13 February 2018

More than two-thirds of change programmes fail so it’s important to know how to get it right. Leadership expert Eve Poole (MBA 1998) gives us her take.
Eve Poole

A failure of change management brought me to Edinburgh to do my MBA. After my undergraduate degree in Theology, I won a coveted direct-entrant role working for the Church Commissioners, who manage a £8bn portfolio for the Church of England.

One of my jobs was to assist in a national reorganisation programme, which sought to streamline the Church and re-align it underneath a new Archbishops’ Council. The project was somewhat of a disaster: my theology degree was really no help. So I headed north to the Business School to learn retrospectively how it should have been done.

Armed with my Association of MBAs Student of the Year award, I sallied forth again, this time as a Change Management consultant for Deloitte. Ah, the tools I learned there! I was a whizz at change workshops, communications plans and stakeholder management. So why was it that still so many of these projects failed to deliver the benefits they had promised?

While teaching leadership at Ashridge Business School, I finally realised what causes the problem. No matter how elaborate your processes or how diligently you structured your project, if those leading it don't role-model the change that is required, it is doomed to fail.

But how best to help leaders lead change well? What I learned from all those change tools and models is that they are all based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Grief Curve.

You can test this yourself by asking people to stand up and ‘change something about themselves.’ Instinctively, they will take off a ring or a watch, when of course they could just have easily borrowed a hat. So the first step in any change process is to discover who will lose what, why this matters, and what might replace it.

Otherwise, resistance to change tends to arise from a number of root causes. The first is relatively fixable – those involved may simply not have access to all the information that you do, and may not really understand why the change is necessary. So you may learn that you need to communicate rather better.

The next is also quite straightforward: they may fear that the change will expose a lack of skill or competence. So you may need to train, coach, mentor or transition those involved as the change progresses. The final reason is the trickiest: a lack of motivation.

People are motivated to change in myriad ways, and there is no substitute for the hard work involved in figuring that out for each and every person in your charge.

But what helps most is your excellent example: they simply won’t buy the change unless you demonstrate by your every word and action that it is not only required but inevitable.

Eve Poole is a leadership consultant, teacher, and public speaker. A change management expert, she graduated from the Edinburgh MBA in 1998. Her book Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership is out now.

Read more about University of Edinburgh Business School graduates in the latest edition of Aluminate.