Alan Bird: The What, Who and How of Delivering Results



Companies' efforts to change often fall short of their goals because leaders fail to change behavior within the organization. Alan Bird, an advisory partner with Bain’s Results Delivery practice, describes the risks of change and how CEOs can manage those risks by answering three basic questions.

Read the transcript below.

ALAN BIRD: It's a bit of a cliche, but it's still true that most change efforts fail. And the primary reason why change efforts fail is because we all tend to focus on delivering what we set out to achieve. We don't necessarily look at what it takes to realize the benefits.

And the best example of this I can give is trying to buy the home gym kit to help you get fit. It's a good start. But if you don't change your behavior, in terms of using the gym kit on a regular basis, and putting it in place in part of your healthy lifestyle, nothing's going to change. And when we talk to CEOs about how to make people change behaviors, we ask them to phase into just three simple questions.

The first is the what. What is it we're trying to achieve? And why is that important? Now clearly, it's important to get the right strategy or the new operating model organizational system—new ways of working. But that's not all you need. You need to bring people along with you so they understand how am I meant to behave differently to deliver this new strategy operating model?

We often call this the beach. And the reason we call it the beach is because when you're going on holiday with your family, you don't try to excite them about where you're going by going through the detailed itinerary. And saying how we get from the home to airport and airport to hotel, etc. We show them the iconic picture of the beach, or the mountain, or whatever it might be.

But as organizations, we get this wrong. We typically show them the plan of how we get there. We don't show them and demonstrate why is it important to them to get to the beach.

The second question is the who. Who's going to drive the change? Now, many organizations get this wrong. We get this wrong as consultants often.

Because you try and set up a change office to drive the change into the organization. And a colleague of mine once said the most important lesson I've ever learned about how you manage change, which is, you can't appoint someone to be a change sponsor. Change leadership is a function of the line.

And the reason that's true is because we're trying to change behaviors; the person who has the greatest influence in someone trying to change their behaviors is their direct boss. And for that direct boss it's their direct boss. And this creates a spine of leadership which will drive the change into the organization.

Now, that's not to say there's no use for a central change team. But one of the most important roles of that change team is to support the line in its function as sponsors of change.

The third question's more about the how. How do you get there and what might get in the way? And one of our core beliefs is that change risk is entirely predictable. It's measurable. And therefore, it's actionable.

Now, that's not to say that change risks are the same in all cases, or even that change risk doesn't change over time in any one transformation. But it does say that over time we've recognized the bank of change risks that are likely to occur. And can put in place simple and pragmatic actions to mitigate against those risks.

What are the three risks we see most often? Probably is number one, not being clear on your beach. So you can't bring people along with you.

Number two, you haven't got an effective spine. So you haven't got the organization supporting the change process.

And number three, you're trying to do too much through that spine. Far too many initiatives, not necessarily ordered and sequenced. And you're trying to do business as usual at the same time.

So if you want to increase your change odds of success as a CEO, just ask the three questions about the what, the who and the how.

Read the Bain Brief: The What, Who and How of Delivering Results