Would you build a wooden horse? – 5 ideas for making change successful in the digital age

Think about the person you were 10 years ago. You can probably notice all the changes that have happened between then and now: more wrinkles, more freckles, maybe more patience, less hair – change is part of our normal biological and psychological life. Change is also an inseparable part of business, now more than ever. We change products to meet our clients’ demands, we change our structures to accommodate new employees, we change the leadership when we need radical new direction. In the digital age, the age of instant Twitter feedback, 24/7 news feeds, and live Snapchat channels, that change becomes faster and more frequent than ever. One of the COOs I met, for instance, estimated that it takes about 3 minutes from the moment their website or paywall stops functioning for the Twitter “storm” to begin, and 8 minutes before the phone calls from TV reporters start.  Her company needs to be ready to act and change their operations immediately. Shouldn’t change in the digital age be a little easier then? Despite the fact that technology and the world around us change so rapidly (10 years ago, who would have suspected that their entire life’s worth of data would fit in their pocket?), the frequently quoted statistic that 70% of change programmes fail is still proving true. Over the past few years, coinciding with the digital revolution, I’ve been privileged enough to work on change initiatives that fell into the successful 30% bracket. Below, I’ve gathered my top 5 insights into driving successful change in the digital world.

  1. Check your ground and chuck out the guidebook

    Preparing for a change programme can be like walking over thin ice – you need to check carefully before making each step. The approach to introducing change in any business will depend on several individual factors. Indeed, the individualisation of approach is something that matters now more than ever. Employees and customers alike are used to being treated as unique individuals, meaning that before making any decision on change it is worth assessing several factors:

    • Are people in the impacted teams sceptical about new initiatives?
    • Is the team still bearing scars from any previous negative change? Or perhaps the team is agile, consists of daredevils, and is up for lots of innovation?
    • Are there any strong influencers and personalities that can affect the change impact?
    • Is the team hierarchical and responsive to “command & control”? Or perhaps they make decisions more democratically?

    All of these factors will affect how you make your steps in the change journey. This is why a change methodology that worked well for large corporate may not land well in a “unicorn” start-up. The makeup and nature of your team should inform which approach you take, and how you want to go through it – slowly, quietly and carefully, or with a big bang and celebration. Perhaps a certain amount of marketing/PR for your change programme will be needed, or maybe the team would react better to a “stone cold” business case. Whatever the scenario is, the change approach has to be individualised and adjusted to whoever is on the receiving end of it.

  2. Talk to your customer… and involve them

    Bringing a customer-focused mindset to change initiatives can bring some extremely powerful and positive results.  Many successful businesses stay on top of their market by putting customer service and experience at the centre of their initiatives. Think about John Lewis, Natwest, Apple, Emirates airlines. Interacting with them is a pleasant experience for their customers, and this should also be the case in change initiatives. One of the large clients that I worked with managed to successfully create a whole suite of career pathways for various branches of tech experts. They did so by making the target audience an indispensable and crucial part of the design team, using focus groups continuously through the process, and building in multiple feedback loops for stakeholders. During the initial planning phase, for example, they produced multiple designs of the manager’s guide and presented all  of them to the focus groups to find out which one was the most user-friendly. This kind of consideration of the customer paid off massively – the career pathways were successfully implement through the business, and became part of the technologists’ professional development (and the 30% of successful change programs).  And, as in the case of real business customers, the employees affected were more likely to stay with a company.

