Key Success Factors to a Fit-for-Purpose change management process for your transformation

What are the leading strategies for successfully implementing change and transformation today?

This note explores whether change implementation strategies in the present (2019) and near-term future working world need to be any different than before, and implications for organizations.

Let’s begin by defining success.

In large scale organization change implementation the benefits of any change are said to be realized when the organization does at the end what was intended at the beginning.

Sound simple enough?

Yet the evidence does not support that assertion!

The unique challenges of change implementation: Why benefits are so difficult to realize

To begin with it would be fair to say that successfully implementing change and transformation is already widely acknowledged to be a significant challenge – there is plenty of data in the form of oft-quoted failure rates that support this view.

Leaving aside critiques on the potential for bias in the sources, appropriateness of the data and other limitations in these studies, what is more curious is that the ‘failure’ numbers seemingly haven’t changed over a long period of time. Implementation effectiveness and change research has a long history – think Kurt Lewin, 1940’s.

After almost 80 years of studies, there is no demonstrable improvement in success rates, no clearly emerging formula to assure successful implementation. It doesn’t matter the size of organization or project, the sector, the spend on change infrastructure... it’s quite unceremoniously across the board.

What is clear, especially in the last 20 years, is that implementation returns consist of installation (building and putting the “thing” in place), and realization or adoption (actually using the thing as intended). Although installation returns can always be improved, they have proven less variable than realization or adoption returns – where the entire investment, including installation, can be lost because the uptake of the new system or building or infrastructure never happens – or happens with much less productivity gain than forecast.

Second, and more importantly, implementation benefits continue to take a larger portion from the realization or adoption phase – which only results in more variability on overall returns.

Whatever we discover eventually, what is clear is that these factors and this long history of struggling with succeeding in securing implementation benefits has translated into little incentive for organizations to invest in getting better at it. Systems thinkers would recognize this as a classic negatively reinforcing systems loop.

What is different about today.

So why bother getting better at change and implementation? And why now?

What’s different in the last several years is that there is a critical change to the operating environment of organizations. This trend makes implementation going forward significantly more challenging than before.

The change is the impact of VUCA and the digitalization/automation/IoT trends. Please look up VUCA if you haven’t heard of it. But we live and work today, as never before, in a VUCA environment. Today, unlike any previous time, it is no longer enough to say that the pace and magnitude of change is only getting rapidly faster and larger. That’s always been the case.

This time, it’s different. These two new aspects are increasingly pervasive, impacting nearly every aspect of how work gets done in organizations, subjecting nearly everything to conditions of constant flux. In consequence the delivery challenge – getting benefits from implementing – becomes increasingly difficult to identify and realize.

But there is a second, more insidious consequence of these two trends. Together they also impact the ability to define a clear end-state. Or another way – the validity of B-state has a shorter lifespan than before.

So what? Previous to these trends, when things changed, they tended to return to something resembling steady-state – in Lewinian terms, a “re-freeze”. Programmatic change methods required it. B-state had some temporal stability to it. In organizations in consequence, B-state enabled leaders to bring the organization to a believable landing point.

The impact of VUCA and technology on B-state makes it fuzzier, more a passing-through point to another, future point, itself further off and less clear.

The upshot is that this significantly raises individual anxiety because it is significantly more difficult to get organizational members to buy into a case for change with a less clear B-state. It’s much tougher to convince you of leaving where you are when the destination is itself not clear. Which in turn increases the risk of realizing returns from implementation.

That’s the update. So what can be done – and can it really help?

Ski Racer

Implementation success strategies for today’s world

It’s admittedly an increasingly challenging environment. And admittedly the waters are murky around being too prescriptive at what to do. And your people are more than ever in need of the skills and capabilities to deal with the ambiguities of change.

So why bother? Because the good news is that the power of implementing change successfully is shifting from expertise-led data and systems to local data and systems. The value of expertise, relatively speaking has decreased relative to the value of local information.

2 short years from now, it will be worth revisiting the previous section because, again, things will change. But for now, here are 3 proven strategies for organizations to yield more benefits from implementation and improve chances of being on the winning side.

Have realization metrics set in the business case – as stated, uptake and adoption benefits are increasingly a larger part of overall implementation returns.

In consequence, creating and tracking realization metrics – the phase of implementation where the organization begins to use the thing installed – enables the conversation between the project team and the operational team to take shape earlier.

It’s a necessary evil – having separate project and operational teams which is often the case during installation. But they can have very meaningful interaction when realization metrics keep the definition of uptake and application of B-state (however temporary) clear and articulated. Beyond numbers, it would drive articulation of efficiencies and ways of working so that installation activities can stay better focused.

Clearly it is not a fun conversation when installation efforts need to slow or pause in order that activities can be re-prioritized to maximize benefits in the realization phase. But this does happen. It’s not about it not happening, it’s getting better at adapting to it when it occurs.

Early consideration of realization or adoption benefits can be a critical enabler to the overall success of the effort. And, like adoption returns themselves, the hardest part can be having the disciplined mindset to do so.

Define hand-offs between the project team and the operational team – who will do what at the hand-off from installation to realization/adoption is always fraught with challenges – not least of which are that expectations themselves are human psychological constructions. Another universal constraint, Time, the least available resource in the best of cases, is inevitably least available for those who will take over the “thing” delivered when time comes for transition meetings.

Taking these two together it’s clear that the term hand-off itself could better be described as a process vs an event – consisting of several stages especially in major installations (chemical plants, large scale production facilities, space exploration launch vehicles, city-based battery-operated car solutions, ocean waste-cleaning solutions and other highly complex agile solution environments).

What clearly enables efforts in yielding maximum returns from the realization stage is a realization stage gate – in fact two. The two gates are an initial gate kicking off realization (any number of interim report-outs in between) and a final close-out gate – when returns are realized. Stage gates formalize the transition, putting the onus on business leaders to assure their visions are realized. It verifies the thing delivered during the installation phase.

Seeing realization gating as a process helps by providing time to test and clarify priorities and balance roles and responsibilities during the transition period.

Maintain portfolio reporting through the end of realization: If this sounds a lot like the old saying of you do what you measure, it is. But putting a focus on benefit metrics for the period of time to realize the benefits can go on for years. Tracking benefits over that time period is part of the challenge. Think climate interventions as an example of “most challenging” case for successfully yielding realization benefits.

Second, in a portfolio situation where the change and transformation will have multiple initiatives and programs over time, there’s a high likelihood that parts of the portfolio will be realizing while other parts are still installing – and vice-versa. For this reason, the portfolio’s profile will reflect both components of these states in different proportions over time – another reason to articulate portfolio reporting beyond installation into realization.

Maintaining focus on realization metrics into the realization phase will ensure the conversation on intended outcomes and realized ones is kept alive. This is greatly enhanced when sponsors themselves own the realization metrics.


To be sure – not all change and transformation agendas have large realization benefits components. So the caveat to this note is not all change and transformation implementation programs are the same.

But as VUCA-type change and digitalization/automation are increasingly pervasive, a significant part of benefit yield moves to the adoption or realization phase. Local data analytics and dashboards become more relevant enabling quicker and more accurate insights to local, regional and wider organization-specific dynamics. In consequence, despite the frenetic pace of change, there are some things you can consider doing to regain control and leave you less likely to leave it all to chance.

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