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Soft is Hard

Optimize Blog - July 18, 2016 - 0 comments

Making organizational change stick for performance improvement initiatives is difficult. Different functions with different priorities and often distinct cultures creates difficulty in coordinating change and the complexity of it all can be quite daunting. These factors complicate efforts to design, execute, and scale operational-improvement programs.
Consequently, many companies emphasize the technical aspects of their programs over the organizational ones. That approach is understandable. Overlooking the softer side, however, drastically lowers any initiative’s odds of success. Embarking a on organizational improvement crusade without ensuring that the leaders and employees are prepared to lead and work in new and different ways will inevitably fail as “initiative fatigue”, “change fatigue” and even distrust may set in.
Our experience working with clients on performance improvement change programs has identified that neglecting the ‘softer’ organizational components of an operational transformation can delay or even derail it. Successful change programs require attention to the softer elements of an initiative throughout its whole course, starting with the earliest, aspiration-setting phases, when senior leaders identify the key goals and start to communicate them. That is key in establishing a stronger foundation for change and to set more achievable, and often much higher, ambitions than they otherwise could.
By contrast, companies that misread employee mind-sets and other cultural elements fail to win the support and trust required and many initiatives are therefore doomed before they even really get going.
After accounting for the way culture and other organizational factors will affect the goals of a program, successful companies put what they learn into action. They recognize that they can only succeed by balancing the program’s hard and soft elements and developing their line managers’ change leadership skills. They recognize that beyond technical changes, full consideration needs to be given to organizational structures, processes, cultures and the mind-sets of employees because all of these elements will affect its ability to meet the goals for the change program.
Large-scale change requires all leaders and employees to think and work differently. Only when a company shifts the attention of its line managers away from firefighting, develops their leadership capabilities, and expects more from them, the gains are bigger and longer lasting. Experts that are brought in still play a vital catalyzing role, of course, but now as teachers, coaches, and mentors. Line managers are better placed to lead change efforts and to serve as long-term role models and they should be held accountable for doing so.
To get the most from large operational-improvement programs, companies need to look beyond the technical aspects of change and embrace the softer side. Complementing the development of technical skills with a focus on the organizational capabilities that make efficiency benefits real can help companies to achieve more substantial, sustainable, and scalable results.

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