Change programmes. Meat and drink to the red-braces wearing, MBA-toting, PowerPoint-wielding 25 year-olds the big consulting firms send in to tell you what’s wrong with your business.
Nearly always, the answer to whatever’s wrong is a “change programme” of some sort. Mainly because when you’re 25 and don’t have any business experience of your own to draw on, you do what the partners back at Head Office tell you. And they like change programmes, because there’s big money to be made by locking a client into at least a year’s-worth of fees.
So when a partner in a big consulting firm tells their 25 year-old associates to say the answer to their client’s troubles is “a change programme”, that’s exactly the prescription they’re going to write.
What the big consultancies don’t tell you is that all change programmes suffer from the same problem.
They throw out everything to start again. Some things deserve to be thrown out – after all, they caused all the problems in the first place.
But the vast majority of things in the business probably didn’t need to be changed just to fit in with some corporate visioning piece the aforementioned big consultancy has also told the client they needed.
The hardest part in a change programme isn’t throwing everything out and starting again. Any idiot can do that…and quite a few idiots do every year.
That’s one of the reasons change programmes only rarely deliver on the promises made upfront. Even McKinsey admit that 70% of change initiatives fail every year.
Frankly these aren’t a whole lot better than the odds you’d get sitting round a Las Vegas card table. Maybe there’s a way to improve those odds a little….
If the hardest part isn’t throwing everything out, what is?
No, the hardest part isn’t throwing everything out with a single stroke of a red pen and starting again.
The hardest part is deciding what bits to keep.
What’s working now? Don’t change it.
What do customers like? Don’t change it.
What do staff enjoy about being part of your team? Don’t change it.
There are usually lots of things you shouldn’t change, if for no other reason than you’ll be upsetting a large proportion of your workforce (80%…90%…?) who are doing just fine already.
The likelihood is whatever the change programme comes up with won’t be any better.
It’s more likely to be worse because those staff members already doing a great job will be demotivated by being told to do something clearly insane by someone wearing red braces who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Even if the change programme develops a new way of working that’s some tiny fraction of a penny cheaper every time an individual staff member cranks the handle at their workstation, the loss in motivation means you might not really be saving those fractions of a penny after all.
Instead, you’re losing some of the productive capacity you benefit from now, without realising it or paying for it, because motivated staff work better and harder than unmotivated staff. This doesn’t look like a cost in a bookkeeping sense, but the difference between motivated and unmotivated staff in a business is one of the biggest costs there is.
You’re saving fractions of a penny and you’re giving up pounds or dollars or euros to do it. That’s poor economics.
Except for the consulting firm you’re paying millions to. Their economics on the deal are pretty sweet. They’re quite happy about the way things worked out.
And, in fairness, you’ll feel pretty good in the short run too.
The high-end consultancies know you want to feel good about your decision to pay them millions of dollars, so they’re going to gather plenty of evidence about how you paid them, let’s say, $5 million but they’ve worked out a plan to save you $20 million in return.
They know sooner or later someone’s going to ask, so they make sure to give you the answer before you’re asked the question. That way you look like someone who’s in charge…and if your boss is doing the asking you look like a person destined for promotion by giving an immediate answer.
Being able to parrot a quick metric about superficial short-term cost savings usually chokes off most questions about why the business is doing catastrophically stupid things. Especially so the further away from the shop floor the person asking why changes need to be made has their office.
And of course, the big consultancies will write you up in glowing terms on their website. You’ll be in the glossy printed magazine they send round all their CEO contacts. You’ll be invited to ask to speak at their conferences.
They’ll make you feel on top of the world.
But odds are you’ve sown the seeds of your own destruction. Previously loyal employees start “exploring opportunities to develop their career elsewhere”. Some of your best customers don’t seem quite so enthusiastic about sending orders your way. Some of your key partners and suppliers start citing contractual terms to you, rather than rolling with the punches like they used to do, knowing if they scratched your back today you’d scratch theirs right back again tomorrow.
On the surface, especially with the PR machine of a big consultancy behind you, there might be a good enough story to tell for a couple of years. But somehow the magic has started leeching away from your business. Once that starts, the direction of travel is usually set. The only question is how long it takes to go from change programme to basket case.
How do you know what to keep?
Knowing what to keep is tricky. That’s why it’s a lot easier to throw everything out and start again as that requires no critical or analytical skills whatsoever.
The best analogy I can give you is from the music industry.
If a song’s not working for them, they don’t throw out every note and start again. They work with what’s already there to build a new, and hopefully better, end product than they had before. That’s called a remix.
But this is the key bit…
The record companies actually change very little of what they started with for a remix… 5-10% tops.
The challenge is to change as little as possible, not as much as possible.
They don’t write a whole new song – that would be more like the traditional change programme approach where everything is thrown out and you start again..
Even the term “change programme” or “change management” implies “everything is going to be different around here”.
When record companies sanction a remix, the expectation is that most things won’t change at all. But some new elements will be introduced to try and create the magic that wasn’t quite there the first time round.
Perhaps weirdly, changing as little as possible on tunes nobody cares about can turn them into worldwide hit records.
