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This article was first published in the February 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The list of trends affecting the workplace today keeps getting longer: multiple generations in one workforce, digital disruption of business models, big data, the outsourcing of activities ever further up the value chain. The list goes on. And if more evidence were needed, the leaders of 77% of organisations say that, over the next five years, a major objective will be to further integrate processes and technologies on a global scale. As ACCA’s recent research Professional accountants – the future shows, professional accountants can’t ignore these trends. In fact, they need to be leading the change in many of these areas. But is traditional change actually working?

Reputable consultancies such as McKinsey and PwC, and credible academics like John Kotter, have for some years been pointing to a 60% to 70% failure rate of organisational change projects. Even if those figures are exaggerated, as some argue, that still adds up to a lot of lost investment and a lot of wasted management time – time and resources that could have dropped to the bottom line, or been devoted to sales or new product development.

So what is going wrong with change and why isn’t it delivering the results that we expect? To get some clues about what could help increase the success rate of organisational change and transformation, we need to look at the very trends that are causing change to happen in the first place. 

The increasing number of millennials in the workplace have different expectations from previous generations; they demand that leaders at every level in the organisation are accountable and transparent, and they expect two-way communication, particularly during periods of change. That can be hard on leaders who fear that bad news will be demoralising and will send loyal employees running for the door. After all, any change – even that based around ‘good news’, such as market expansion or new strategic opportunities – carries within it the seeds of disruption. This could mean a different job, a different location, a new boss, new work processes or a shifting organisational culture.

Any type of change means a step into the unknown. It’s part of the human condition to want to be in control of one’s destiny. If the change journey is the organisational equivalent of putting a blindfold on people and asking them to ‘follow my leader’ across unsure and rugged terrain to an uncertain destination, it’s not going to be a good experience. 

The path of the leader is different. While it’s true that they may be as uncertain about parts of the journey as the people they lead, they are at least in relative control, so their emotional state will be different. This makes it challenging for them to appreciate just how powerless others can feel during change.

Two-way dialogue

The goal therefore is to help employees become part of the change and not just the passive recipients of it – finding genuine ways to make sure people feel connected to what’s going on, are clear about their role in the change process and able to contribute ideas. There is nothing more demotivating for employees than not being able to have input into a solution that they will have to implement, knowing that it won’t work. In short, having a two-way dialogue about the changes taking place will increase employee engagement and potentially speed up the implementation of the changes, improving their sustainability over time. Even when the context is confidential, any kind of involvement from employees will make a positive difference to the ‘return on investment’ of change.

Because of this, no matter what their technical expertise, leaders need to be great communicators, authentic and transparent in their messaging, and prepared to listen. It’s not enough simply to broadcast the change messages. Instead, they need to listen and respond to the fears and anxieties voiced by their people. And with the rise of technology generally in organisations, and social media specifically, leaders need to be active participants in online discussions in order to engage directly with people on the issues that matter.  

A head of finance cannot hide behind someone in the corporate communications team to respond on their behalf to the comments and questions on the intranet or the corporate social media platform. Staff will soon figure out that it’s not the finance head who’s actually posting, and as a result, trust in that leader will diminish – a trust that will be hard to win back. It’s not a lot better if that leader delegates their posts in a transparent way, because people expect their senior leaders to be visible and authentic across a range of media.

Leaders need to keep in touch with what people are thinking and feeling to make their communications meaningful and useful. The annual – or even quarterly – engagement survey just doesn’t deliver information quickly enough to leaders on specific change issues. At best it’s a month out of date once all the data has been analysed and interpreted. Leaders need to react quickly (in, dare we say, as real time as possible) when there is employee resistance; and their response needs to be targeted precisely to where it’s needed. Most organisations’ legacy systems for collecting feedback on how people are coping with change feel slow, and are slow. That’s if they have them at all.  

Insights from big data

There is surely a place for a different approach to finding out the views of employees on change topics. Software can help us reach into all parts of the organisation to gather opinion and – just as importantly – get the insights to leaders as quickly as possible. This ‘big data’ can help leaders and their change teams respond directly to the issues that matter most to employees. Only in this way can leaders show that they are accountable and willing to respond.

How can we challenge the way we ‘do’ change? We have to review IT systems and work processes to make sure they are fit for purpose, while building in reviews of the way we work to give people their voice to build trust through change. 

Countless studies have shown that if people don’t get the opportunity to say what they feel and think, in ways that are intuitive and accessible, the risk of resistance is increased. High levels of engagement and two-way communication – along with senior-level involvement and sponsorship – is key to successful change. If we’re serious about increasing the return on change investment, we need to start thinking and acting differently. We don’t need to create another change management methodology; we just need to make sure that there is more consistency across the organisation, including the use of templates and language, and that managers are trained in how to use these. So rather than trying to reinvent change management itself, let’s invest in how we listen better to employees, using technology that matches their expectations and enables us to respond quickly to overcome resistance in authentic and powerful ways.

Alison Young is a consultant at change management specialist EchoChanges