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Leadership in organisational change

Ivan Seselj
February 25, 2016

A successful change culture depends on the leadership team signalling their commitment to change. As well as setting the vision for what the business is trying to achieve, leadership support empowers the change agents working directly with teams so they can drive real changes in behaviour and lift capabilities throughout the organisation.

Without this support, change programs can lose focus or disintegrate into disjointed efforts by different teams, before eventually fading away into corporate memory as another failed change effort. The problem many leadership teams still struggle with is exactly how to provide this support, among their many other priorities.

Ongoing change doesn’t just happen. It depends on a governance structure of responsibilities coordinating the champions of change, process owners and participants. When it comes to the top of this pyramid, choosing the right chief process officer (CPO) is critical. The CPO is the leadership team’s representative. He or she drives change and pushes the organisation. In the past, we let businesses choose who should take the CPO role. Those people were passionate and skilled so we let them have the job. But this wasn’t necessarily the right strategy.

Critical role, critical failure

Passion and skill just aren’t enough: the CPO also needs to have clout. They need to be able to create cultural change by rewarding people when they do well and pushing them if they lag behind. For that reason, the CPO really needs to be a member of the executive team. As much as we all wish our companies had a flat hierarchy, the reality is that more junior team members often don’t carry the influence they need to implement change.

The value of having a CPO in the C-suite is proven and measurable. Those organisations with an executive level chief process officer have far better engagement. In fact, it’s a statistical red flag when the executive team isn’t interested in being involved. Implementation works best when the management team is invested—emotionally and literally—in the outcome. Without that drive from the top, implementation and adoption are likely to be less effective.

When the CPO role is given to someone at a more junior level, process improvement becomes something optional or extra. It gets put off until people have time. Which is to say, never.

Influencing improvement

From our experience working with hundreds of organisations around the world, we know that the CPO role is critical to the success of ongoing improvement efforts, and that the role should be filled from the C-suite. We also know, based on a business process management study conducted by TNS Global Research that 84% of businesses still don’t have a person in this role.

Without engagement from a member of the executive team, it’s difficult to engage the rest of your staff. And if your staff aren’t fully behind process improvement, it’s not going to be successful.

It is from the C-suite that the right conditions can be created for a collaborative culture of change across your organisation. It’s no longer good enough to run improvement initiatives, to capture process knowledge at great expense, and to ‘hope’ that changes will be operationalised and sustained.

Maintaining momentum

While projects usually start off well, they may gradually lose momentum. If motivation and engagement falter, everyone will revert to the old way of doing things. These kinds of problems can be exacerbated by too much unhelpful process documentation or a lack of acknowledgement by management of the achievements being made.

A CPO with executive clout can maintain the focus with evidence of top-down commitment and is more likely to have communications read, and acted upon.

Emails, dashboard notifications, project portals and meetings are opportunities to celebrate successes and acknowledge those who have performed over and above—people are often more productive when their contributions are recognised. Sharing information—both positive and negative—is essential in maintaining the integrity of communications.

Regular, CPO-led improvement opportunities, such as workshops separate from audit or process review sessions, will allow the sharing of ideas and encourage cross-fertilisation between teams. You can pinpoint problems, opportunities and customer satisfaction successes.

Beware of ‘behind closed doors’

When you have executive ownership you still need buy-in from the staff who use the processes. Problems will arise if the creation and management of new processes is undertaken behind closed doors, by people who are isolated from employees.

Sustainable process improvement isn’t something you can just turn on—it takes a structured, team approach. Everyone needs to be able to participate, just as everyone needs to be involved in the drive for incremental change. Process champions empowered by an active CPO will be able to drive improvement down to the day-to-day level and ensure its continuity. Then the processes as conceived can achieve their goals of improving business function and outcomes.

Ivan Seselj
Ivan Seselj is the CEO of Promapp, a process management software company.
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