Lost in transformation – How to succeed in a hazy journey called change?

Ville-Martti Kokkonen Senior Business Designer, Solita

Published 07 Apr 2022

Reading time 10 min

“This rollout must succeed – Let’s start training and go live in a month. IT has done tremendous groundwork in the specification. All we have to do is implement it. The table is served.” Sound familiar? How does this situation make you feel? If your answer is stressed, you’re not alone.

While constant change becomes the new normal, it’s valuable to stop, even if for a few minutes, to assess how you will make it through the coming months and years. But wait – is the aim to survive, or to find ways to talk about success instead of survival?

Change is always a bit hazy and difficult – there’s no magic spell to transform that. It is, however, possible to outline and clarify the nature of a changing situation with a few key points of view, thus making it easier to manage – success in a changing situation is not up to random chance.

Change is hazy

To put it simply, change is the desired state, in which what you do tomorrow looks different from what you did yesterday. The time before that desired state is reached is, however, vague and the duration of which has a significant impact on the profitability of an investment, not to mention its impact on operational activities.

The greater the need for development, the more organisations spend in the vague in-between space of change. The previous challenge is always followed by the next one, and development happens on several fronts at once. Many of the older change management teachings seem like a response to a world in which change is a random state which is followed by normal, steady everyday life.

After a storm of change, the organisation is allowed a period of calm, which consumes less energy. The world of today is often shaken by various business megatrends, like digitalisation, the rise of service businesses, data-driven business, etc., which have altered the operating environment and posed a challenge to the random nature of change. This has given rise to a massive number of opportunities that you have to take in order to maintain the vitality of your business.

No matter what the trigger for change is, its challenge is nearly always the same: How do you transfer a new, technological capability efficiently to be a part of everyday work? And how is it done in a sustainable manner, allowing you to shift your attention to the next point of change?

Acceptance of haziness – key to success

“The new system is fantastic. Why would anyone want to keep using the old one, where you have to do x and y manually every time?” What does success in change actually mean? It’s an important question, considering that if your idea of success is wrong, it naturally results in various challenges in the change process itself. For a successful change, you have to understand the nature of change. This is what it is: Change is always imperfect and will never be anything but that, no matter how much you focus on smoothing the way towards change.

“If you can’t ignore it, make use of it!”

Imperfect – incomplete, lacking, inadequate. In the context of change, imperfection is an activity or a result that is different from the target or the plan to achieve it. But if imperfection is seen as an important and inseparable part of the change, you can change how you view it. It’s possible, and necessary, to make use of the imperfect nature of change in our journey towards it.

Finally, the success of a change investment is assessed on the basis of whether the end users are better capable of acting in a manner to achieve the set goals. Solely for this reason, you should start involving the users in a phase as early as possible. It’s not appropriate to try to smooth everything out for the users, as this leaves them without the opportunity to make observations and show their expertise – to be of use to the solution, and to be heard. Involvement is the key to transferring ownership.

The other side of the coin is leadership: Relinquishing control is scary, as it inevitably leads to momentary confusion. It’s rare for the solution to be clearly visible, and there’s nothing more likely to add to the change leadership’s uncertainty. You should, however, not see this confused stage as a weight you should strive to eliminate from the journey to change in every possible way. Try instead, to see it as an investment and an opportunity to involve and motivate the whole organisation to find a better, ultimate solution. Skip this investment, and you will pay a heavy price later in the implementation stage.

On paper, everything may sound clear but, in practice, it’s very different. Rushing to achieve the goals and running regular operations alongside the change process can complicate the equation in a significant way. Every signal from around you can tell you to cut corners and try to simplify the situation; success in change requires actions that enable confusion and learning. Amidst uncertainty, you should be allowed to be unnatural.

Change requires energy, which is limited. Change actions, communication, and dealing with discomfort all consume energy. At times, you can slow down its consumption, for example, by involving people in the work in a motivational manner. The amount of things you need to consider during change is “your assessment” to the power of two. As a rule, all actions to enable change are valuable, but because you only have so much energy, where you decide to use it becomes vital.

Three perspectives on change management

There’s a lot to say about change – different perspectives and foci. No matter what you choose, you will always leave something out. Make use of this three-point list, for instance.

1. Focus and expectation management

There are many roads to business development – small improvements and great changes. Some goals are given to you, and some you choose. You may notice that your sprint has started to tread water – that you have lost the focus towards development. Keeping your focus requires harsh and continuous prioritisation. Point-like development ideas should not override the overall picture. It also takes an extensive perception for one person to both observe the whole while focusing on the details when necessary.

A practical tip for observing your own activities is to make some time in your calendar, maybe on a Friday afternoon, to reflect and consider if you have made any progress towards your chosen goal that week. If not, why? What have I done to progress this? Is there anything I could do better next week? Record your thoughts in a note for the coming Monday. If it feels difficult to understand the whole, book some one-on-one reflection time with a colleague. Remember this! If it’s not in the calendar, usually it will not get done. It’s a simple and obvious solution – and based on repetition.

