“Change only works when implemented with agility”

What constitutes successful change management and what should be avoided wherever possible? Find out in our interview with experts Katrin Kulkowski from tts and Eva Beiner from BearingPoint, as they set out the most important dos and don’ts of change projects.
October 27, 2022
8 min

Taking into account the major technological advances of recent years and the massive changes shaping the global markets right now, do you think organizations are giving change management the prominence it deserves?

Eva Beiner: I think they are. In my experience, most organizations now recognize the importance and value of change management. Having said that, lots of smaller organizations that have fewer staff to take care of everything still don’t have people who deal exclusively with change management. By contrast, well-structured organizations have long since put that right. There’s been a very clear improvement in this area over the past 15 years. One thing I think is important, though, is to realize that change management is not the same as crisis management. You shouldn’t mix the two up.

Katrin Kulkowski: I also think lots of organizations have come to view change management as important. However, the necessary sustainability is often lacking, unfortunately. Various surveys have shown that implementation is still running into difficulties because staff don’t feel they are being kept up to date or complain about a lack of support. The disparity between the intended objectives, planning and implementation is still pretty large. That tells me organizations still aren’t investing enough in change management.

When it comes to digitalization in particular, the success rate for change projects has not been very good so far. International studies have shown that around 70 percent of digitalization projects fail completely or fall short of their intended objectives. Why do you think that is?

Katrin Kulkowski: Lots of digitalization projects focus first and foremost on structures and technical details. However, at the end of the day, it’s the staff who determine how successful the implementation process is on a practical level. Often, organizations don’t give that aspect the attention it deserves, or only factor it in far too late in the process. They should be asking themselves a number of questions, such as: Does the solution’s usability match the process efficiency I’m aiming for? Have I got all staff members on board? How can I best assist them with their tasks? Digital adoption is crucially important in this regard and is achieved when staff get the support they need, when they need it, at their workplace. That’s the quickest way of establishing the necessary skills and know-how and thus also building that crucial acceptance for change projects.

Eva Beiner: This poor track record might also be down to the studies themselves, which don’t always make it clear what constitutes failure. If we’re talking about implementation projects that go over schedule or over budget, then you’re probably looking at a failure rate as high as 98 percent. But does that mean they’ve run into a brick wall? Not necessarily. That actually only happens when the human factor is not taken seriously. In those cases, however, it’s not the change management that’s at fault, but rather inadequate project planning and a lack of risk assessment.

Katrin Kulkowski, Senior Partner Manager & Senior Knowledge Transfer Consultant at tts

Today, change is much faster and wider-ranging. Change management needs to adapt to that. In practical terms, that means first and foremost setting a clear point of focus.

Katrin Kulkowski, Senior Partner Manager & Senior Knowledge Transfer Consultant at tts

How important is time as a success factor for implementation projects?

Eva Beiner: Time is really important, even if just from the viewpoint of determining when a project has been successful or has failed. Working that out is no easy task. If an organization is rolling out new processes and changing job descriptions, the project can be considered successfully completed as soon as the new job codes are available in HR – or, at least, as far as the initial project definition is concerned. However, from a change perspective, the project is not even partially complete at this stage. Usually, collaboration won’t be working yet and communication still won’t be smooth. That’s not the end of the world, though, since change takes time. Getting people to change their behavior is not usually something you can coordinate within the timeframe of an implementation project. I need to be aware of this discrepancy. It’s then the change manager’s job to go on working patiently with precisely the people who have no appetite for change and say things like “We’ve never done things this way before.” Working with these people also means not allowing them to settle into their reluctance.

Why is the gulf between theory and practice in change management still so huge and incalculable?

Katrin Kulkowski: They say that nothing is as constant as change, and that applies to a lot of theories based on principles from the pre-digital era. Today, change is much faster and wider-ranging. Change management needs to adapt to that. In practical terms, that means first and foremost setting a clear point of focus. This is why, for every change project, it is important to clarify what it is really going to take to implement the changes. In doing so, it is crucial that any measures are compatible with the corporate culture and the project itself, too.

In classic change management, change projects are primarily planned and implemented from the top down. Do you think this approach is still up to date?

