Organizations succeed when leaders recognize the need to change and are able to implement changes effectively.

Unfortunately, knowing that change is needed — even picking the right changes — does not guarantee success in making it happen.

Failing at change is all too common. Change efforts fail 50-70% of the time. This is unacceptable. We need to get better at change — and get better quickly.

But how?

Most of the advice about leading change and the models we have are based on dealing with a single change effort or change initiative. But in reality, change is ongoing and simultaneous. A single change cannot be teased out or isolated from everything else in the organization, or divorced from other changes taking place at the same time. We are surrounded by churn.

Consider the acquisition of one organization by another. On the surface, it sounds like a single change that must be managed.

In reality, many changes must take place for the acquisition to be integrated successfully. Key decisions about talent in each organization need to be made and the fallout from each decision managed. IT systems and other processes need to be aligned, necessitating changes in technology and retraining for employees. Boards need to be merged, customer relationships transitioned, space reconfigured, brands rationalized, cultures melded, strategies reconciled, marketing campaigns redesigned.

At the same time, competitors are responding with new moves; new products or services are hitting the market; consumer tastes are evolving; regulations are being imposed; key people are retiring; lean thinking is being implemented; and new strategies are being formulated.

Change is multifaceted, complex, and continuous. What seems to be a single change is anything but — it is a complex change that competes for time, attention, and resources with other changes that are already underway, and those changes yet to be conceived.

As a leader, you know this reality. Every day, you face complex, continuous change, which is defined, as a series of overlapping, never-ending, planned, and unplanned changes that are interdependent, difficult to execute, and either cannot — or should not — be ignored.

Leading complex, continuous change is doable, but it takes a level of rigor you may not have applied before.

Remember the 4 Ds:

To succeed at managing complex, continuous change, remember Discovering, Deciding, Doing, and Discerning, and the mindsets accompanying each:

Infographic: 4 Phases of Managing Continuous Change

Discovering: stepping back, scanning, visioning

While change is a necessity, not all change is a necessity right now. The process of Discovering allows you to identify viable opportunities for change. Later, having identified those opportunities, decisions can be made about which ones to pursue. The goal is to identify the most important opportunities rather than create an exhaustive list. Discovering requires:

  • stepping back: calling a time-out to do a thorough appraisal of possibilities
  • scanning: collecting valid information about the current state of affairs
  • visioning: creating a clear picture of the desired future

Deciding: diagnosing, focusing and prioritizing, scoping and designing

Your organization has a limit to how much change it can handle. Until you can build greater change capacity, you must try to avoid overloading the system with change. Deciding actions determine what must change in the organization to implement the vision. Diagnosing the fit between the current state and the desired state helps you to understand what is important to address. The work of focusing and prioritizing forces us to step away from the buffet of possible change activities to make certain that the activities we choose will address the most important issues. Finally, scoping and designing provides the roadmap for the change: who, when, where, and how.

Doing: communicating, engaging, piloting, and implementing

Whatever your organization’s current pace of change, it is probably too slow. Increasing the clock speed of change from start to finish requires a shift in how you think about change. In complex, continuous change, executing is always happening. Helping people understand what to pay attention to and why, at any given moment, requires constant communication. Tapping the collective intelligence of the organization helps the overall change process be faster and more effective — and requires engagement. Piloting using rapid prototyping saves enormous time and energy so that the careful work that leads to successful implementation can take place.

Discerning: aligning and integrating, assessing, adjusting

In single-change efforts, learning is a low priority because the change may not be repeated. In complex, continuous change, learning is a wise investment. To learn, we must discern what is working as intended and what is not. Aligning and integrating change efforts requires real-time learning. Assessing what is being accomplished compared with what was expected requires reflection. Finally, the whole point of learning is to adjust actions going forward so that more can be accomplished with less.

This whitepaper introduces key ideas for leading complex, continuous change, based on the experiences of leaders across a wide range of industries and geographies. It is drawn from the book Leading Continuous Change: Navigating Churn in the Real World.

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