Below is a recent interview I gave to Mark Swain, Director of Henley Partnerships at Henley Business School. We were discussing some of the challenges with implementing corporate change, and how in my experience, to give yourself the best chance of success. I’d welcome your thoughts….


PRACTITIONER INTERVIEW: Adjusting the Sails of Change

As the saying goes, you can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sails. In other words, corporate change is happening anyway, and the trick is to alter your course so that you arrive in a different place i.e. with a better result. And stretching that sailing metaphor just a little, I’ve decided to change tack. Instead of writing more about change – I’m up to two articles, and over 2000 words, in the last couple of weeks alone – I thought I’d bring you a different voice. That’s why I sought the opinions of an accomplished change leader and practitioner – Michael Fekete (ex-Network Rail, Infrastructure UK and HM Treasury) and Henley MBA Alumnus. Below you’ll find his answers to some pointed questions, about what really drives change and how you make it work:



Mark: The question is often-asked, but I haven’t seen many useful answers – why does change fail, and often so spectacularly?

Michael: There are so many practitioners and academics looking into this that I may do them a dis-service in a short paragraph! However in my experience it almost always comes down to a few simple points:

  • Is there buy-in to the vision for change among key influential stakeholders in the organisation? It’s great to write a vision on a piece of paper in an ivory tower, but has anyone spent the time discussing with different parts of the organisation to really understand what problem needs solving?
  • Secondly has the solution been co-developed with those stakeholders or have you just thought “ we agree on the problem, so I’ll fix it for you.” Too often change programmes see themselves as the authority on change rather than co-developing in partnership.
  • And thirdly have you got clarity on what benefits will be delivered from the change and then worked out who will actually make sure these benefits are realised. I have seen countless examples of benefits petering out over time and being forgotten!

So in summary, my main advice is invest upfront in getting the right elements of the programme in place and you have a much greater chance of the transformation lasting.



Mark: You and I have talked about the need for companies to do more to visualise, and bring to life, the end state they have in mind when they embark on big change. What else can companies do when they start the journey?

Michael: You are absolutely right, bringing to life the end state is really key, both for the programme teams and for the wider business. However that end state can often be a long way off and in reality this doesn’t mean much for most people. So it’s also really important to bring to life what the changes will bring at earlier points in time so they can see that the pain of changing is worth it.

It’s a bit like saying “Look you need to save for your retirement in 20-30years because then you can have a great round the world trip”. But how do you know if you want to go round the world? Wouldn’t it be better if I gave myself the chance of a long trip every five years to try it out? Again this is about investing upfront to engage with stakeholders across the organisation to make sure it’s a SHARED vision.

Finally – and this is really more applicable to larger organisations, but very often some of the changes may already have been thought of somewhere in the business, or worse still have been tried out and failed. Organisations are not that effective at bringing together their portfolio of change in one place to allow them to make the right strategic decisions, or at sharing knowledge across different initiatives. So right at the start it is critical to align the proposed vision to the wider portfolio and strategy. That might mean waiting for the right time to get the most effective outcome for a single programme, or even accepting that it needs to be parked given everything else going on in the organisation. Investing in this portfolio approach to transformation requires expert resource working closely with senior executives in the organisation to get the most value and lead to effective decision making.



Mark: Why don’t companies invest more upfront in the planning of change, and what is the benefit of doing so?

Michael: It’s a great question Mark. I think it probably is seen as something that any leader or executive in a company needs to just fit in around their day job. They’ve often had the idea and, rightly, want their teams to get on and deliver it. But it takes expertise and commitment of time to turn those ideas into something that can actually be implemented and realise lasting business benefit.

I have advised a number of business leaders on this, and I always encourage them to take a little longer (weeks not months) to get the building blocks in place before rushing to implement. I remember saying to one exec: “Yes we can get round the table and make these decisions tomorrow, but I am not convinced they will last. Give me 4 weeks to go and speak to business leaders and we will get a decision that is future proof.” I’m glad to say he listened to me and it worked – the changes were lasting!

In my view that upfront investment will pay dividends down the line and avoid having to waste resources on something that does not have stakeholder buy-in or was not properly sequenced with other activity.



Mark: When it comes to change, companies seem to be listening and not learning – meaning they know what to do, but they often fail to execute properly (that knowing/doing gap)? Why do you think that happens?

Michael: It’s a really hard one. I have been on the client side making business decisions and rightly there is always a sense of urgency and pressure to deliver results. I have rarely seen transformations based on ‘bad ideas’ but more often it is just not feasible to implement in parallel to everything else the organisation is trying to achieve. Again it’s about making the right linkages across the company and investing early.

And this is about sharing knowledge and incentives as well. Very often in large organisations with multiple devolved business units, it is not necessarily in people’s interests to share what went well before and what works well. Creating a culture around transformation that encourages sharing these lessons – both painful and positive ones – will create a much more effective and balanced portfolio. Equally creating a pool of expert transformation resource in-house means that this knowledge can be retained and people can be moved across the organisation and take their experiences into emerging change programmes.

All of this again requires investment in expert and dedicated resource to be really effective – and of course this is always going to be fighting for budget and resource with business as usual activity.



Mark: When is the best time to hire external consultants, and when should they exit?

Michael: Although I am now consulting, I have a lot of experience being the internal client accountable for delivering change, so hopefully will give an unbiased view!

Programmes are naturally temporary structures so in some ways resources always need to be flexible. For me, the most important thing is it should very much be outcome-based rather than time-based to drive greatest value for money. Don’t just ask consultants to fill roles and keep extending them.

My view is the start of a portfolio or programme definition is the first critical phase where most value can be gained because the entire duration and quality of the programme will be determined by the approach to stakeholder and benefits management during this phase.

Secondly bringing external help in during critical decision points – or stage gates – can be helpful to provide assurance and undertake a quick review. Often a fresh pair of eyes can be good for quickly spotting where a programme is deviating from plan and help to re-set the direction.

And finally I think external expertise is really valuable for planning and managing the transition into normal business operations and testing whether those plans are robust before the programme can hand over and close out.

Critical to all the above is making sure external consultants plan their handover. When I’ve run various programmes, I would often bring in external support to mobilise a team quickly but from the outset would start internal and external recruitment to transition this as soon as possible. That way external advisers were clear on their short-term focus and incentives were aligned!


Thanks to Michael for giving this interview. The views expressed above are his personal views and cannot be attributed to any organisation

This was one of the first change programmes in the business to engage with us and ask us what we really needed

Business Unit Director  |  Transport Provider

Thank you for all the experience, energy and effort you put into your work for me whilst you were here. We came a long way and I couldn't have got this far without your help.

Head of Business Change  |  UK Infrastructure Network Provider

Because they are all experienced professionals the support and engagement we received from our partners at Bespoke Change was refreshingly practical and action focused.

Group Director of Finance  |  FTSE Media Company