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A View From INSEAD

Leading Successful Change

Professor Vibha Gaba

Programme Director of the Leading Successful Change programme

July 2012

In today’s business environment, it really is true that the only constant is change. Whether you’re weathering the storms of the west or riding the boom of the BRIC, you simply can’t afford to stop moving. As a leading global business school, INSEAD is at the forefront or the latest thinking on change management. And one of its many experts is Professor Vibha Gaba, who directs the Leading Successful Change programme. Here she gives her views…

How has change changed, as it were, over the last decade or so?

In my opinion the challenges of change management are no different today than they ever were. But their frequency and speed are. The external environment is moving so rapidly – new technology, new international competition, economics, politics – that change needs to be managed much more often and rapidly. According to the research, the companies that systematically develop change-related capabilities are the ones that do best. But the hurdles in the way of successful change remain constant.

So what are the hurdles?

They fall into three categories. First, fairly obviously, there’s the failure to see the need for change. Second, there are companies that see the need yet fail to do anything about it. Take, Nokia, for example. The warning signs were there for a long, long time. Third – and perhaps most challenging – many organisations just give up in the middle of their change management initiatives! They’re not patient enough to wait for the effects, which inevitably take a while to come through. Every company has a history of abandoned change initiatives, which means that any new ones come with a lot of baggage… and resistance.

How do you overcome that resistance?

First you have to do a very systematic analysis of the people concerned. How exactly are they affected? What is their level of resistance? Then you have to figure out who in the organisation can help you. All the time, you have to check your assumptions. Managers often assume that employees are resisting change because they don’t have the right incentives. But they may just be worried that they don’t have the capabilities. People are much more realistic and reasonable than we give them credit for.

Are people issues the main problem then?

Usually, people are the hurdle, not processes and systems. I can give you all the frameworks and tools you need to think about change systematically, but you’ll need to use your judgement about people too. The key is communication. And even then, it’s not just about framing your message the right way. It’s about listening.

Where else do leaders tend to go wrong?

One recurring problem is that leaders think they have to take a top-down approach to change. Not only do they totally ignore the people at the bottom, they completely fail to realise that they’re ignoring the people at the bottom! That’s one of the main things that participants get from the Leading Successful Change programme. They get a lot of information about their own biases.

So it’s not just a technical programme?

Absolutely. We go into structures and processes, of course, but we spend a lot of time on behavioural change, which is the biggest challenge. Time and again, research has shown this. Ultimately change is a leadership skill. It’s about aligning people behind you and getting them to do things differently.

But how can you teach people to lead – and lead change specifically?

One method we use is the ChangePro simulation – an experiential, interactive, computer-based exercise. We put participants into groups and ask them to implement six months’ worth of change in two and a half hours. It’s risk-free but creates a nice dynamic… and some realistic stress! Afterwards, we talk not only about the results but the experience.

Would you call it a hands-on programme?

Yes, experiential learning was one of our main objectives when we created Leading Successful Change. In fact, we only take participants who are actively involved in change initiatives, so that they can bring their experiences to the programme, personalise the tools to their own situation and make an impact when they leave. By the end, they all have a clear set of priorities, which is very important, because there tend to be a lot of issues competing for your attention when you’re managing change.

What kind of initiatives are participants involved in leading?

They come from all geographies, industries and even career levels, so it’s hard to generalise. But one example might be a project to create a company-wide culture of customer focus. Another might be setting up a new system in an overseas subsidiary – with a lot of push-back from local employees.

Are there differences in managing change in different cultures?

Obviously, you have to be very sensitive to context – not just national culture, but also corporate culture. Even individual business units can have very different norms of behaviour. But I think the fundamental challenges of change are universal.

Does the programme have the desired impact?

Well, we always follow up with participants three months after the programme. We get a great response, but I suspect I hear more about what has gone well than what hasn’t! Another good sign is that we’re getting more and more participants. Leading Successful Change is so popular that we’re now planning to run it twice a year and to limit each class to 32 people. And we’re constantly bringing in new research findings. True to our own principles, we’re very happy to make changes!

To learn more about Leading Successful Change, please visit the programme website. In the meantime, click here to find out more about Professor Vibha Gaba’s research.

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