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Lasting impact or lasting dependency: what will be the legacy of your change support team?

By Guy Neale, PA organisational change expert

The idea that organisational change stands a greater chance of success if it is ‘owned by the business’ is well understood. However, all too often the tension between the focus on longer-term change and the urgency of the day job limits the development of truly effective change leaders. 

At PA, we are increasingly seeing clients plug this skill gap by hiring external support or establishing internal consulting teams to reinforce change leaders. But if these decisions are not carefully thought through and the right change partner selected, organisations can become over-reliant on them – with a well-meaning support team shouldering the load in the absence of clear direction. This may provide limited short-term benefit, but teams regularly fail to replicate early success.

A large public sector organisation we work with, for instance, was uncertain how to implement a series of major changes so hired a number of independent change contractors. This was only meant to be a short-term support but several years later, they remained at high cost. The disparate contractors had faced great difficulty in driving through the change as they did not have the full engagement of operational team leaders or an understanding of how their ways of working were reinforcing the problems they encountered. This left senior leadership frustrated at the slow pace of change.

To ensure lasting change, confident and capable business change leaders need to be developed, and the relationship with change support must be designed to ensure this happens.

Programme leadership must identify what is unique about the change journey for the leaders involved and allocate the right support

The challenge of change is highly contextual – what may seem simple in one organisation or department may be daunting in another. The change should therefore be understood at the local and organisational level.

Find out what it feels like to be asked to lead an area from where they are now to where they need to be. Is it a small, incremental step or truly transformational? Also, consider the ability of the local change leader to manage the change themselves. Have they had to fill this sort of role before? What happened then? Are they confident in their ability to replicate previous success? This is more than just resource management.

At a major UK government department we brought together a common method for assessing change difficulty across the portfolio with processes to bid for and allocate internal and external support. The challenge lay in balancing individual needs, scarce resource and business priorities.

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Lasting impact or lasting dependency

Agree the nature of the support relationship from the outset

We recognise four possible styles of relationship between business leads and change support, each suiting a particular type of change journey. Agreeing the nature of the relationship upfront ensures support can be prioritised where it will have the biggest impact, while developing the ability of the change lead to manage things for themselves.

  • Map and Compass. On simpler journeys, where change is incremental (for instance, a progressive roll-out of changes to reduce cost in a manufacturing process), but the business capability is low, support is kept close at hand, like a map and compass, to be called on for guidance at any time. While this approach is valuable for building confidence and skill, it is costly in time and effort. Effort must be focused on building capability as a priority – most likely through some form of formal training and development programme, raising awareness of change challenges and tools/methodologies.
  • Way-Marker. Once the lead’s confidence and capability has risen, the change support can take a step back. Like a way-marker, they offer periodic direction and support when the change lead reaches decision points. The best-suited development style here is a mentoring arrangement – the provision of clear guidance and advice as required. Change support also helps to identify appropriate opportunities to group incremental changes, managing in a more transformational way.
  • Mountain Leader. On complex change journeys, beyond the business lead’s comfort zone, change support offers significant value. Like a mountain leader they focus on reducing risk for the business lead, safely building experience by offering clear advice, support and direction, stepping in quickly if things could go wrong. The development here is a balance between coaching and mentoring.
  • Sherpa. True lasting impact is created when the sharing of experience and knowledge allows the support to shift from Mountain Leader to Sherpa. The business lead comes to the fore, confident in their ability to navigate the most challenging journey. Like a Sherpa, change support remains a trusted partner, sharing the burden during peaks in activity. There is still the opportunity to add additional value, perhaps by connecting leaders across and between organisations to share and reflect on their experiences.

Align incentives to reinforce the right behaviour

Standard incentives can often run counter to the change objectives organisations hope to achieve and without a shift in approach, progress could be short-lived.

Local change leads, traditionally rewarded for achieving their business-as-usual goals, may focus on the short term rather than on the development of change management capability. There must be equal incentivisation towards long-term goals, through objective-setting, praise, financial reward or the design of the role itself.  As highlighted by Dan Pink in his book ‘Drive’, programme leadership should emphasise the critical purpose of the change lead role; allow autonomy in how work is performed and, through the provision of change support, enable eventual mastery of the role. 

Change support, especially independent contractors, should also be incentivised correctly. If this is done solely by the achievement of programme objectives, there is a risk they may slip back into the habit of directly managing change on behalf of the business. Programme leadership should also assess the degree to which support teams coach, train or otherwise transfer their knowledge and skills enabling lasting impact. This objective could be written into contracts, tracked in programme reports or monitored at delivery gateways.

At one of our large, UK government engagements, we routinely build skills transference into our work, report on and are assessed against progress. We regularly find it to be amongst the most valued elements highlighted in client satisfaction surveys as it demonstrates our commitment to their people as well as to the task at hand.

What’s next?

From defence to health, and financial services to transport, we work with clients to establish networks of people who design and lead change programmes. You can read more about our work here.

Find out more about our work in Implementation.

Contact the implementation team

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