It’s true, a formula for successful change exists. Adapted for the public service from Beckhard and Harris 1987, the formula for successful change is as follows:
Change = Dissatisfaction + Opportunity + Practicality > Inertia
This means that, for the Change to be successful, Dissatisfaction with the current operating environment, coupled with the Opportunity for successful change to happen (including the possibility to shape the vision of the future), plus the Practicality of the change (including our concrete first steps and the capacity of the organization to change), must be greater than the expected or actual Inertia (e.g., the perceived cost) against the change.
The variables in this formula are difficult to quantify and putting them into practice can be complex. However, taken as a conceptual model, the formula for change can be very powerful in directing our energy to the right places. Having discussions on these variables with the leadership team and select stakeholders is a great starting point. It can give us an idea of what the state is of the change initiative we are leading and can work well as a conceptual model when briefing senior leadership.
How do we use the formula for successful change?
The formula is quite versatile and can be used at various stages of our change initiative and for different purposes.
In order to get the most out of the formula we want to set up separate (and possibly ongoing) discussions with senior leadership, our change team, and some key stakeholders. In the beginning, these don’t need to be too detailed or over-complicated.
We can lead the discussion by asking the following questions (we can modify, add, remove questions as fits the context):
- What is the degree of dissatisfaction with the current operating environment? Why?
- If we have already developed our vision for the future, will it satisfy the dissatisfaction? Or, if we don’t yet have a set vision for the future, how can we generate the energy necessary to engage relevant stakeholders in helping to shape it?
- How will we ensure we have sufficient capability to lead this change effectively throughout the process?
- What are the first steps we could ideally take to set the change in motion?
- What inertia (culture, processes, systems) might we run into? What can we do to overcome this inertia?
So, when should we use this formula?
It’s most often used before starting the change initiative in order to get a conceptual understanding of what needs to be in place if we are to succeed. But, it can be used at various points throughout the change process.
Before starting our change initiative, the formula can be useful in helping us conceptualize the driving and reacting forces related to our change. It also lets us broadly estimate the chances of success for a particular project, allowing us to better make decisions on where to dedicate our resources.
At the start
In the early stages of leading a change, the change formula can enrich the analysis of our stakeholders and the likelihood of them supporting the change. It can also help us highlight certain elements that might motivate people or hinder our project.
Throughout the change we can revisit the formula and the determinations we made for D, O, P and I. This will give us a chance to revise our estimations of project success and direct energy to areas that might need it. The question to ask ourselves here is whether there are shifts in the variables that might affect the change effort.
After In the later stages of leading our change, the formula can help us take stock of what contributed to or hindered success. This is helpful for drawing lessons for the future.
Equipped with our formula for change, next we’ll look at identifying what is driving our change.