How can we make change more successful?

Lessons learned from the 8th EIASM Colloquium on Organisational Change & Development at our Ghent Campus

At Vlerick, we believe that change equals opportunity. But at the same time, we realise that this opportunity is ever more at risk. In overall business life, up to 70% of all change management processes tend to fail, and hardly any investments are being made to make change efforts more successful. At the recent Vlerick & EIASM “Challenging Change” conference, 45 experts discussed what drives change and what underlies its failure. 

1. The difference between the idea of a ‘true’ organisation and a messy reality
Renowned keynote speaker Prof. Nils Brunsson made this very clear. In our imagination, a good or a ‘true’ organisation contains very clear features – which are fully rational, with a clear hierarchy and clear identities and boundaries.

However, what we find in practice looks quite different. The ‘real’ organisations are messy, irrational, blurred and with multiple, conflicting identities. This discrepancy is a core driver of change, since facing a messy reality makes it very simple to initiate change. On the other hand, it’s also a clear driver to failure, since organisations will never meet these ‘true’ features in a pure form. They’ll always be ‘messy’, which eventually drives change into failure, which then becomes the motivation for the next change.

2. The self-enforcing power of reforms

If we want to change an organisation, our textbooks teach us that these change projects must be simple, future-oriented and – most of all – one-sided. If a company is too slow and lacks innovation, the goal will be decentralisation. However, while pursuing the path of decentralisation, it becomes clear that this path leads to redundancies, a lack of focus and, eventually, an overall lack of efficiency.

So, the outcome of a decentralisation effort will be: a centralisation effort! Although change efforts focus on one single (and simplified) problem, the true problems in organisations usually contain two or more sides, sending organisations into an oscillating mode. Once a change effort is launched, the motivation for a counter effort soon appears.

3. An old-fashioned mindset

Interestingly, everything around us has changed. Markets, attitudes, possibilities. But, as Vlerick Professor Ralf Wetzel points out, one thing has – astonishingly – remained rather stable: the textbook-knowledge on how to do change. Despite increasingly multi-facetted experience in how to describe and run organisations, the pragmatic change management approaches still breathe the air of their inauguration some 80 years ago. Lewin’s three-step paradigm – unfreeze-move-refreeze – is far removed from today’s highly fluid and vibrant organisations – which, in many cases, are already in a permanent state of ‘unfreezing’.

So, applying classic approaches can drive organisations into difficult situations, especially when managers want to ‘unfreeze’. This can ‘overkill’ an organisation, just like giving coffee to an ADHD patient. Moreover, in many change-experienced companies, it’s very well-known on the lower floors that ‘creating a burning platform’ is something that comes and goes and most often only brings confusion. In such companies, these approaches don’t work anymore. But we have no alternatives yet. Vlerick is about to open a discussion on modern organisation theory and what it can tell us about improving change management – and the conference was a first important step in that direction.

4. Three steps towards less and better change: Understand, avoid and care

This highly problematic situation is not completely hopeless. Prof. Ralf Wetzel recommends three steps:

  • First: understand the triggers of change in your company. In our volatile world, not only formal problems or cultural troubles trigger change. External stakeholder observations make management introduce change, even if there is no clear problem inside the organisation. Therefore, it’s important to know where the trigger for change is coming from in order to apply an appropriate strategy for making the change.
  • Second: avoid unnecessary change. Since it is always easy to start change, we see companies start a lot of change efforts that are either uncoordinated, or in conflict with each other, or just unnecessary. As conference participants strongly maintained in a discussion, part of the modern heroism of managers will be to be brave enough to stop change whenever it’s unnecessary.
  • Third: care for both individuals and organisations. Which means being sensitive to change fatigue and almost ‘bulimic’ organisational structures. We know both: individual burn-out as a result of change stress, as well as organisational burn-out in the case of repeatedly ‘leanized’ companies. And we need to pay closer attention to those who invest a lot in change efforts (and who need to decouple from them once in a while), just as we need to establish a rhythm of change in organisations to give people a chance to rest and recover.

5. The future of change: Stability and the power of listening

The final innovative ‘future research café’ run by Vlerick Professor Smaranda Boros, and the reflection of mystic medieval monks brought to the group by composer Antoine Beuger, released astonishing insights and expectations. By the year 2030, according to the speculations, the dominant drive will be less about change and more about how to re-establish locations for stability and contemplation. The provision of ‘time-gaps’ for rest and inner contemplation additional to an intensive search to be fundamentally open to others and truly aware of listening to each other will be far more important by then. 17 years from now, people will shake their heads in disbelief that we, in 2013, did not realise how fundamental stability and quietness are, instead of constant hassle and non-stop talk. Let’s hope we discover this better truth quickly.

Overall, the conference benefited tremendously from the strong openness, attention, interest, expertise and knowledge of all of the participants. The mix of insightful academic speeches and presentations, stimulating interactive workshops and reflections let a powerful atmosphere of inspiration and challenge emerge that led participants to cross boundaries of current change management thinking. And in this sense, Vlerick practiced what it preaches in its motto and created conditions for a thought-provoking, internationally collaborative process to emerge’, challenging boundaries of current management thinking.

Do you want to learn to steer change projects in the right direction? In our three-day Change Fundamentals programme, you’ll learn tools and techniques to motivate your teams to embrace change 


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