Most Organisational Change fails to get over the line

Most Organisational Change fails to get over the line

Most Organisational Change fails to get over the line

That’s because the Last Five Yards require a completely different approach to the rest of the project.

Jonathan Yudelowitz 

Here’s the scenario. A massive organisation faces a massive challenge. They need to restructure radically. How they operated in the past – successfully – is not how they will be able to operate in the future. They face major changes to their operating model, not just the implementation of new systems.

They call in the experts in organisational strategy and design. The team that arrives is smart. They understand the challenges at hand. They bring with them exciting, stimulating thinking. They share global best practice and a wealth of experience. They do an excellent job. And they are handsomely rewarded.

And yet – and here is the reason I write this – many of these large-scale, big-budget projects fail.

Why? The reason is this: they fall at the last hurdle. These well-intentioned consultants don’t understand that the Last Five Yards require a different approach to the rest of a project.

Moving into the Perfect House.

Allow me to build on an analogy I have used previously – Which room are you in? ( A large family has decided to move home. In fact, they have taken the opportunity to have the perfect house designed and built for them. It is going to be just right. They have contracted only the most reputable architects and structural engineers. The resulting design is not only innovative and exciting – it has also been extended, revamped and revised a number of times. And now the family cannot wait to move in. Every detail has been taken care of. Everything is in its right place.

What could possibly go wrong?

If their home turns out to be badly designed, the family will become unhappy. It may even cause their relationships to become dysfunctional. But the converse isn’t necessarily true: a beautifully designed home won’t necessarily become a happy and inspiring place to live. That’s because something crucial has gone missing from the process – and no one realises what it is.

The Last Five Yards.

When a family arrives at their new house for the first time, after months of imagining and planning and specifying, their new reality won’t be exactly what they were expecting. It cannot possibly be. They will see and experience things they couldn’t possibly have imagined when the design was on paper.

But if they, of their own accord, cross the Last Five Yards they will make the house their own. They will play their own, crucial role in breathing life into the sitting room, the dining room, the kitchen and the bedrooms.

The Last Five Yards of the Perfect House are like the Last Five Yards of Organisational Change.

No engineer or architect knows how a family will live in the house they have designed. It is not their business. They make assumptions based on analysis and best practice.

The same applies to Organisational Change. Best practice is a generalised concept and does not cater for the essentially un-analysable quirks, hopes, dreams, preferences and alliances according to which people operate in organisations. It’s simply not feasible to give everyone what they want. This, of course, will conflict with what they, their colleagues and the organisation need – and it requires a completely different mindset to the design and strategy that has gone before.

When people encounter their new organisational strategy and design for the first time, what are their reactions? How do they feel? At this crucial time, it is they who must be listened to, not the strategists and designers.

The Last Five Yards are crucial. They well help people make sense of things; understand what is required of them in the new design; negotiate their foibles with those of their colleagues; and work together in a new way.

The point of organisational change is to get more out of people and to unlock their discretionary efforts and repurpose their skills, knowledge and attitude according to a new mandate. This is regardless of whether your new strategy is to cut costs, grow the business or redirect people and other resources. You must know that when you’re not watching your people and not measuring their performance, they are nevertheless doing the new, right thing.

Accountability is everything. You’ve restructured for a reason. Now your people have huge tasks to get done.

All your plans, strategies and operating models will have an imperfect “what if?” quality to them. The best strategists and designers in the world can only work with assumptions about how your people will occupy their roles and how they will or won’t collaborate. You will only find out how things work when you move in.

When you get to the Last Five Yards, slow things down.

When an organisation is restructured, you remove part of people’s identity: their place, their status, where they belong. Their work identities are as important to them as their individual identities, so when they come back to work for the first time, they need to re-find each other. If part of everyone no longer exists, they need to get to know each other. Who are you? Where do I stand with you? How do I work with you?

The process demands attention to the emotional-political realities; what people need and feel (which has to do with their past and cannot be engineered); how their interests and needs come together in the here and now; how they act out their insecurities versus how they strive to get over themselves and step up to the mark set by their new roles. The ‘lived’ human and social realities of your organisation are political and emotional.

The strategists and designers will have done their best to include people but attempting to design around each and every individual’s needs and wants will mean that you are designing for nobody in particular, with the inevitable consequence that your design will become confusing and incoherent.

Structure must follow strategy. The Last Five Yards is about mitigating this: it is about enabling and encouraging people to make the design their own: to learn to work together in it: to breathe life into it.

Slow things down. Allow a systematic way for people to have decent and effective conversations. They must talk with each other. They must listen to each other. They must be listened to. Allow them to be authentic and to talk with integrity.

This is how people settle in.

After the trauma of a restructure, it is important for people to reclaim their agency. They must express their anxieties and disappointments. Equally, they must voice their demands and expectations. What do they want from their room in the new house? How do they want it to look? Who will they invite and entertain? And now that they have moved in, what do you want from them? What do they want from you? There is always a voice, somewhere, that needs to speak out and say something vital to the success of your entire undertaking.

It is not magic, but the experts in Organisational Strategy don’t realise these Five Yards are crucial to getting their project over the finish line.