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How tackling the hard stuff can break down resistance to change

Blake Lindsay

Implementation and electric power expert who helps major utilities and merchant power companies design, implement, and sustain large-scale transformations of their performance, health, and capabilities.

David A. Shore

Founding member of McKinsey’s external implementation advisory board and a former associate dean at Harvard University, where he continues to teach.

Eugene Smit

Helps major industrial companies design and deliver large-scale, multi-year transformation programs to strengthen operational performance and profitability.

Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at Google X, shares an allegory of a company that needed to teach a monkey to recite Shakespeare while on a pedestal. Teller poses the question, “Where would you begin?”

In this allegory, most people would opt for first erecting the pedestal. After all, that is objectively easier than “shooting for the moon,” so to speak, of teaching a monkey to recite the “Storm on the Heath” monologue from King Lear. While we don’t believe that companies must always begin with the hard stuff, we do recommend that they acknowledge the complexity of what lies ahead. Difficult tasks—such as reorganizing a team structure—require extra focus, resources, and creativity to solve, which is why leaders should make the time to plan for them. In addition, leaders should set high aspirations for their organizations during the transformation, which can help teams avoid the predictable pattern of opting for quick wins.

Experience and research show us that carving out time to tackle the more challenging parts of the business problem can have a significant positive impact on the full transformation. McKinsey’s Global Implementation Survey found organizations that prioritized their efforts most effectively were 3.2 times more likely to be successful in their change program than those that do not. One reason is that with practice comes improvement: organizations get better at the difficult things the more they do them, similar to how metabolisms becomes more efficient after strenuous activity.

Breakthrough changes are particularly challenging, in part, because the degree of resistance correlates directly with the magnitude of the change—consider, for example, the attitudes toward a departmental restructure versus a merger—reminding us just how difficult it is to adapt. Of the more than 1,400 executives interviewed for the implementation survey, more than half said internal resistance to change was their biggest challenge.

So how can leaders help their organizations effectively solve the more difficult problems while addressing internal resistance?

The importance of ambitious goals

Executives that want to succeed in a transformation should set aspirational targets and share them across teams. Doing so can help business leaders be more open to doing things differently, avoid incremental thinking, and create a shared sense of purpose. In fact, our implementation survey found that organizations with people who feel a shared sense of accountability are 3.7 times more likely to succeed in achieving and sustaining their transformation goals than organizations without.

One large electric power company embarked on a three-year performance and culture transformation, systematically working through every area of its business with the goal of achieving comprehensive and standardized change. To begin, the leadership team focused its energy on reducing structural complexity in its most siloed business units. Senior management reasoned that “if we can be successful in reorganizing this unit, we can be successful everywhere—and it will be impossible for people to argue that the transformation program would be more difficult in their area.”

The team’s hypothesis proved correct: three years later, that business unit is still the lighthouse for transformation. It reduced total annual spending by 20 percent and made significant improvements in the unit’s operations. These successes paved the way for an acceleration of the change program in other business units as stakeholders realized the program would also work in their divisions.

Furthermore, because the most complex unit was successful in its transformation, leaders realized that deeper change was more possible than they originally thought.

Motivation for the big tasks ahead

It’s easy for leaders to spend a large amount of their time on less significant but more straightforward details while leaving more meaningful opportunities on the table. Two guidelines can help companies prioritize the tasks that could have the greatest impact on the transformation.

Find your organization’s lighthouse. When your organization embarks on a transformation, the to-do list of tasks ahead can seem overwhelming. Experience shows us that executive engagement is highest at the start of a change program, so this is the best time to establish a shared sense of purpose. One way to do this is to give precedence to a visibly difficult area, and use its success as a beacon for the remainder of the transformation, as the electric power company did.

Let your teams lead. When faced with significant change or difficult tasks, organizations often default to existing processes and practices. One reason for this is the inherent resistance that often bubbles up as a reaction to change. Additionally, teams will often default to what they perceive their senior leaders want—or how they believe those leaders would solve the problem—preventing organic buy-in for the change. Instead of succumbing to these obstacles at the start, leaders can encourage their teams to engage in the process of solving for their biggest problems, rather than just “doing things the way we always do.” By getting people involved in the solutions, leadership can mitigate resistance and create a shared mission.

The better leaders become at identifying and pursuing the hard stuff at the onset of the transformation, the more likely it is that they can gain the momentum needed to achieve the desired change.

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