whereby leaders and managers have measures in place to ensure they can monitor what individuals and teams are engaged in, but they intervene only as a last resort.
This has the effect of lessening bureaucracy, ensuring silos do not form, and promoting operational efficiency. His belief was, “If we could see it, we would not need to control it.”
A similar approach enacted by members of your leadership team is likely to earn praise and increase positive results.
He extends the metaphor of the garden to that of the team looking to adopt and accept change while growing aggressively: It’s imperative that leaders take on the mindset of the gardener. Foster an environment in which the team can grow into change.
If there is one common thread from all of the research available on change management, it is that a wholesale mindset shift is required, beginning at the top and dispersing out to all areas of the business.
The more free and informed the team players feel, the better able they are to accept that change is for the best, and the better able they are to do their jobs. And while there is no official playbook for managing this change, that’s a good thing, experts far and wide seem to think.
The only real, lasting change, they say, comes from within. Following exactly what another organization has done is inauthentic and fraught with risk. Give your team the best chance at successful change management: Begin from within.