If the secret of change is to focus energy on not fighting the old but building on the new, what is it that enables some organisations to accelerate where others falter?

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been impacted by the scale, rate, and intensity of change that has been underway since the start of the COVID pandemic, yet what is striking is that some organisations have fared far better than others and are poised to accelerate out of the economic challenges it’s brought with it.

One reason is perhaps that some organisations were already well positioned to adapt, with strategies in place that could be recalibrated for a flexible workforce, bringing forward or adapting new projects, and enabling their teams to focus on delivery with clear strategic focus.

But perhaps one of the critical ingredients is a cultural attitude toward change.

Rather than fight the change, work with it

It was Socrates that said that the secret of change is to focus energy not on fighting the old but building the new. As the pandemic continues to create ripples across how, where and when we work, the organisations that were able to support and leverage their workforces to adapt have fared the best.

After the Global Financial Crisis, many organisations started to look at how to recession-proof their businesses. At the time, little research had been done on strategies that helped businesses to survive a recession, but a 2010 article Roaring out of Recession (Guilati, Nohira, Washington) explored what had happened in previous recessions to understand whether there any critical learnings that could help organisations to not only survive but accelerate as economies started to recover.

The year-long project broke down the period before, during, and after three global recessions to identify key learnings from 4,700 US companies to study how strategy shifts impacted the performance of the organisation.

The findings were startling: 17% of companies didn’t survive, 80% had not regained their pre-recession growth rates three years after a recession, and just 9% had flourished after a slowdown than they had before it.

For those that did succeed, there were broadly four classifications that supported post-recession growth:

  • Prevention-focused companies, which make primarily defensive moves and are more concerned than their rivals with avoiding losses and minimizing downside risks.
  • Promotion-focused companies, which invest more in offensive moves that provide upside benefits than their peers do.
  • Pragmatic companies, which combine defensive and offensive moves.
  • Progressive companies, which deploy the optimal combination of defence and offense.

According to the study, the companies most likely to succeed are pragmatic about change: they recognise that cuts are likely to occur, that investment will be essential for growth, and that they must manage both to emerge ready for growth. The research also showed that the companies that tended to accelerate had progressive strategies and being selective in defensive moves such as cost-cutting, for example, the goal of cost-cutting focuses on operational efficiency with selective headcount reduction rather than slashing workforces.

However, it’s in the offensive moves that real progress is made: developing new business opportunities by investing in R&D and marketing, asset investment, and examining every aspect of the business model to reduce their operating costs on a permanent basis.

The reality of these strategies, however, is that they introduce substantial change at a time when many people within an organisation are feeling major levels of uncertainty and stress – even as recovery seems to be on the horizon.

What is telling is that these organisations embraced change as a necessity, utilising their freed-up resources to finance the change required to achieve better efficiencies. But they also stayed close to their customer needs and their employees to understand and communicate how change was impacting their business.

While the words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal’ are now part of the COVID lexicon, Australia’s emergence from the GFC had a long tail of slower growth for some organisations, yet for others that had embraced these types of progressive strategies, the lessons learned have set them up well to tackle the types of challenges that COVID delivered.

And as we’ve learned from our clients, those that have developed effective change mitigation and communications strategies are well and truly ahead of the rest.

Dedicating resources to change management supports the behavioural change needed to deliver outcomes

We have seen over many years that the organisations who understand how to effectively communicate change to their people typically deliver stronger benefits from their major projects, have higher levels of engagement from their people and greater strategic impacts across the organisation as a whole.

Applying discipline around the change effort is as important as the project effort – the project discipline is something many of us are very familiar with. Delivering sustainable change requires a lot of problem-solving tools and techniques that can be drawn from the experience of a diverse project team, but they need to be tempered by the conditions that the team — and the business — are working in.

The key ingredient is communication and making the change relatable, particularly in how it will benefit the people as much as the business. Different people will, of course,  respond differently to stimuli and feedback. This is where it is vital to practice some degree of empathy and supporting the team as to how change will impact them.

In the latest episode of Quay Conversations long-time Quay project specialist Marcel Thompson explored the importance of understanding the alchemy of teams and projects, saying that delivering change via projects requires an understanding of how the elements combine (people, process, strategy, and communications) and how those elements will change under certain conditions.

Chemistry and alchemy ultimately really are about the science of change.  You’ll have something in one state, and under certain conditions, it will change.  You can have something which combines with something else, and there will be a reaction which creates a change. You can force people to change or you can motivate people to change.

There are a series of common factors that contribute to great team alchemy. You’ll always get SMEs who understand the what, there’s always people who understand the how, and then there has to be an understanding across all about the why.

That in itself helps determine the kind of characters you need in a project team because they need to be able to buy into the idea at the project level and it’s beyond turning up to do your job.

It needs to be packaged in a way that motivates people to understand why they are doing it and everyone gets to that point differently because people will interpret the same situation very differently.

You need a common anchor that people can focus on.’

For more from this episode, listen here.

Communicating change and making it relatable is the secret sauce

The key ingredient to successful project delivery and change is communication and making the change relatable, particularly how it will benefit the people as much as the business.

Different people will respond differently to stimuli and feedback. This is where it is vital to practice some degree of empathy and supporting the team as to how change will impact them but having clear boundaries around the objectives of the project so that it remains in focus.

‘Orchestrating a group of people into a coherent team when they bring a lot of different skills to the project takes time, communication, style, and getting them excited about why they’re doing it,’ says Thompson.

‘People confronted with change are more likely to resist it until they understand it. Underersourcing the change management does have the potential to create greater risk if people don’t understand the change impacts or don’t trust the organisation will deliver beneficial change.’

Having a dedicated change manager onboard is crucial because there will be behavioural change that needs to take place.

Project management and change management need to be co-pilots

Project management and change management are like two people occupying the front seat of a car: they need to work in tandem. If an organisation is trying to bring about change to the benefit of the business, then its people to be aware of the change and the leadership needs to help them to buy into the desire for change. That means ensuring that they have the knowledge of what it’s going to mean for them, and how best to bring those together in a way that they are onboard.

As Marcel says:

‘I think that if you can clearly articulate what you’re after, in a language people can understand and identify with, then craft the message to that audience it goes a long way to helping make clear what the desired outcome is and sending clear guidelines around behaviour and communication. Then show up to reinforce, reiterate, encourage, and motivate people in a way that builds trust and dialogue around change.’

As project specialists, we work with organisations to deliver successful change. Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...