I am speaking with a lot of Clients that are navigating unchartered waters, working through the immediate effect of the COVID-19 situation and then looking at the future. I spoke with Ken McNaught last week and through conversation asked him ‘if I parachuted you into an organisation right now, what would you do?'

Ken McNaught is a Chartered Engineer with 30 years’ experience of working at the most senior levels in government and industry. He specialises in the design and implementation of people-centred change programmes in high technology and engineering services companies of all sizes, helping them to increase their sales and develop long-term, sustainable business streams.

How do you work out what needs to change?

Success for most businesses relies on capable people doing the right things at the right time whilst behaving in an appropriate way, whether it be working with colleagues or delighting customers.

Having decided that something needs to change, executives ought to address three simple questions:

  • Where do we want to be (this year/next year/ three years time)?
  • Where are we now (not as obvious as one might hope)?
  • How do we get from the As Is to the To Be?

It is vital that the “how” identifies those things that need to change in order to deliver the desired outcomes, building on what is good and relevant and not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is also important to consider both the unintended and long-term consequences of any decisions. For example, will prioritising a new product or service mean the loss of a much-loved customer?

It is common to find the word “innovative” associated with any change but often the hardest thing for an established business to do is to stop doing things the way they’ve always been done. If a business is serious about being innovative, it first of all needs to identify and break bad habits, or stop doing those things that add little value. This creates the headroom to make the desired changes, as opposed to cramming the new things on top of existing ones – quite often, the weight of this sinks the business.

Prioritising what needs to be done

We’ve all come across “paralysis by analysis”. Sometimes this happens if executives don’t have the courage to act but more often than not, it is caused by consultants offering too many options and therefore making it difficult for executives to choose. When faced with the option to do “one of many things” with marginal differences in outcomes or benefits, it is natural for people to choose to do nothing.

The “how” of getting from the As Is to the To Be is made real by the “what” – the actual activities. Given the conflicting demands on resources, it helps to sort these activities as “must do”, “could do” or “park”. However, such prioritisation is often determined by the person who is most senior and/or speaks loudest. It therefore does not get buy-in from the whole team or produces a “must do” list that is unrealistic.

Pairwise Comparison is a technique to work out the relative importance of different options or activities (comparing apples with oranges) that fairly reflects the opinions of a group.  It is particularly useful when the decision criteria is subjective or the data does not exist, producing a prioritised list of options based on the knowledge and preferences of the stakeholders. For example, asking three people to rank Options A, B and C will produce different results and contain inconsistencies; Pairwise Comparison can handle many more options and involve many more opinions yet produce a result everyone can buy into. Furthermore, it can be revisited as the programme progresses and assumptions are modified.

Smashing the permafrost

People in an organisation that prevent change, either through lack of courage, vested interests or simple denial, can be described as “permafrost”. They exist at all levels and from every generation. If they lack the ‘will’ to be part of the journey, it is often easier to help them to join an organisation that is more suited to their capabilities. However, those who are committed to the journey should be embraced and given the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills

Change is all about people. Without people, there is no culture. Without people, even the best activities and well-defined project will not be executed.

Smashing prevarication for six

Having decided that things need to change, the executive team needs to get on with it. The three key questions could be answered in an afternoon. Assigning people to the actions and putting the funding in place will take a little longer but maintaining momentum and enthusiasm is vital, remembering that the best is the enemy of the good.