In the midst of a recent consulting engagement, I came across a 2008 survey of global executives by McKinsey on successful change efforts that provides more evidence that employee participation is critical in the process. Sounds like a truism, but then why are some senior executives still pushing back and using a top-down, just-do-what-you’re-told change strategy?

The article reaffirms some of the best practices that have garnered currency in recent years – including the need for a clear and compelling aspiration and a highly involved and visible CEO – but the results suggest active and sustained engagement of the whole organization is equally important to success. In another interesting twist, successful companies are more likely to communicate the need for change in a positive context, rather than focusing on just fixing problems. That’s particularly relevant these days, when many companies are changing out of necessity (to address financial problems) and could be tempted to use fear and imminent disaster as prime motivators.

Other interesting findings in the study:

  • The top two reasons for change are going from “good to great” performance and reducing costs
  • The most successful companies defined success through detailed financial and operational targets that represented a genuine stretch in performance (not just a small improvement)
  • The degree of visibility and involvement of senior leadership is often in direct correlation to the success of the change effort
  • Successful companies were more likely to engage staff early and foster large-scale collaboration and conversation
  • The goal of ensuring front-line employees feel ownership of the change process was an elusive but important ingredient, with successful companies using far more tactics to involve and inform their staff than others

None of these findings are really surprising, but they are still the exception rather than the rule (the McKinsey survey found only 1/3 of respondents were successful in their change efforts.) The most relevant lesson here may be the confirmation that employees that feel included in the change process – not just as recipients of information but perhaps even helping to define the vision and/or strategy – are much more likely to support the initiative.  In the age of social media and ubiquitous communication, is there any excuse for not fully engaging employees in any discussion on the fate of their organization?

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