Implementing Change in Your Business in 100 Days or Less

"Rapid fire questions cause Federal Reserve Chairman to have headache. Washington, D.C., March 23. Marriner Eccles, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board undertook to answer the Questions fired at him by Walter Trent, Director of the Rocky Mountain Metal Foundation. Trent's questions came so fast that Accles was hard put to answer them. Here he paused to rub his head during the questioning he was put through at the meeting of the Special Silver Committee." (1939) Photo by Harris & Ewing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps you read the title of this post and thought it was a good soundbite but totally unrealistic. Change your business in 100 days? Major change in business organizations takes time. There are lots of people and processes involved. You have to plan thoroughly to make sure changes don’t cause more problems than they solve. Yes, that is what I thought too but after reading Robert H. Schaeffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas’ Rapid Results! How 100-Day Projects Build the Capacity for Large-Scale Change, I too had to learn that this type of thinking is not necessarily accurate or helpful for the long-term growth of a business.

Shaeffer and Ashkenas’ book flies in the face of management strategies taught in most MBA programs and practiced in most businesses. When a business is facing a major change, such as massive restructuring, radical strategic shifts, large-scale mergers and acquisitions and major technology upgrades, there is almost a common recipe for addressing the issues. First, research and write a detailed analysis of the situation and recommended solution, often employing outside consultants. Second, begin implementing the solution, again with outside help. Third, train the employees and fourth, turn the solution over to the business for day-to-day management. The process often takes years from start to finish, is extraordinarily expensive and the results are often disappointing. Mergers and acquisitions, for example, decrease shareholder value in 60-80 percent of cases. The biggest problem is not that the solution is intellectually incorrect but that it is a poor fit for the particular organization in question, primarily because the organization does not have the ability to implement the changes.

Shaeffer and Ashkenas don’t disagree that sometimes large-scale planning of this nature is sometimes needed but they argue that the most effective research and planning an organization can do is experimentation with small-scale projects. Get started right away. Less research more action.

“A surprisingly large number of people reach senior management positions without extensive experience in getting their troops to tackle very difficult challenges successfully. When those managers face a tough goal, many fail to stand up in plain sight and say to their people, ‘This is what we have to do; now let’s decide how we’re going to do it–and by when.’ Instead, they slip into a variety of alternative routines and processes that are part of their organization’s traditional modes of attack on goals. They focus on doing the preparations and studies that simply must be done before they can decide how to move . . . Most organizations have an endless supply of such delaying tactics to postpone action in favor of preparations.”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

Schaffer and Ashkenas’ prescription for organizational change is a tough one. The basic idea is that you set aggressive 100-day target goals (i.e. “gasp goals” where the goal is beyond what is considered possible), you demand that people achieve them and….the big catch…you don’t take them off their regular assigned duties in order to accomplish the new goal. The idea is that when people are stretched in this way, pressured by both time and resource constraints, they will come up with new and creative ways to address a problem. In the best case scenario, companies achieve significant revenue-producing or cost-cutting projects in unbelievably short timeframes. Even if the project ultimately fails, Shaffer and Askenas argue that the experiment generally costs the company little or nothing and that knowledge gained through the experiment will help the organization identify unproductive areas of inquiry, and provide managers with valuable training on how to implement change initiatives.

“Each project yields a dividend of learning . . . .”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

Shaffer and Ashkenas believe that these 100-day type of projects should be a constant feature in every organization. Change is not a once-in-a-while event but a constant. For most organizations, the big hurdle is lack of management ability.

“If there is any one capacity that all leaders need to develop, it is how to mobilize the organization for change. . . Quite frankly, when most companies fail it is not because these leaders lack the knowledge of what needs doing, it is because they lack the ability to make it happen.”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

Shaffer and Ashkenas argue that organizations that are continually implementing 100-day small projects are going to develop the leadership and organizational capacity to handle change of any size. When a big change, like a merger or strategic shift is necessary, it won’t be intimidating but just a more involved version of what is already happening every day.

So far, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Why don’t we see more companies implementing constant change strategies?

“It is not uncommon to hear business leaders make statements like, ‘We have too much going to to undertake any more projects for a while.’ If you were to probe what is actually happening you would find that ‘too much going on’ often means that the usual suspects–a small number of able senior people–are drowning in special assignments and one-time projects while the rest of the organization goes about its routine work. Naturally, if the same fifteen or twenty people are exclusively the keys to change, they will also function as the limits to change. To develop truly superior implementation capability, it is necessary that large numbers of people at all levels share responsibility for making change occur.”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

Share responsiblity? That would require delegating authority, letting people take risks and make changes, acknowledging that someone else might come up with a brilliant idea and accepting that failure will inevitably occur some of the time. Many senior managers find this extremely threatening.

“Many . . . leaders say they’d like everyone in the organization to participate in the changes, but they seem trapped in the conviction that they need to be out leading the change. This drives them to become embroiled in specific, detailed operational changes that are often outside their area of expertise.”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

Employees too can be resistant to change. Who wants to volunteer to take on more work? Aren’t we stressed enough as it is doing our regular jobs combined with the demands of our private lives? Some people may crave the predictability of routines or standardized procedures and will be reluctant to give those up. Schaffer and Ashkenas acknowledge that rapid results projects are a lot of work but they also argue that this type of work is more energizing than draining.

“[R]apid results projects increase the energy, creativity and motivation that people bring to the effort and reduce the toll on employees’ productivity, health and personal lives.”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

People like being part of something that matters. They like seeing big results quickly. They like getting credit for their work. Schaffer and Ashkenas call these the “zest” factors. If you infuse an ambitious project with enough zest, the high people get from achieving the results more than compensates for the effort required. This energy then radiates throughout the organization inspiring others. As one manager of a rapid results project at a Georgia-Pacific plant remarked, “It was just wonderful to see what people could do when we gave them the chance. It gave you goose bumps to walk through the mill and see them at it.”

If you are a manager reading this and think, “This sounds interesting. I would like some training to know how to do these rapid results projects.” Interestingly, this is not what Schaffer and Ashkenas want to hear. While a small amount of formal training or learning might be helpful, Schaffer and Ashkenas really just want you to get started now. Take action. Learn by doing. They argue that most management training is worthless because it is all done in off-site corporate classrooms with little hands-on experience.  Having a real short-term project with real accountability and real results is what helps people learn and benefits the company at the same time.

“All it requires is the will to get started, to experiment and to learn along the way. . . .”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

If there is any formal training needed, it is likely in how managers should communicate demands for performance. It takes a strong manager to pull off these aggressive organizational changes.

“One of the keys to learning how to be a better demand maker is to accept the notion that most people actually benefit from being pushed, challenged and stretched–even if they don’t realize it at the time. . . . The underlying beauty of tough demand making is that the more your people protest, the more they will actually appreciate your leadership.”

–Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald N. Ashkenas, Rapid Results!

The authors provide an interesting “7 Deadly Sins of Demand Making,” illustrating the mistakes many managers make when communicating performance demands to their subordinates.  While the book is not really a how-to, it does provide several tips on goal-setting and management strategies as well as case study examples.

I was not expecting to be so inspired by this book. It provides a glimpse into the future of business and management. With the constant changes facing business today, everyone, from CEOs to line employees must embrace the need to share the responsibility for change and constantly reinvent work. I would not be surprised if we start to see this type of management structure everywhere in the near future, from the corporate world to government and non-profit organizations. It’s a radical shift from the way we operate now and we are all going to be learning in the process.

Does your organization use rapid results projects? How would you rate your company’s ability to implement change? Are you intimidated by Schaffer and Ashkenas’ reccomendations? Please share in the comments.