Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future – John F Kennedy

Why is it that many strategic plans fail, or are “unfit”? Is it capability, direction, resourcing, capital funding or is it that slightly more covert topic of whether they actually get delivered in a climate that invites, or perhaps even accepts change?

Imagine the new CEO, board endorsed, enthusiastically rolling out the new operating strategy, unware or perhaps overlooking the hidden traps that await on the golden road to growth.

Perhaps by way of introducing this topic I might recite an experience of a few years ago, in consulting to a large client that set in my mind the absolute necessity to interpret the topic of change management. Before I start, please let me also say that I prefer the term change readiness over change management.

Companies most likely to be successful in making change work to their advantage are the ones that no longer view change as a discrete event to be managed, but as a constant opportunity to evolve the business. Change readiness is the new change management. Change readiness is the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimise risk, and sustain performance.

Attitudes towards change result from a complex interplay of personalities, emotions and cognitive processes. Because of this complexity everyone reacts to change differently. On the positive side, change is seen as akin to opportunity, rejuvenation, progress, innovation, and growth. But just as legitimately, change can also be seen as akin to instability, upheaval, unpredictability, threat, and disorientation. Whether employees perceive change with fear, anxiety and demoralisation, or with excitement and confidence, or somewhere in between, depend partially on the individual’s psychological makeup, partially on management’s actions, and partially on the specific nature of the change.

Our own RDG Insights divisional work on consumer behaviour shows us that we as human beings don’t always do what we say we will do even with the best of intention, and so all the signals of strategy acceptance in the field, masked the very simple point that by definition some amongst us, did feel alienated, even threatened, and therefore the avoidance of change or even worse to block change, was a real possibility.

Now to the practical learning.

We were engaged at the time to implement the strategic plan of a very well-known top five advisory firm who didn’t have our strategy implementation repertoire. The strategy seemed sound enough and road-tested quite well against the metrics when we visited the field (although with hindsight lacked primary customer insights and that’s another story for another day).

However, the role of perfect vision in hindsight also shows me that there was no indication of the culture of the organisation (the way we do things around here) and no reference to the readiness of this organisation to accept and perhaps even contribute to the process of change.

The changes being pursued may be blocked by individuals or networks that have a vested interest in keeping things as they were; by managers who don’t understand what is happening and why; by organisational systems and processes that are out of sync with the desired future state; and/or by the long established cultural norms of the company. Ensuring that processes to address each of these possibilities is factored into the change readiness plan and then used proactively is essential.

We addressed all these topics as a component of the program. However, the key learning is that we need to understand change readiness going into larger programs ideally as a foundation block rather than during or after the program.

There must be a clear and understandable link between the overall change and each person in the organisation. To be real and meaningful, everyone must understand that organisations don’t change, people do – and the processes must be established to ensure that each individual in the company is involved in identifying local and personal change requirements to support.

What is the second learning here? That change readiness relies on every single team member understanding the scope and context for change that applies to their world. Often the CEO talking to the shop floor team on national changes will have mixed results. Conversely the CEO who talks to his or her team, to the very aspects that are most meaningful to the individuals in that team, will prepare them most effectively for change readiness.

One aspect of a “fit” business is one that is highly motivated to change at individual and aggregate team level, one that has an embedded culture for continuous improvement and innovation and where staff value and embrace change in their business. Understanding this change readiness early is critical to being ready to implement change.

Happy fit retailing.

First published on Smart Company September 2014