Personal Finance

Effective change: Moving pebbles, not boulders



  • Only constant in life is change itself,” said Hericulitis 2,500 years ago.
  • Despite the many and constant suggestions to embrace change, in practice, in business and our personal lives, change can be upsetting, bringing with it a feeling of disquiet, uncertainty.

Only constant in life is change itself,” said Hericulitis 2,500 years ago. Despite the many and constant suggestions to embrace change, in practice, in business and our personal lives, change can be upsetting, bringing with it a feeling of disquiet, uncertainty.

Why can’t we just go back to the way things always were?

In practice, even with all the preaching, organisational change efforts generally fail to deliver, research by McKinsey suggests that only one of three have the desired impact. But there is a moving small pebble, rather than shifting large boulders approach that works.

In these uncertain times, there is always the need to balance the urgent and the important. Problem is that all the items on the to-do list seem urgent and important. Corona has been the great [invisible microbe] disruptor that no one would have thought possible.

Though in Kenya the fourth wave has dissipated, it’s hard to know what the aftershocks will be.

Based on an optimistic outlook, as staff get back to on-site work, perhaps in the hybrid way — still relying on all things digital — does the organisation just get back to Version 2.0 of ‘the way things were’?

Or, is now the time to seize the opportunity to focus, to make the company, more effective, more strategic? We are the choices we make. It’s smart to choose to challenge the status quo and initiate a real leverage point shift.

One of the first steps would be the diagnosis, including surveying levels of staff engagement and understand the issues people face that are upsetting.

The good news is that it’s likely that 80 percent of the points raised, can relatively easily be addressed at little or no cost.

Being in action, showing that movement is taking place, building up a sense of trust and rapport is the initial stage, that will build confidence, allowing the organisation to tackle more ambitious shifts later.

Not to fall victim to naïve optimism, even a moment’s thought, suggests transforming a company is difficult. Successful genuine change efforts will likely have five common characteristics:

1. Led by a driving force

Typically, in the beginning, the leadership of one person, who at times could be a demanding character — who walks the talk. While this is an unfashionable observation, it is true.

Can anyone name a corporate transformation that happened without one particular person being the spark that kick-started the engine of change?

2. Those who really run the company have an emotional commitment to the change.

Here we are talking about no more than five people, that included the staff change champions.

3. Change effort was helped along by a ‘cause’

A short catchy description, no more than five words, stating the desired challenging outcome. It might describe something missing in the company, or words used to describe a standard for judging behaviour against.

Examples might be, for instance: ‘ Putting people first’, ‘Simplify’ , ‘Smash red tape’. Come up with something creative, punchy, that gets the message across.

4. Change process has hard as well as soft indicators

Linked to new and more demanding, but simple, financial and operational targets, that managers create and buy into. Having clear quality service standards that staff create, and hold themselves accountable for, is a big step forward.

5. Shift was supported by at least one ‘best in class’ competency

One thing that the organisation is great at delivering on, which is given full rein. Ride the horse in the direction it’s going. Be careful to identify sufficient support within both top management and in the organisation as a whole.

If there is not a sufficient body of support, or one cannot be created quickly, do not start.

Several Kenyan firms tried a change effort that flopped, but were then worse off, than when they started.

While it’s important to create momentum using the small steps, moving pebbles approach, realise that genuine transformation takes time.

Working in sprints, focus on hard results, in terms of operational performance and financial returns that come through in the first 12 to 18 months.

Create ‘small wins’, even if this takes extraordinary effort. Once you have a few early tangible successes, trumpet them throughout the firm.

But be careful, be a touch (quiet-spoken, humble) Japanese, don’t make a big loud song and dance about the change process until you have those early successes. Keep a low profile until then. Better to be able to have hard evidence, that all staff can see and feel.

Realise that you are setting out to convert people to a new way of doing things, to take on a different mindset. For instance, the thinking shifts from What’s in it for me, to How can I help? Identify and nurture key supporters.

Choose potential supporters not just based on their enthusiasm for change, but based on their power of influence and competency. And, for the change process leader, will have to spend a significant chunk of time on the effort.

Lastly, ensure that there is (real-time) objective feedback on whether attitudes and behaviour are changing.

Risk is that management becomes lulled into a false sense of security, believing that things are changing, while at the grassroots, it’s ‘business as usual’ as before, with no more than lip service being paid to the changes.

While all this may seem daunting, it is very doable, one step at a time.