The case for change

To define, design and deliver meaningful strategy, you must first understand your reasons for needing it: your case for change.

The study of History is the study of change, and why change happens, and so there is no better place to look for understanding change than in the past: specifically, the different theories of why change happens, which is called ‘historiography’.

This article takes elements of historiographical theory and applies them to strategic business change to offer a better-rounded understanding of where your case for change might come from, what your role might be within it, and, ultimately, how you can implement your strategy successfully.

Can you cause change…?

When you think of periods of immense change in the past, chances are that you initially associate them with ‘main characters’ who seem to have caused those events to happen. This is called ‘Great Man/Woman’ historiography. Think of the Napoleonic Wars, or the Second World War, or the American Civil Rights movement – how synonymous are they to you with the names of Napoleon, Hitler or Martin Luther King Jr? In fifty years, will we be telling the story of Brexit in terms of May and Johnson? This way of analysing change ascribes all responsibility, and all credit or blame, on individual people. And doing this in a business strategy context pins the success or failure of a large initiative on one person, often the CEO or programme lead.

If, as a new leader joining a business, you seek to launch a new vision to announce a new era, there’s no denying that you would have some personal agency in its creation; however, the events, initiatives and ultimate success of that vision would exit your control almost immediately and become collectively owned by your leadership team, and acted upon by your staff members. To see yourself, or to be seen by others, as the sole ‘maker of change’ risks ignoring the evolution of what the vision really means to the company and alienating the people involved in developing and implementing it.

Napoleon didn’t win his wars without his army, and he certainly didn’t decide his strategy without his generals.

A strong vision needs contribution and consensus from across your leadership team; they are the people who will then cascade it through the ranks of the organisation. As part of recognising this we offer workshops and accelerator events to involve all necessary parties in the creative journey, therefore establishing accountability and passion for delivering your vision.

…Or is change inevitable?

Moving to the other historiographical extreme brings us to ‘Marxist Historiography’, which is the idea that change is an almost predetermined result of the long-term cyclical movement of socio-economic forces. Will Brexit be explained in terms of May and Johnson, or will it be explained more in terms of post-recession hardship and a global trend towards nationalism and economic protectionism?

Applying this theory to the world of mergers and acquisitions, it is unlikely that a ‘Great Man/Woman’ of business can decide to initiate a joint venture without a long-term alignment of brands and markets of two companies driven mainly by globalisation, consumer preferences and purchasing power. The point at which the final decision is made to ‘go’ is the end point of an invisible long-term movement that, to an extent, predetermines the outcome of decision-making. This way of understanding strategic change will be familiar to business leaders who know that the success of a company depends heavily on its ability to adapt to its macro socio-economic environment, and that strategy can’t be created in a vacuum.

Martin Luther King Jr’s speech inspired the world, but if the time and place hadn’t been right to receive it, would anyone have listened?

It is also important to consider the specific cultural history of your organisation. Your employees belong to the context and success of decision-making on a micro socio-economic level, and the success of any strategic change depends on how well it draws on and expands existing behaviours and attitudes. To inspire adaptation to cultural shifts within MA&D we take the idea of a historical ‘invented tradition’, of the sort that has been used in the past at times of the creation of a new nation, and apply this to the creation of a new company with a similarly thought-out narrative of shared heritage in the knowledge that a strong collective culture is a company’s biggest overall asset.

Successful strategy, therefore, requires recognition of the macro and micro socio-economic landscapes that act as the guardrails for your personal agency.

The case against change

A final watch-out for leaders on the verge of pursuing strategic change is the theory of ‘Whig Historiography’. This was the Victorian belief that all change is progressive and brings humanity one step closer to an ideal of ‘civilisation’. This historiographical view was shattered by the destructive events of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it can still be very tempting to believe that any change, historical or business, is a change for the better. It’s often worth the effort to interrogate whether a new strategic initiative will contribute to your business’s value proposition, or whether it is change for the sake of change that could prove, at best, costly, and, at worst, destructive.

When helping you to optimise your portfolio, we help you to prioritise the products, services and projects that are worth investing in, and those that could be liquidated to release funds for more impactful initiatives, recognising that not all change is progressive. Here, it is also important to consider the extent to which ‘Great Man/Woman’ perceptions are skewing your evaluation of programmes that might bring about short-term ‘quick wins’ and reputational gain, but that might represent a large opportunity cost in terms of alternative longer-term investments.

And, in delivering these initiatives, it is always worth considering whether using the latest shiny technology or technique is likely to provide business benefit, or whether it just appeals because it’s new. Methodologies such as Scaled Agile can often enhance the delivery of a programme, but, when attempted without care or customisation, can introduce a level of complexity that hinders successful delivery and clashes with your company’s culture. We recognise this, and can help you to tailor the right methodologies to deliver for your organisation.

Making strategy happen

There is no definitive way of understanding historical change, and there’s no ‘right’ answer for understanding business change either. Applying historiographical theory to the microhistories of your business is just one further lens through which you can evaluate your business strategy and the motivations behind it in order to determine your next necessary step in Making Strategy Happen.

Gate One conducts every engagement with a thoughtful, tailored approach which brings past experience to help you to understand what lies behind your business change, and how you can therefore deliver lasting change that counts to your organisation.

SARAH HARDY | CONSULTANT

Sarah is a Consultant specialising in strategy and programme leadership consulting. She is experienced in designing and delivering large transformation programmes across multiple sectors.

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