Whether it’s biology or business, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, (Spencer, Darwin), has been proven time and time again. Those who adapt are most likely to survive and thrive. Yet despite the evidence, too few organisations are effectively adapting to the modern world as defined by continuous change. Economic tensions, environmental challenges, political fragmentation; this is the language of the modern economy and it’s causing great uncertainty and volatility around the world. Add in the third and fourth industrial revolutions and you soon realise that ‘fast’ has become the ‘new big’. And as technology and globalisation continue to advance, the speed of change can only increase.
On 14th March 2018, Purple Cubed launched important new qualitative research which showed that, whilst businesses understand the disruptors and obstacles they face, for many, the challenges lie with successfully converting this awareness into action. Many organisations also appear to lack the leadership decisiveness, capability, courage and capacity to change. Others crave innovation without the culture to support that. The research event brought together a panel of business leaders and experts to debate these and other findings.
Panel chair, David Woods-Hale, Head of Communications at the Association of MBAs kicked off by providing the context, suggesting that leaders and organisations are comfortable discussing the theory though not the practice of change management. The reality today is that businesses find themselves in a world defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This makes change inevitable and necessary although many are unable to implement it; primarily leaders are struggling to support it culturally.
So why is change so difficult to implement?
The panel questioned whether anxiety around making the wrong choices hindered the ability of leaders to make these decisions at all. “I think there is a fear of making decisions, and making the wrong ones…Our business (Polpo) had to go through an enormous amount of change in the nine months since I joined, otherwise we might not still be here today” Scott MacDonald, Managing Director of Polpo explained.
Khurshed Dehnugara, author and partner at Relume Ltd concurred, suggesting that there are inherently mixed messages within businesses. “The vast majority of people face the real challenges of two messages: “go out there and change the world. Transform everything”. That’s the explicit message. And the implicit message is – “do that without taking any risk”. By default then we don’t take risks. Innovation, creativity and energy then go down”
To overcome these barriers to change, Scott believes businesses need to ‘bring it back to the basics’ and really listen to their people to influence the specific change necessary to see positive business results. “Immersing myself in the business and listening and understanding the challenges and actually doing something about it. Bring everyone along the journey. A lot of that is around engagement and listening. It’s not about having a big list of changes. I made simple promises and kept them. All we did was listen and make the changes we heard”. As a result, within nine months Polpo Restaurants moved from a double-digital decline to profitability and growth and, by putting people first via a robust yet workable people strategy, saw a decrease in labour turnover from 80% to 30%.
The ability for businesses to be agile was frequently cited by our panellist, who felt that regardless of the size of the business, it was the mindset that enabled successful change. Anna Hamlin, HRD at Time Out felt this particularly relevant as Time Out adopt and adapt to the influence of digital publishing on their business model. “Our CEO says we are a ‘50-year-old start up’. We focus on being adaptable. The start-up feel is being ingrained into us”
The debate by our panel raised several challenges and opportunities for businesses wanting to affect change. For example:
- Trust and clarity are vital for affecting successful change: Trust your people and communicate through adult to adult relationships. Be clear about the change and why it’s necessary. Engage your people in the process of change. And be very clear about your purpose.
- Digitisation can enable HR to truly move from ‘transactional’ to transformational’, thereby allowing the function to support the overall business to enable and empower people and more easily adapt to change
- Culture reigns supreme. Leaders need to ensure their culture & values support and drive the movement of the business and their people towards its goals and vision. And that is perhaps where the biggest change needs to come.
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