Program Change Management Risks

Organizations invest huge amounts in running numerous programs to improve operations, culture and profitability of the company. For instance, programs cover technology implementation, building social networks, improving employee engagement and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Some programs give good return on investment while others dwindle without much success.  The success and failure of a program appreciably depends on effective change management.

Even for information technology programs, various survey reports show success-failure ratio as 50-50 percentage. Failure results in cost overruns and delay in project schedule besides low employee morale. A few reports indicate just around 20% of the programs are successful in the first effort in all respects. The differentiating factor, with technology and implementation capability being the same, is change management skills. Lack of focus on change management risks results in program failure.

Before discussing some key aspects of program change management risks, let us understand the reason for the same. Change causes insecurities to surface, hence sows the seeds of conflict and discord. On start of a program, people do not understand the reason for change. They are unable to assess what is at stake and what success looks like. Moreover, people respond differently to change. Idea of change gets supporting, skeptical and scornful reactions. If not handled carefully, different groups within the organization prepare battle plans to sabotage the program.

Hence, change management strategy is an essential component of program implementation. Given below are some of the risks on the same.

1.   Senior Management Involvement

For approval of the program, the program manager shakes hands with all the senior managers to get their buy-in.  Managers assume that the senior management commitment will continue after approval. However, this is rarely the case. With time, commitment will wane if senior managers do not understand the direction of the program and/ or start giving priority to other programs. Hence, program managers need to monthly/ fortnightly update the senior managers through review meetings and reports on the status and plans of the program.

Additionally, users and employees need to see senior managers demonstrate commitment to the program i.e. walk the talk. Program managers need to leverage opportunities to show senior management support for the program. Develop a leadership plan to ensure senior managers become champions of the program.

2.   User/ Employee Adoption

The program managers gear most of the programs activities towards adoption by the users. For example, in building a risk culture, adoption of risk assessment template is a milestone. The point is change agents view program activities in isolation for pre-go-live stage without considering the overall impact on the organization. Programs influence strategy, process, technology, and people. Without synchronizing the four aspects, even with user acceptance, the program will be unsuccessful in the long run.

Second aspect to consider is the handholding and support after the go live stage. After implementation of a program, the users may still face some challenges or new problems and risks may arise. For continued success of the program a team is required to support it, else it will fizzle out.

3.    Multiple Communication Channels

A program requires a good communication plan and failure in communication jeopardizes the program. Communication messages must be clear, straightforward and from the heart. The corporate jargon and meaningless mantras does not get buy in from senior management or users. For example, do not have a mission statement for an ethics program that sounds like this:

The company’s mission is to be the most ethical organization in the world by adopting best practices, making it a great place to work and rewarding meritocracy

Employees will roll their eyes on the above statement and consider it as management hyperbole. There is nothing actionable or measurable in the statement. Neither are the steps linked to ethics.

Another risk is failure of communication from senior management. Program managers assume that employees understand senior management commitment from strategy and other generic documents. However, adopters need to hear from senior management, their views and aspirations regularly.

Moreover, when programs run into problems, the initial reaction is to hide the bad news from the adopters. Clear concise communication on challenges being faced by program managers and support required, gets the program back on track. Communicate more often when program is running into trouble.

More importantly, change agents sometimes fail to listen to the adopters. Adopters’ feedback is critical for the success of the program. Understand their angry reactions, criticism and challenges. Develop plans to address them and not ignore them.

 4.    Training Plans

 Standard training material is the bane of most programs. Change agents believe that once the training is imparted, their job is done. Some pieces are overlooked in training plans and I have mentioned these before in a post. These are:

  • People have different learning patterns.
  • People are at different stages of learning – beginner, learner, manager, and expert.
  • People do not remember the training for long unless they start using the information in practical work.
  • Old habits are hard to break; hence, people revert to old patterns of working if not monitored.

Last but the not least, is the content of the training. For example, fraud awareness training is a double-edged sword. The users, who didn’t know a word about fraud, now have some idea on how frauds are conducted. The information can be misused. Moreover, an overload of information may create panic reactions in users. Hence, when to deliver training and what information to give are critical decisions for successful program implementation.

 5.     Reward & Recognition System

For a program to be successful, set up a clear system about reward and accountability for the adopters. Failure to establish a system will result in rewarding mediocrity rather than meritocracy. Further, without implementing a penalty criterion, there is no downside for wrongdoing. Hence, maintain a balance between reward and punishment.

For instance, in an ethics program, build a system of bonus points at time of appraisal for meeting business objectives in an ethical way. If a manager had the option of choosing an unethical means to achieve an objective faster but selected an ethical way though had to work harder, award him/her bonus points. On the other hand, award penalty points to a manager who chose unethical means.

6.    Dealing with Failure

Sometimes, despite best efforts the program team stares at the face of failure. People adopt inflexible approach and refuse to acknowledge the logical benefits of the program. They foresee their personal and political agendas negatively impacted, hence refuse to contribute to the shared purpose of the organization. The situation reminds me of an old joke.

A man bought a parrot as a pet. To his dismay, the parrot had a bad attitude and spoke foul language. The man tried to teach the parrot to behave but the parrot refused to change. One day in a fit of anger the man put the parrot in the freezer. He heard the parrot screaming and abusing for a couple of minutes, then there was silence. The man opened the door of the freezer, the parrot trotted out and said – “I beg your forgiveness for speaking rudely. I promise to behave properly.” The man was amazed at the transformation. Then the parrot said – “May I ask, what did the chicken do?”

To avert sudden failure periodically conduct organization surveys to understand the acceptability of the program and organization readiness for the next stage. Measure the behavior and sentiment change due to the program. Do not rush to the next stage without ensuring that adopters connect with the program in the existing stage.

 7.    Awareness of Retaliation

Situations can get out of hand when people start retaliating against the program manager and his/her team. Some programs are launched for appearances sake. For example, senior management may approve a program for business ethics, diversity or employee participation. However, when the change agents sincerely attempt to run the program to bring about a cultural change in the organization, they get mobbed by the employees. In this case, the junior employees start complaining that the change agents are pressurizing, bullying and forcing them to change. This impacts the heart of the program and the change agents spend most of the time defending their actions. The senior management doesn’t really want change, hence looks the other way or gives tacit approval to derail the program and mob the change agents.

In such cases, the change agents have to pay a high price, but the seeds of change are sown. People recognize that there is a better way of doing things, and gradually move towards light.

Closing Thoughts

 Change is difficult. We ourselves find it difficult to change, so getting others to change is an obstacle race. As Mahatma Gandhi said on leading the non-violent Indian independence movement – “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” Being a change agent is a test of stamina, perseverance, discipline and sacrifice. There are no low hanging fruits to pluck, no short-term rewards, no personal glory, however, in the end organization benefits.



One comment on “Program Change Management Risks

  1. Sonia Another excellent post. Change management is, in my experience, never formally documented. i.e. the conscious and written documentation (even if confidentially) of the parties pro and against the programme or project. This can be done through various means, force-field analysis, fish and bone diagrams or just narrative. I think you are right. It is often an ‘off risk register risk’ to the success of many programmes and projects.

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