Eva Beiner: No. In fact, quite apart from that, I don’t think change projects conducted using the waterfall model have ever worked. Change only works when implemented with agility, because I need to be able to correct the measures I have chosen if I see they are not working. However, I can only tell whether they are working based on lots of details that emerge during the process. Classic, top-down approaches don’t allow for these details to be checked, but agile change management does, which is why it is always better than any top-down strategy.

Katrin Kulkowski: This approach simply doesn’t work anymore, as changes are agile by their very nature and therefore need to be implemented with agility, too. It’s important that the people who will carry out planning and implementation are involved. This calls for an interdisciplinary approach incorporating change agents, change recipients and senior executives. Naturally, there also needs to be support from management, but change projects rolled out on a purely top-down basis rarely ever produce sustainable effects.

Eva Beiner, Director bei BearingPoint

Upper and middle management must understand that change will only happen if they are fully behind it and working toward it. If they aren’t, the planned change won’t come about.

Eva Beiner, Director bei BearingPoint

Staff play a key role in any change project because they are part and parcel of the change and ultimately put it into practice. In your experience, which kinds of corporate culture work well in that regard and which are less successful?

Eva Beiner: Fundamentally, change works in any culture, although not always with the same methods. In very hierarchical organizations, the management team needs to have more responsibility because it can drive change up and down. In addition, experience has shown that directives need to be more detailed to ensure they are implemented as envisaged. An error culture also plays an important part because that determines whether people are afraid of change or embrace it. In companies with flat hierarchies and more independent responsibility, change projects tend to cause less friction because people are accustomed to sorting out new situations to suit themselves and are not as dependent on directions. They are often more curious and independently motivated.

Katrin Kulkowski: Open communication, an interdisciplinary coalition and a strong error and feedback culture are also important. What’s more, all the crucial elements that are so important for the successful implementation of change management projects should be anchored as values in the organization and actively promoted. That will help to largely avoid overburdening staff, since the changes will be taking place within the framework of familiar constants.

What would you say are the most important success factors for planned changes?

Eva Beiner: For me, there is one thing that comes above all else – upper and middle management must understand that change will only happen if they are fully behind it and working toward it. If they aren’t, the planned change won’t come about.

Katrin Kulkowski: A good strategy and transparency in both the project and in communication. That will help keep resistance to an absolute minimum. Having the right resources is also important – whether that’s people, an appropriate budget or the timeframe. If those things aren’t in place, change projects will quickly run out of steam.

What are some typical “don’ts” – the things that should be avoided as far as possible?

Eva Beiner: As an external change manager, you should never believe that you can deliver the change in full. That’s the job of the organization and its staff. I only facilitate. Another more general pointer is that you shouldn’t focus too closely on KPIs, otherwise you constantly run the risk of planning measures based not on the actual “risk scenario” but on the basis of unappealing figures.  It is important to measure success, of course, but then again some successes come about later than expected. If you stick too closely to the figures, you might well prematurely draw the wrong conclusions from deviations. As they say – change takes time. Another “don’t” for me is “don’t keep checklists”. Although checklists are helpful, they suggest that a change is complete once all points have been checked off, so it’s important not to get carried away when working through them.

Katrin Kulkowski: One very definite “don’t”, as far as I’m concerned, is only thinking of change management at the end of a project and only then getting to grips with the necessary steps. Change management starts when the project starts and carries on beyond it, for instance when a software package has already been rolled out. Another no-no is only explaining the “what” and the “how” to the people who are affected. Staff also want to know why change is happening. In addition, resistance mustn’t be swept under the carpet – organizations should actively deal with it, be open to feedback and be critical of their own steps, too. A good way of doing that is during a pilot project or when conducting a step-by-step implementation. This helps identify factors that have been overlooked or haven’t been planned properly.

What can organizations do if a change project gets bogged down or goes off track?

Eva Beiner: Actually, when you really are getting nowhere, the only thing you can do is hit the reset button and start over. When doing that, it’s important to talk to the people who are affected and find out where the sticking point is. Sometimes it’s just small details that cause an otherwise pretty good approach to fail.

Katrin Kulkowski: You should certainly reappraise your communication and carry out an honest review. For me, that includes taking a close look at any gaps in terms of empowerment, which I would say is a fundamental success factor for any significant change project. Systematic empowerment boosts staff motivation, encourages staff to be accountable for their own learning and makes it easier for them to take on responsibility. That is important, because change only succeeds on a sustainable level when staff can accept and efficiently implement the new processes.


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