In case you doubt that, here’s three quick examples…
3 hugely successful remixes
In 1997, a obscure British indie-rock band just about limped into the music industry’s consciousness when their song “Brimful of Asha” asthmatically climbed all the way up to number 60 in the singles charts before being quickly forgotten.
Except by Norman Cook (perhaps better known under his stage name of Fatboy Slim). His remix…almost identical to Cornershop’s original…shot to the top of the UK singles charts in February 1998. The extra few percent Fatboy Slim added made a record nobody had ever heard of into a platinum-selling Number 1.
You might never have heard of Cornershop…at least before their Number 1 record…but I can virtually guarantee you’ve heard of Elvis Presley. The “King of Rock and Roll” is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music and a 20th Century cultural icon.
But even Elvis had some duds…until the remixers came along.
The King had recorded a song called “A Little Less Conversation” as the B-side for a 1968 single that went absolutely nowhere. This was before his Comeback Tour. These were the lean years for Elvis when the record-buying public stopped caring about his music as much as they used to.
That obscure B-side had been long forgotten, except among die-hard Elvis fans, by the early 2000s.
At least until JXL remixed “A Little Less Conversation” in 2002. Then everybody knew about it.
The remix was a UK Number 1 single for four weeks and a cut-down version of the remix was chosen for that year’s World Cup theme tune as well, boosting its popularity even further..
If you listen to the two versions side by side, the surprising thing again is how little changed. But a sprinkle of remix magic made a long-forgotten B-side recorded 35 years earlier by the King of Rock and Roll into a Number One hit record 25 years after he’d passed away. That’s a pretty neat trick however you look at it. (Original here, remix here.)
And finally, just in case you think this trick only worked decades ago, one of the biggest hits of recent years was Mike Posner’s “Ibiza”.
You’ll have heard it hundreds of times even if you don’t remember the singer’s name or the song’s title. “Ibiza” was never off the radio for much of 2015 and 2016. It was Number 1 in the UK for four weeks, and hit the top of the charts around the world.
But the smash-hit version you’ll have heard is a remix. I can virtually guarantee you’ll never have heard the original.
That’s because the original disappeared down a rabbit hole pretty much as soon as it left the recording studio. Almost nobody was interested, except Norwegian remixers Seeb, who thought they could do something interesting with what was at the time a rather glum acoustic guitar-based song.
Their extra couple of percent made a record nobody wanted to listen to into a 5-times platinum record in the UK alone, and a platinum-selling record around the world. (Original version here, Seeb’s remix here. Please note there is a parental advisory on the lyrics for this song, so don’t listen if you’re likely to be offended. Strong language apart, it’s a great song.)
What does this mean for your business?
I could go on, but I won’t. I’m sure you get the idea. Countless hit records have been created over the years as a result of taking a record nobody liked very much and changing just a few percent of it.
Changing that few percent was all it took to take those songs from good to great…or perhaps more accurately “completely unknown to worldwide number one”…
Think about this. The record company made million-selling hit records out of material they had already recorded by changing very little and spending little or no money.
And they did this even though all remixes, including those cited above, are by definition the same song in both “hit” and “non-hit” versions.
The melodic structure doesn’t change. The chords don’t change. The lead vocal doesn’t change.
What changes are the subtleties…the feel, the ambience, the rhythm, the instrumentation…mostly things you only notice subliminally. Together they change how you feel about a song and make you want to put your hand in your pocket to buy a copy.
For a skilled remixer, knowing what to leave the same is at least as important as knowing what needs to change.
So it is in your business.
If things could be better, perhaps you don’t need a change programme at all. Maybe you need to think in terms of a remix, where most things stay the same, than a change programme where you throw everything out and start again.
Perhaps think about the business subtleties as the place to start and leave the bulk of things just as they are, like a remixer would.
Leadership, customer experience and employee engagement are often great starting points. All of those alter the look and feel of your business, just like Seeb, JXL and Fatboy Slim did for those unloved songs gathering dust in their record companies’ vaults.
And, at the risk of over-extending the metaphor, doing a remix is also several orders of magnitude cheaper than recording an original song from scratch.
Your high-end consultancy-driven change programme is like recording a song from scratch. It’s a major investment that might go nowhere.
You might even be worse off than when you started in the pretty likely event the change programme doesn’t achieve its objectives, a fate which you’ll remember even McKinsey admits befalls 70% or so of change programmes.
A remix is the investment of a few grand in your business…actually often nothing at all except some salary time you’re already paying for…tinkering around with the bits that don’t quite work and putting them right, often for little or no cash investment.
So next time a freshly-minted MBA with a business card from a big consultancy turns up and tries to persuade you to embark on an ambitious change programme which involves throwing everything out and starting again, just remember these two things.
Firstly, whatever he or she is proposing is very unlikely to do anything close to what they’re telling you (since that’s the outcome 70% of the time, you’ve got less than a 1-in-3 chance that you’ll be one of the lucky ones).
Secondly, remember that you might not need a change programme at all. Try a remix first. You’ll be surprised how far a few grand well-spent can take you.
In a musical sense, it can give you a worldwide Number 1.
In a business sense, a remix really can take you from good to great..