“The new system gives us more time to focus on the customer. Our goal is to be more customer-driven. Support development in accordance with a coaching leadership model.”

If there are too many stated goals, you diminish the benefits they may provide. That’s why the first step is to simply limit the number of changes. When you have a manageable amount of changes, your focus can go towards involvement. What’s usually most difficult is to describe what is expected to be done on the journey towards change. Too often, goals remain on the level of principles or are not described at all.

What, for instance, are practical customer-driven actions? What are the most important coaching leadership actions a supervisor can take? Use John F. Kennedy’s speech as a guiding principle: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. What is the concrete goal, and its schedule? Monitor the achievement of the goal and communicate actively. Managing the performance of an operation and managing change as a part of daily operations are two different skills.

2. The experience of benefits and how to measure it

Very often, the benefits derived from change are not realised until after some time has passed since the first efforts. If the benefits are difficult to demonstrate, busy everyday work takes precedence and development halts. A similar challenge emerges when different business units share a common goal and mutual success depends on activities in the other unit. How do you proceed with development work when the benefits are difficult to demonstrate?

If the benefits are difficult to demonstrate or it takes significantly long for them to be realised, focus your attention on managing the preceding activities. It’s difficult to find a fully complete causality, but often, it will be possible to demonstrate one and point towards the key activities that lead to the goal. In sales, for instance, these preceding indicators may be the number and value of the offers sent, and, for instance, the number of customer outreach calls. It’s always slightly challenging to interpret data, but one should not avoid data-based management. You can interpret the indicators to make something uncertain a little bit less uncertain.

Clarifying and actively monitoring the actions required (such as through a shared scoreboard) to achieve the goal is also the key to effectively leading concrete change actions. When success is tied to the preceding actions, it can happen even every day. Monitoring your successes makes it possible for you to give everyone the thanks they deserve.

3. Humanity

“Why didn’t anyone ask me about the features of the new system? Does anyone value my skills? This new system automated the part of the work process where I was one of the most skilled experts in the organisation. Everybody used to ask me for help – I was important and people valued me.”

In addition to logic, we humans are guided by a variety of human factors that are often left by the wayside. For instance, fears, being valued, and curiosity all influence our experience of change. Another, forgotten area is the importance of routine in all work and the feelings experienced with it. Routines are a source of safety. Evolution has taught us to stick to a routine when we get stressed. Unfortunately, our senses work in the same way as they did when it was still valuable to minimise the brain’s use of energy in favour of our muscles. Fight the threat, or flee it.

Today, faster breathing and improved circulation in the muscles is not particularly useful when the project plan is behind schedule. When observing the external factors to logical reasons, you should throw away all your assumptions and guesses. You can only learn to understand humanity by being interested in people and their needs. You can’t influence everything, and you shouldn’t try. Mutual planning is a practical manner to build mutual understanding that can support a successful journey towards change.

You should try to be as open as you can. Openness builds trust that helps people in their hazy journey towards change.

Capability for change can’t rest on only a few key players

“It’s fantastic that our organisation has volunteers to test the new system. There’s always a demand for good people. The same people have shown their worth in the past. Business is changing and it requires constantly learning new things”.

We often want to believe that an organisation’s capability for change is up to having a few committed key players in a project. Some people are good at managing the operational, day-to-day business, others at letting new winds blow. Some, very rare key players can do both. The capability for change should not be looked at based on the skills and attitudes of just a few people, but as a deeper thing about the organisation. But what is the nature of change in a world that demands constant change?

Right now, change is too often left up to the individual. We believe that it’s the individual’s responsibility to efficiently manage their work, to adapt to constant change and the resulting stress. This is, of course, a logical result, but one that’s challenged by the harsh truth: Studies show that 70% of change projects are unsuccessful.

At the same time, everyone’s mental resources have been put through the wringer, which shows as a sharp increase in mental health-related sick leave. Is it, then, not illogical to focus on who’s responsible for the change if a majority of the changes fail, leaving organisations and individuals to suffer? The current situation is only acceptable because change is hard and we have not yet realised the potential that many pioneers have already utilised effectively.

If there’s anything we have learned over the last few decades, it is that what a competitive advantage is for some today, will soon become a basic requirement for all. Our duty as the creators of change is to show the way towards more sustainable change and a better work life.

Just as hoodies and beanies don’t make an organisation’s culture, neither does an individual intranet post or an engagement workshop show the way to success among constant change. Success is far deeper and is realised through all our operations. The road is long, mistakes will happen, and things will not go as we expect them to. Creating a culture that allows mistakes does not take second place to allowing the change-makers to make mistakes as well.

Senior Business Designer Ville-Martti Kokkonen is a passionate enabler of change, whose goal is to help organisations create new business opportunities and find success in their strategic change projects. What’s integral is to identify what to focus on and how to bake change into daily routines, on the organisation, team, and individual level.

  1. Business
  2. Design