  3. “Emotional data”

    In today’s world, data science and analysis can bring some tremendous insights into how employees work, what increases their motivation and how changes affect their productivity.  Thanks to big data, we can even see if employees are likely to leave, before they make that decision themselves. Because of this data capability,  any self-respecting change leader or project manager always has to back up their case for change with a stack of graphs and as many numbers as the paper can physically handle. For business leaders, data and hard evidence is essential, but there is something else – something much more elusive – that can convince them to support the change. Something that is very often forgotten in the business world: emotion. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot says that it takes ‘very large amounts of data to convince someone to change, but it takes just a little bit of emotion to make the shift’. This is why, during the American election, convincing Trump’s supporters to dismiss “fake news” proved impossible for his well-prepared opponent. The reasons for that are twofold:

    1. People are evolutionary conditioned to stick to what they know and believe in. For our ancestors, changing their mind could pose a serious risk to their survival.
    2. We make all decisions, whether big or small, in the emotional part of the brain. Not in the rational frontal cortex, but rather in the deeper layers of the brain, those governed strongly by emotions.

    That is why building a personal and compelling story, referring to people’s own feelings and experiences, and invoking empathy when presenting a case for change can have some very transformative results. Which would you prefer, an emotionally resonant narrative, or PowerPoints riddled with numbers?

  4. Incremental change vs “Big Bang”

    The appearance of the first cars was a quantum leap from a technological and societal perspective. At first, cars shared the road with other users – horses. This created a lot of issues, as horses scare easily. In early twentieth century horses killed 200 people in New York City. To deal with those issues, one of the inventors at the time constructed a car with a wooden horse head fixed to the front of the car like a mask. The idea behind this design monstrosity was that horses will be less scared of a car that looked a bit like them. The design was never successfully adopted. However, this story told by John Berger highlights one important thing to remember about change underlined by researchers: people generally handle an incremental change more easily than a complete “big bang” style revolution. For this reason, companies often launch new products with only few, marginal changes, rather than introducing a revolutionary technology to unsuspecting customers. The difference between models of new iPhones is often slight (think different colour scheme or bigger screen), yet each model  sells like hot cakes. At the same time, radically new technologies such as smart watches or smart tattoos are still trying to reach mass market; and it has taken VR nearly 100 years to surface the mainstream. When designing a change initiative, it is key to assess the degrees of change needed to make it happen. Think about the change as your final destination, and spread it over time in incremental steps. This gives people time to accept the change and deal with emotional and practical consequences of it, but it also lays solid foundations for the next change to come.

  5. Use UX to break down complexity

    User experience design often resembles the work of many change agents. It involves psychology, business acumen, usability, project management, and testing. It’s also built on an understanding of what makes employees more productive and likely to stay for longer, and what holds them back from doing great work.  Introducing some basic principles of user experience (UX) into change programmes can make a stark difference for its stakeholders. One team I worked with was preparing a massive, complex and long-term project affecting thousands of employees and multiple company processes (learning, internal comms, systems, data analytics, career progression, internal certification, and most important interactions between people managers and their teams). In order to understand how all of this would come together, the team created a “user experience journey,” deconstructing the everyday work experience. They designed exactly what they wanted their employees to feel and experience at each step of the journey, and then looked at what would need to change to make this happen. This approach really resonated with the thousands of individuals affected, as reflected by a towering adoption rate of almost 90%.  Another program in that successful 30% of change programs.

Change and transformation is never easy. Whether it is a change of products, behaviours or business, big or small – it does not matter, it will always be a challenge, and in the digital era, we are faced with it every day.  This new digital era needs a new approach to change – a blend of commercial, digital and neuroscientific considerations. There are certain steps that anyone can take to make the change easier and increase the probability of success, but in order to do that, we need to look outside the outdated methodologies and start to innovate our change approach. Customize and individualize it, treat those affected by the change as an integral part of the process and as your customers and users of change – and you may even get away without having had to build any horses.

Jasmina Mularska portrait

Jasmina Mularska
Change Management Consultant, BT

Jasmina Mularska is a change management consultant with experience in strategy, change management, org design and development in the technology and telecoms industries. She has led her team to nominations for two prestigious change management and transformation awards for design & implementation of technical career frameworks. As a neuroscience and technology enthusiast, she is able to combine both in her work by offering innovative approaches to change. Her passion for technology has also led her to learn coding, and she was named winner of the Code First Final Project Competition for professionals.