It’s often tempting to resort to meaningless platitudes and trendy buzzwords when drumming up support for change. That’s the way to play it safe, but it doesn’t really motivate people and ultimately doesn’t get the business anywhere. Analyst Mary Mesaglio wants executives to go further, challenging them to make sure the change is understandable, concrete, and practical. executive people talks to her about the factors for successful change.
Mary Mesaglio is a Distinguished VP Analyst in the Dig.ital Futures group, part of the Gartner CIO research team. Helping companies transform, innovate, and change is an important responsibility. Her most re.cent report is called The Three Magic Ingredients of Transforma.tion. She explains, ‘I didn’t call those ingredients magic because they are new or unknown, but because not many people know the best way to handle them, if at all.’ This sums her vision up, which is based on achieving practical results, not on sketching out impractical ideas. ‘If you use the three ingredients in the right way, you can speed up changes in your organization. That’s what CEOs want. I have never spoken to a CEO who has said “we're changing too fast, we need to slow down”. There is always pressure from all sides to make the changes as soon as possible. So, anything that helps change along and prevents people from getting fed up with change is more than welcome.’
The first factor that helps to ensure a smooth transformation is having a clear and fixed end goal. ‘If you’re going to change something, it’s essential for everyone in the organization to know what you are going to change and why. What they need to do must be classed as both easy and difficult. They must be able to answer a few important questions.’ ‘The first question is whether you can explain what needs to change and why within two minutes, without using business clichés or buzzwords that don’t really mean anything. Because if you can’t explain it well, employees will have a hard time understanding it and will be are more inclined to divert their attention to the more understandable day-to-day affairs. It must be clear and motivating for everyone, not just the people who paid for the transformation.’
‘The people on the shop floor who actually have other things to do must be motivated to go along with it, because they will need to put in additional effort. And finally, your colleagues would say the same thing if they had to explain the change. So, is the CFO saying the same thing as the CIO, even though they might be using a different frame of reference?’
The second factor is about formulating clear principles. ‘That might sound quite general at first, but I really mean specific principles that give direction to the important choices. It should be principles specific to your industry, nothing generic. More specifically, you will always have to choose between two requirements that aren’t very compatible. You might want to be both agile and secure, but you’ll struggle to reconcile them both.’ ‘So, then you need to work out which one takes priority and which one you need to compromise on. That’s what people on the shop floor need to know. It is easy to say that you want everything at the same time, but that isn’t realistic or feasible. You could, for example, say that you want to be both flexible and secure, but that security takes priority if it comes down to it. If you don’t lay down your principles beforehand, you’ll just keep having the same discussions and you won’t get anywhere.’ When laying down your principles, you need to be bold. ‘When setting and tracking progress on your principles, you need to adopt a position. And the principles need to be specific, not a general proposition like “we want to provide an excellent service to our customers”. Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? But if you have set specific principles, that helps to accelerate change in the long run, because you don’t need to keep going round in circles.’
But even if you have got these two ingredients sorted, there is no guarantee that the change will actually happen. ‘You can put everything into a nice PowerPoint presentation and say you’ll get round to it one day. But that’s like people who tell themselves “the diet starts tomorrow”. So, it’s important you take specific measures to achieve it. And that’s where culture hacking comes in.’ ‘Make sure that change is not pie in the sky. Build it into people’s day-to-day activities. Make it part of the culture, but not across the entire company all at once. Look at the individual components. Understand where the best place is for change and start there. As the name suggests, it is similar to hacking, because when you hack a system, you look for a point where you can break through. That’s where it all begins.’
Mesaglio admits that many of these tips might sound obvious, but in practice, many organizations and executives still need help. ‘People can be blinded by all the wonderful possibilities of technology. So, sometimes it’s difficult to think about how to design the future so that it still relates to everyday reality.’ There is also the fact that change initiatives are inherently complex. ‘It is all too easy to get bogged down in the complex details of just one aspect of that change. You can’t see the forest for the trees and you forget why you are actually doing something. And if you’re only doing something because you’ve been told to, then that’s what we call a zombie project.’ This comes back to Mesaglio’s three magic ingredients, which all share a clear purpose, so that everyone is involved and the change is actually achieved within a foreseeable period of time.