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Hmmm… Who can I blame? The Importance of Leadership Buy-In During Business Transformation

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There have been many studies carried out related to Business Transformation failures and they always come up with the same statistic that out of every 100 initiatives, more than 70 will fail!  It is a frighteningly high figure and, if you put a monetary value on the amount of money invested in Transformation projects, it runs into the high millions that have been “wasted”.

Despite the history of failures, Business Transformation is still a key driver and top priority for many organisations.  You often see the big blue-chip companies buying in “big-hitters” who have made a success in other organisations with an expectation that they will do the same within their own four walls – often without the expected results because the incumbent CEO did not really understand what made the Business Transformation at their old company successful.

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There is undoubtedly a direct correlation between Leadership Buy-In and the degree of success for all improvement initiatives, and the wider the commitment across all areas of the business, the greater the overall success and, equally as important, the sustainability and longevity.

Traditional organograms for businesses show the “person at the top” cascading down into increasing numbers as the levels drop through the hierarchy. Then the consultants came along and made the  classic statement that businesses need to ”invert the pyramid” when it comes to “management buy-in” – a great concept and idealistically correct but why doesn’t it seem to work?  As a concept, it is flawless – the more senior the management, the greater is their responsibility to support the levels above them, otherwise the inverted pyramid “topples over”.

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We have supported many companies over the decades in implementing change programmes of all kinds and they all have the same themes running through to achieve success – it does not matter whether it is a full-blown Business Transformation, or a more focused Improvement Programme; the only difference being the cost!

Leading from the top

Surprisingly enough, this is often influenced by something as simple as the “name” given to the initiative.  As an example, we have supported Lean Manufacturing initiatives across global organisations for decades.  I personally have grown to hate this title as I have witnessed many a senior management kick-off meeting (a good thing) where they are all “showing commitment” to the programme but in their faces, I could see those who were “not from manufacturing” almost visibly switching off as if to say: “it’s manufacturing and nothing to do with me” rather than realising it impacted the entire business.  We will no longer use this moniker as it encourages the wrong actions through misinterpretation.

At the end of the day, all the initiatives are some type of change programme: we are trying to change behaviours, beliefs, opinions, actions, ways of working… the list goes on.  Securing complete buy-in from the entire senior executive team is by far the biggest challenge – without this, the hopes of success diminish rapidly.  When they are visibly leading the charge, others will fall in line – even if they are initially resistant!

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A lack of visible and continued support is by far the major cause of failure for Business Transformations.

Active executive role models exude confidence at every other level.  The executive team must work as a team to ensure complete alignment across all functions – we often see conflicting goals at a functional level that will never work across the business as an entity.  Many organisations now work to a “North Star” in order to focus the alignment to overall business goals and to help destroy any functional silo mentality.

A desire for change

“We’ve always done it this way” is a mantra that echoes across many failed businesses.  It is understandable that people do not like to challenge the status quo – they are at ease in their comfort zone of “doing what they have always done”… but this is a slippery slope if what you have always done is detrimental to profitability!  The leadership team have to set that vision that everyone else can believe in and want to aspire to.  Behind that vision has to be a robust plan that is both realistic and manageable.  People need to understand why they need to change, how they are going to get there, and what it means to them – if they cannot understand the need, they will not buy in to the concept.  Everyone in the business has a vested interest; after all, they are the stakeholders and business success leads to potential benefits for all.  Of equal importance in the argument for change is setting the scene of what might happen if they do nothing – where might they be relative to where could they be if they make the changes.

Ability to change

It is one thing knowing that you need to change but are you capable of achieving the changes required?

The business should cast a hyper-critical eye over past successes and failures – and don’t carry this out through rose-tinted glasses!  Only by admitting what they are good at – and conversely bad at – will they put in place the correct infrastructure and external support mechanisms to increase the likelihood of success.

So how do you guarantee total leadership buy-in?  If only someone knew!

Plan for success

In our experience, once the leadership commitment is in place, the vision clear and articulated, the communications rolled out and everyone enthused to proceed, one of the major causes of poor outcomes is the inadequate project plan.  Very little effort goes into creating a strong PMO that oversees detailed project plans that embrace all aspects of the business.

The overall project plan should be made up of sub-plans for all of the supporting areas of the business – each one should have a charter that outlines what they are contributing to the overall vision and how they align into the overall plan.  Each plan should be supported with clear scope, milestones, deliverables, and measurable waypoints along the way so they can track progress.  Any deviations should be easily visible and therefore can be corrected in a timely manner.  The PMO should report into the executive team to close the loop on Leadership Buy-in and visible support.

Right people for the job

It is common practice for all companies to have the “favoured few” – the ones who always seem to deliver on their promises.  The difficulty with Business transformation projects is that they are, by their nature, very large!  Putting the “best team” on the job is correct but the risk is that they are not released from their day-job and other projects and end up wallowing in the enormity of the tasks.

As part of the PMO task is the equally important resource plan that has to align with the project deliverables.  This is often overlooked until the cracks start to appear – and often too late to remedy in a timely, and cost-effective manner.

Setting the culture

Change isn’t all about physical difference – the business has to be cognisant of the impact the changes have on behaviours, feelings, emotions…  If the humanistic elements are ignored, then trying to change ways of working will be fruitless.  Changing the hearts and minds is of equal importance as enabling the hands.  This is what will lead to sustainability and the new ways being embraced by everyone.  Success can be clearly demonstrated when the people at the top change, and the success of the business continues without a murmur!

So how do we guarantee success?  Who knows!  All the theories in the world haven’t managed to crack that nutshell over the many decades that records have been kept on Business Transformations but carrying out the steps above will at least give you a fighting chance of success… the rest is down to you!

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