The hardest thing about managing change in business is recognising it is happening in the first place, even if it's you who has initiated it. Whenever you change an organisation’s structure, put in place a new incentive scheme, acquire or merge with another business, or sometimes make what appears to be the simplest adjustment to a minor process you are creating change, and the impact of that can be wide-ranging and completely unexpected.

John Thorp

John Thorp

Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is important to concentrate not only on what is changing, but what isn’t; that while change is being affected in one part of an organisation, you also need to keep a very wary eye on the rest of it to ensure it doesn’t unravel somewhere else. The most intractable problems are caused not by the things which you might be explicitly doing to a business, but by their almost always unconsidered and therefore completely unanticipated side-effects. That is where the problems will occur, and a failure to properly manage that can be fatal.

The object is to make it better, not worse. Delivering this has costs, many of which aren’t properly considered. These include obvious things like the costs of implementing new systems or recruiting new people, but also less obvious things like the cost of actually delivering the benefits and sustaining change over time. Define the benefits up front and set very clear targets and very clear accountabilities for achieving them.

There are situations, however, where no matter how carefully the targets may be set, or how well intentioned or high-principled the efforts of the participants are to achieve them, because of the actual design of the system, the only outcome will be failure. The outputs of a system (whether a supply chain, a remuneration system, the design of an organisation, or in fact any complex set of processes involving human behaviour) are not governed by the inputs, but by the design of the system itself, and the effects of that are impossible to overcome. For change to succeed, you need to change the system, not the inputs.

Don’t confuse delivering meaningful change with changing things. Although implementing new technology is an obvious vehicle for change, new ‘systems’ in the widest and most important sense are about people, processes and ultimately culture, not IT.

In reality, in the digital world of today, transformational change is happening (or should be) in most organisations most of the time. This point is a personal one – the constant capacity for reinvention is the single most important career attribute for people in business today.

And finally, two great quotes which aren’t mine!Change is inevitable (except from a vending machine)’ Robert C Gallagher, and, more seriously, a quote from Jack Welch, management guru and legendary practitioner of effective change management: ‘Control your own destiny, or someone else will.’

Three Funerals and a Wedding follows the story of four businesses underdoing radical change and why they succeeded or failed. It’s available to buy from Amazon, The Book Guild and all good bookshops!