Strategic ch-ch-ch-ch-changes – turn and face the strain?

Posted by on Sep 12, 2011

Keys to successful strategic change management

A client recently remarked that strategy seems to be more about what glam rocker David Bowie once called ch-ch-ch-ch-changes than any other factor. We couldn’t help but agree. Change is what drives the need for strategy, and change management is an important tool for implementing new strategies.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of strategic change management. Done well, it means faster implementation, faster growth and higher profitability. We can’t think of a more important reason to manage change effectively.

What’s driving your change?

Typical reasons why our clients create new strategies include:

  • Performance gap – the Board, CEO or the executive team recognizes a systemic performance problem and wants to reverse it.
  • Changing vision – new ideas adopted at the top spur the creation of a plan for a better future.
  • Executive turnover – new CEO or turnover of several other executive team members.
  • Potential for a change in ownership – the potential for the sale of the company or a merger heats up.
  • Crisis – an emerging event or development threatens the organization’s health or future.

Inevitably, all will require internal change. And the more change a strategy requires, the more implementation challenges the executive team is likely to encounter.

Major challenges to successful change

Many executives underestimate the challenge strategic change presents. After all, most executives successfully manage change continuously. But managing major strategic change is something many executives have never done. Most are adept at managing incremental and evolutionary change to the organization’s operating core. This kind of change is usually less urgent and requires a much lower level of commitment and expertise. Strategic change can’t be managed successfully in the same ways.

Scope and urgency dictate the change management plan

Two factors influence how much leaders are likely to struggle with a new strategy: the scope of the change required, and the urgency with which it must be undertaken. The broader the scope, the deeper the expertise required, and the more resources must be dedicated to the change. Likewise, the more urgently the change is required, the more important it is to have – or get – the skills onboard for managing major strategic change.

Major impediments to change

Two major factors act as major impediments to broad strategic change – political resistance, and momentum.

The way to overcome political resistance to change is by creating full agreement at the top of the organization so that no one on the executive team is willing to accept anything less than full cooperation. This removes the potential for executive-level sheltering of active or passive dissent.

The other essential step is engaging key people in making change. It helps in two ways. First, by engaging middle managers in the change, they’re more likely to support it and less likely to resist or stand by while the change fails. If they “own” it, they’ll be less likely to resist.  Second, it helps to overcome momentum.

Momentum is important and worthy of discussion. It is most often the natural result of the organization’s operating core continuing to do what it does best – delivering predictable results time and time again, and getting better and better at doing so, cycle after cycle. In fact, this momentum to resist disruptive change is a strength that a healthy organization must support and cultivate within its operating core in order to move down the experience curve, continuously reducing the unit cost of delivering its products and services.  But this strength becomes a liability when a strategy calls for major strategic change, and the challenge increases with the magnitude of the change required!

Common change management mistakes

Most change management mistakes we’re seen involve putting the wrong people in charge or assigning insufficient resources to it. Some of these include:

  • Not appointing a full-time dedicated change manager. If change is critical to your success, invest to do it fast and right.
  • Appointing a change manager who hasn’t managed change projects of similar scope, complexity and importance. You don’t want the change manager for critical strategic changes relying on slow trial and expensive error.
  • Appointing an inexperienced in-house change manager to avoid the higher costs of external expertise. Sometimes an “expensive” external resource will get your strategy to “payoff” fast enough to more than pay their higher costs.
  • Appointing a change manager who may think their future depends on maintaining the status quo. Those who live by the status quo are likely to be conflicted and their instincts may be all wrong.
  • Isolating the change management team from the ongoing management of the existing system. The two groups must collaborate, not compete.
  • Using existing meeting structures or forums to manage the change. Successfully implementing major change usually requires new internal relationships and collaboration processes. People tend to follow old meeting and relationship patterns, but a major change effort requires different relationships and collaboration processes.

Summing up

When you’re creating your implementation plans for a new strategy, pay particular attention to the scope and urgency of the changes you’ve planned. The pattern for success is often set by whom you assign to lead the change, and what processes you use for managing it. If your change process requires something more than incremental or evolutionary improvement, make sure you put the right people and processes in place to manage it to successful completion as quickly as possible.


It’s been 4 decades since David Bowie released his song, Changes.  It seemed profound to me in the ’70s, but listening to it during a long drive while on vacation in August (it’s in my iPhone collection of 1,000 oldies) made me wonder what I saw in it back then.

Maybe it was something in the air?

© Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. 2011