Achieving organisational change is difficult. Business-led change projects require behavioural change among people but regularly don’t involve HR. Conversely, HR led change projects often struggle to engage and involve the business. HR leaders tell us that it is difficult to create a united front when it comes to major change projects and they agree that delivering change is challenging in an often volatile and uncertain business environment.
There isn’t a perfect recipe for success – every change programme is different and prevailing company cultures and challenges make them unique. However, keeping a daily finger on the pulse of the programme, sponsoring the honest conversations and being prepared to change course and challenge timescales are all essential contributions of the HR leader.
Connor HR leaders forums help senior HR professionals to discuss and tackle the key issues they face. Our autumn event focused on how to bridge the gap between the business and HR to deliver successful change. Here are the biggest challenges our forum members face and their top tips for overcoming them.
What are the biggest challenges organisations face when planning to implement a change programme?
1. Organisational culture
One HR director revealed that his organisation’s biggest challenge was the internationalisation of their change programmes. Historically they’ve been very conservative due to their Japanese ownership and therefore have a culture based on seniority. Moreover, in Japan age remains the defining factor for promotion. He concluded: “The internationalisation of people projects, with a prevailing culture that is not in step with the rest of the world is a challenge.” Would a one-size-fits-all approach to change programmes work for your organisation or would you need to personalise elements of it to suit your culture?
“If there’s something that could be described as an HR initiative such as a significant turnover in the business or a change in policies, don’t just let your senior people say, ‘that’s for HR to sort.’ It’s a business issue to resolve these people matters.” Connor HR leaders forum member
The head of HR for a large phone company highlighted a common obstacle to change among forum members: “Our challenge is around how to adapt our people in line with advances in technology.” It’s a reality that technological advances impact organisation design and employee responsibilities. To what extent is technology shaping changes to your job descriptions and team structures?
One HR leader working in the property sector, agreed that technology not only affects job roles but also the workplace. She explained that when her company was planning their office fit out, they anticipated what both customers and employees would want from the space in ten years’ time. To keep up with these technological advances the organisation has set up an innovation team to integrate any new ideas in their office. “If technology and our working environment don’t support us to change we’re in trouble.”
3. A more customer-centric approach
The forum discussed a shift towards putting the customer at the heart of everything an organisation does. Traditionally only customer-facing roles have been concerned with metrics like customer satisfaction levels. But there is now a commercial demand for all employees to recognise they affect the customer in some way. The challenge is changing the mindsets of those who do not consider themselves to be responsible for customer satisfaction.
What is needed to deliver successful organisational change?
1. Buy in
One forum member claimed the most successful change programme they had seen was supported and led from the very top of the organisation. Another leader agreed, but shared that support from the leadership and informal leaders at all levels is essential. “It’s no good if just the CEO and the HR director are championing change. To prevent blockers, you need everyone on board.” All leaders, both senior and non-senior, need to adopt new behaviours and processes. They need to set an example for others and ‘champion’ change.
The forum agreed that communication is key. Transparency and honest conversations were recommended, which foster trust and enable ‘positive conflict’ between key stakeholders to build results. Having an open dialogue allows leaders to identify any barriers to change and remove them to make progress. This was confirmed by one HR leader who added: “An openness about being behind on your plan or your commercial target helps you to convey the right message and manage ambiguities.”
3. Shared ownership
A view that got heads nodding around the table at our forum was that all teams need to step up and take ownership for any change programme. “If there’s something that could be described as an HR initiative such as a significant turnover in the business or a change in policies, don’t just let your senior people say, ‘that’s for HR to sort.’ It’s a business issue to resolve these people matters.”
The forum discussed the importance of capacity planning to give people the time to drive change forward. One leader explained how organisations often layer work on top of people who already have a busy day. Do you have resilient employees who have the right mindset and the capacity to drive change? What is the real cost of change programmes if they are to be given the essential capacity needed to do a good job?
The forum concluded that delivering successful change is very complex. Key individuals who are responsible for leading and delivering change programmes also need to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity because what is important for the change on one day could be different the next. This means constant evaluation and re-evaluation and a focus on what’s needed each and every day.
What are the top tips for HR leaders to deliver successful change?
1. Brief your HR team before embarking on any change programme
One HR director advised that you should take time to explain the end goal of any change programme to your HR team. This will help to get their buy in and keep them engaged. Another leader added that you must treat the HR team like every other stakeholder and certainly shouldn’t just assume they are on board. Be as clear as you can about the behaviours that you want people to display and how the change programme will equip people to do things differently.
2. Be honest and up front with all your people about why the change is needed
Give everyone time to understand the business case for change and what it means for them individually. An HR director at the forum explained this in simple terms by emphasising that you must: “resolve the ‘how will this affect me’ issue.” There was agreement that it can be scary to have those difficult conversations, but it is vital to reassure employees and get their support.
3. Provide the opportunity for your people to raise any questions or concerns
Before starting any change programme, make sure everyone has the same goal in mind. Once the programme has started make it easy for people to connect, share their views and work together. An interesting view was that interruptions and objections are positive to change programme success in the long-term. Specific advice that was heard was to: “Value challenge even if it’s inconvenient for the change programme and timescales. Just because people have stopped talking about a particular issue doesn’t mean it no longer exists.”