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Four Keys to Managing the Hard Side of Change

For two decades now, executives in charge of organizational change have heard the same message from management experts: To achieve success, focus on the soft side of change – culture, leadership, and motivation. But is this advice correct? In a recent article, three experts from the Boston Consulting Group acknowledge the merits of this approach. But they also claim that it pushes the leadership pendulum too far in one direction and, by emphasizing intangibles, deprives leaders of reliable measures to gauge the success of their change efforts.

Effective change leadership, they say, requires a balanced approach that also emphasizes the not-so-fashionable hard aspects of change. That doesn’t mean you should ignore the soft elements; that would be a grave mistake. “However, if companies don’t pay attention to the hard issues first,” they say, “transformation programs will break down before the soft elements come into play.”

Hard-Change Success Factors

Based on their study of large-scale transformation in 225 companies, the experts identified four key factors to managing the hard side of change. By focusing on them rigorously, they say, you can develop a quantitative framework to determine your potential for success and when you may need to revise your change strategy.

  • Project duration. The common assumption that long change projects are more likely to falter than shorter ones is inaccurate, claim these experts. Their research shows, in fact, that long projects that are reviewed frequently are less likely to lose momentum than short change projects without regular reviews. The time between reviews, therefore, is a better predictor of success than project duration.

    Complex projects should be reviewed every two weeks to make sure they’re on track, say these experts. More familiar or straightforward projects can be assessed every six to eight weeks. “In our experience, the probability that change initiatives will run into trouble rises exponentially when the time between reviews exceeds eight weeks.” To gauge progress, executive reviews should focus not on day-to-day activities but, rather, on important milestones that will have a significant impact on the success of the project. “When a milestone looks as though it won’t be reached on time, the project team must try to understand why, take corrective actions, and learn from the experience to prevent problems from recurring.”
  • Performance integrity. Research shows a direct correlation between the success of change efforts and the quality and cohesiveness of project teams. For this reason, executives in charge of change should personally interview candidates (based on recommendations from key colleagues) so they can construct teams with the right portfolio of skills, knowledge, and social networks. Once the project gets under way, team cohesion should be measured regularly by administering confidential surveys to solicit members’ opinions.

    Executives should be especially selective when choosing team leaders, say these experts. Don’t focus just on managers who are competent and well liked (or who simply volunteer). Instead, look for leaders with problem-solving skills, organizational savvy, and a tolerance for ambiguity. One company studied, for example, used six criteria to evaluate the caliber of potential team members and rejected one-third of all candidates before finalizing its teams.
  • Commitment to change. For change to take root, executives must win the backing of influential managers and constantly assess levels of enthusiasm among the people who must deal with the new systems or ways of working. Research shows, however, that many executives underestimate their power to build support for change, and they communicate too late or inconsistently. A good rule of thumb: “When you feel that you are talking up a change initiative at least three times more than you need to, your managers will feel that you are backing the transformation.”

    Even simple efforts to reach out can turn employees into champions of change, claim these experts. Example: A major US energy producer was having problems gaining support from mid-level managers for a productivity improvement program. In a last-ditch effort, executives conducted one-on-one meetings to discuss the changes with managers and why the company might not survive without them. These frank discussions prompted project teams to demonstrate a series of quick wins, which gave the initiative a new lease on life.
  • Work time and effort. If the changes you’re making require too much time and effort from staffers beyond their existing responsibilities, they’re likely to resist. Ideally, no one’s work load should increase more than 10 percent. If you go beyond that, these experts say, employee morale is likely to suffer and your resources may become overstretched, compromising both the change effort and normal operations.

    To minimize these dangers, executives may have to take away some of the work of employees who will play key roles in the transformation. One way is to rid them of discretionary or nonessential responsibilities. Another way is to hire temporary workers to carry out routine activities until the change is complete. If the pressures of change are still too great, scale back your initiative. At one company studied, for example, the executive committee delayed 120 out of 250 subprojects, so that line managers could focus on high-priority changes.

Hard-Change Success Factors

When using measures like these, it’s important to remember that scores for the same project may vary widely among executives. But these differences are important in terms of the dialogue that it triggers, say these experts. “It provokes participants and engages them in debate over questions like ‘Why do we see the project in these different ways?’ and ‘What can we agree to do to ensure that the project will succeed?’” By using a quantitative framework for managing the hard side of change, these experts conclude, companies can create a common language and force the right discussions.

For more information, see “The Hard Side of Change Management” in Harvard Business Review, October 2005. To order a reprint, call 617-783-7500 or send an email to custserv@hbp.harvard.edu.

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