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Why is the important word

When you embark on a change programme you set out with the intention to succeed, don’t you? As a leader you have thought the change through and know what you are going to do (change the structure, implement a new system or process etc.) and you’ve had to build a business case to justify the spend against the return and benefits for the company. You get the green light to go ahead and start to implement your plan and make the change happen. Then you find, as the new structure is in place or the system starts to run, that the benefits are not coming or months later you are asked to review the change against your forecasted benefits and you can see it’s not happening. People aren’t really doing their new role in the structure or using the system the way it was designed. They are doing something else. Have you been here before or seen this happen? You should have, as it happens in 90% of change programmes.

In troubleshooting such programmes I come across frustration and confusion in the minds of so many managers. Some just want to get rid of the people who aren’t doing the job and others up the stakes and make non appliance of the new system a dismissible offence. Others start to tinker with the structure or the system to apply band-aids as it obviously cant be working. Leaders point to nicely drawn business structures and organisational charts and ask “Why isn’t it working?”.

The key is in that word “why”.

Often when leaders go out with their change they explain “what” is going to happen and sometimes “when” it will happen. Many forget to fully explain “why”.

A study of students in the USA found that some tended to favour “what” questions, others “how” questions and another group favoured “why” questions. In my experience of change, everyone is a “why” person. Without a clear understanding of “why” the change is happening people don’t really buy it. Even if they appear to have no choice (you take the computer off their desk and give them a new one with the systems fully loaded) the project doesn’t deliver to its full potential. If they don’t fully acknowledge the “why” they will never fully engage in the “what”. This is why I.T people often find that users have their own favourite pieces of software loaded up and use that rather then the expensive system the company implemented. This is why people continue to do the old job even though the structure clearly shows that the job is now different.

Change challenges our certainty. We go in to work every day certain that we know what will be there and what we are there to do. We get used to it and in many cases it becomes part of us and who we are. When someone comes along and challenges that certainty, many people will hold on to what they know until they are sure that they understand “why” they need to change. If you don’t provide any “why” or a robust “why” some will not let go of their current certainty at all, willing your change to fail so that they can get back to what they know is right or at worst actively working to subvert your change to prove you wrong.

Those that do come along because you have their trust, may not grasp the change with both hands and embrace it and engage in it. They may not even realise this themselves.

It’s as if the word “why” is a filter to their beliefs. If the “why” is fully understood then the “what” will be too and the “how” will follow as they engage in your project. The less clear the “why”, the more cluttered their filter and the less likely that the what and the how will have a smooth path to delivery of your objectives.

If your organisation is on the path of change, walk round a random sample of people and ask them “why were we doing this?”. Any organisation that is set to successfully achieve the change will have consistency of reply and will find people happy to explain it and their part in it. The greater the variety of the answers, the more faces expressing confusion and the lack of certainty or willingness to discuss the change the less likely it is that the change will deliver.

And if your first 5 people say “what change?” you have real problems!

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