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Fast and focused: Creating change in the workplace

Fast and focused: Creating change in the workplace

[photo of Peter Richardson and Elspeth Murray on Queen's campus]
Photo by Bernard Clark

Business professors Peter Richardson and Elspeth Murray on the corner of University Avenue and Union Street, Queen's campus.

Whether it’s launching a new strategic plan, making deep cultural change, navigating an acquisition, or bringing a new product to market, the first 100 days are critical, say change experts Elspeth Murray and Peter Richardson, faculty members at the Smith School of Business.

Strategic change is like playing golf, says Murray, associate dean of MBA Programs and director of the Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing. “When your drive goes 350 yards, what’s needed to put the ball in the hole is far less onerous than if your drive is 50 yards and in the rough.”

Entire transformations aren’t expected to happen within 100 days, Richardson emphasizes. “But that’s when you want to set the tone, make people believe you are serious, and get a few runs on the board.”

Thereafter, he adds, every 100 days you want to be reviewing the initiative, updating your action plans, and making sure milestones are being achieved.

One successful executive who recognized the value of 100-day timeframe is Jack Welch, who ran General Electric between 1981 and 2001. During his tenure, the company's value rose 4,000 per cent. “For years, he brought his executive team together every 100 days, for two days,” Richardson says. “He called the meetings ‘intellectual orgies’—basically they were reviewing strategy and any changes taking place in the organization.”

[book cover]In Fast Forward: Organizational Change in 100 Days, Murray and Richardson detail their practical and proven framework, which is validated by research studies. Challenging prevailing ideas that change always requires time, and plenty of it, they argue that breaking initiatives into 100-day chunks enables leaders to move forward more effectively. “Before you know it, you have made a change that had seemed overwhelming, and in a relatively straightforward way,” says Murray.

Executives, they say, must also establish ten “winning conditions” to increase the likelihood of successful change. Among them are correct diagnosis of the change challenge; rapid, strategic decision-making and deployment; and demonstrated leadership commitment.

Instability is not necessarily bad: it keeps you paying attention

The 100-day timeframe and those winning conditions remain critical for keeping change leaders fast and focused in today’s world, say Murray and Richardson. However, since Fast Forward was published in 2002, strategic change has become more daunting. For one thing, everything has sped up.

“The Conference Board of Canada does an annual survey of CEOs globally, and for the last five years, execution and implementation—making strategy and change happen— have been consistently among the biggest challenges,” Richardson says. “But the pace has picked up. Change never ends in today’s world.”

Too few business leaders have grasped that change is no longer occasional, but is now continual, says Murray, resulting in a lack of organizational dynamism. “Instead of trying to achieve stability, it’s often better to accept instability. Instability is not necessarily bad: it keeps you paying attention.”

Adding to the struggle, organizational environments have become more complex. “The overall job of change has become tougher because leaders often have to deal with external restraining factors, such as risk management and compliance issues, which can slow the process down,” Richardson confirms.

“Grappling with complexities sucks resources away from change initiatives,” Murray says. “And leaders must now spend lots of time complying with regulations, learning what they are and how to work within them— another drain of resources.”

Given the chaos, how can leaders make change happen? Murray and Richardson are currently developing a new framework for implementation focused around adequacy of resources, appropriate culture in the organization, and quality of leadership—all linked together with excellent project management. “We believe this explains about 80 per cent of the success or failure of the actual execution of change,” Richardson says.

Drawing upon their extensive in-company, clinical case research, they are capturing emerging insights in a second book, focused on the pragmatic “how-to” of getting things done. “This means looking at the personal characteristics of people who make change happen, and the underpinning corporate requirements,” says Richardson.

At Queen’s, executive program and strategy program participants complete an assessment tool that evaluates whether the “winning conditions” are present for change initiatives in their organizations. “We have 1,500 responses, and there is a massive correlation between setting up winning conditions and the success that change initiatives enjoy,” Richardson notes.

A university environment, both professors agree, is ideal for studying change, which is by definition a shape-shifting subject. “It’s a great opportunity,” says Murray. “We’re not conducting research at a point in time; we’re constantly refining our thinking and figuring what’s changed since we last put it together.”

[cover - Queen's Alumni Review Digital Special Edition Fall 2015]