Having a Hard Time Managing Change? You’re Not Alone

Sep 11, 2019

By Mark Vickers

Let's say you're driving a car. Make it a high-performance model. It's a splendid ride because you're in complete control of a powerful machine. Now let's say your brake lines have been cut. Not so much fun anymore. And then let's add another problem: The car is actually accelerating on its own. The corners are getting sharper, and you don't have time to envision what might be coming around the next one.

This sounds like a video game idea, but it's also a fairly good metaphor for how today's business world looks to many people. A new Institute for Corporate Productivity survey, conducted in partnership with HR.com, found a large majority (86%) of the 132 respondents saying that things are accelerating in the business world, with the pace of change growing faster than it was just five years ago. This is making it harder to see "down the road." Half of responding companies say change is becoming either increasingly difficult or downright impossible to predict.

It's little wonder that a majority of companies don't have a lot of confidence in their ability to manage change well. When asked about the extent to which their own change initiatives have been successful, seven out of 10 respondents said their organizations have been, at best, moderately successful. And when asked how well their organizations handle change initiatives in general, fewer than a third (30%) said they believe their organizations do it "pretty well" or "very well." In short, most respondents see their companies as mediocre or worse when it comes to managing change.

But just because most companies aren't very good at managing change doesn't mean they can avoid doing it. In fact, every responding company has undertaken at least one major change initiative over the last year. Twenty-two percent said their organizations have undertaken from two to four major change initiatives, and about a quarter (26%) reported that they have undertaken more than five major changes.

Such initiatives might become more common during recessions, with 39% saying such "economic downturns" motivate change to a high or very high extent in their organizations. But it's not as if organizations need to be spurred by declining economies. By its very nature, capitalism drives change. The Institute for Corporate Productivity survey shows that the single biggest driver of change in organizations is the need to increase revenue/sales, with 60% of respondents citing those factors to a high or very high extent. Cost-saving measures are also a major motivator of change, as is the need for growth.

Since capitalism has spread dramatically in recent decades with the entry of China, the former Soviet Union, and various other nations into the global market economy, these drivers of change will become more powerful in the future. In fact, other major research conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity clearly shows that high-performing organizations are more likely to thrive on change. Therefore, those organizations are largely responsible for the acceleration of change in today's world.

This dynamic feeds itself. Companies engage in new change initiatives because the pace of change keeps increasing, and the pace increases because all companies keep embarking on new initiatives. Since the bar keeps being raised, it's hard for most companies to feel that they're excellent at managing change. On the other hand, those that are exceptional at it get to help drive change rather than just react to it. This gives them a competitive advantage.

The responsibility for making sure any organization stays competitive falls largely on leadership, so it's no surprise that, when asked who is responsible for managing change initiatives, most respondents point toward the top of the organization. Two-thirds point to the CEO (26%), senior VPs (25%) or vice presidents (18%).

Given the important role of leaders, it makes sense that communication and training are the top strategies companies use to manage change. When asked what their organizations were doing or planning to do to improve their responses to change, 59% of respondents said the first strategy was to improve "communication of organizational values/mission/vision." It's clear that getting everyone on the same page is crucial for organizations considering changing direction.

Training to improve leaders' change management skills was cited by 46% of respondents, followed by the establishment/development of talent pools (42%), training to improve employee perception and handling of change (41%), and senior leadership's modeling of receptivity to change (40%).

When respondents were asked about the role that HR undertakes in regard to change initiatives, 62% said HR serves in an advisory capacity for leaders, and 67% said HR "redesign[s] people-related programs or systems to support change (such as rewards programs, compensation programs, job descriptions, HRIS, etc.)." About half (53%) said HR "design[s] and deliver[s] training needed to support the changes."

Another interesting survey finding is that a majority (57%) of respondents said that HR is involved during the planning process for change initiatives, but even more (63%) said HR is involved during the implementation of the change. Being involved during the planning process, of course, tends to increase the chances of success in the implementation phase, so it's probably good news that HR is getting a seat at the planning table. This means workforce-related policies will be more proactive than reactive, providing HR with a more predictable road into the future.

About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers is an associate with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.