Personalizing change management in the smartphone era

McKinsey 14 May 2020 12:00


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CEOs know that making organizational change stick requires convincing big groups of geographically dispersed people to think, act, and approach their work differently. And this is devilishly hard, as human beings are motivated by many things, have different fears and aspirations, feel varying levels of empowerment and commitment, and tend to be reluctant to change in the first place. Undifferentiated approaches that don’t carefully consider employees’ mindsets will fall flat and may even breed cynicism that saps morale and undermines progress.

The good news is that when it comes to personalization, senior executives have plenty of inspiration, courtesy of analytical pioneers such as Instagram, Netflix, and Spotify, all adept at tailoring products to meet individualized preferences via apps and other easy-to-use digital platforms. A large global manufacturer’s ongoing experiment in tech-infused mass personalization shows how this thinking can be applied to organizational change. The company’s experience suggests how smart combinations of digital technology, analytics, and behavioral science can make change more inclusive and persuasive—and help employees unleash their enthusiasm in ways not possible otherwise. The key is to use the available tools to better understand people and meet them where they are—a guiding principle that’s equally relevant for implementing long-term change and for leading a remote workforce through the current disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For a few years, the manufacturer had tried with limited success to implement cultural changes across a key region’s 7,000-strong workforce—for example, by promoting behaviors it hoped would break down silos, empower and motivate frontline workers, and bolster performance. Now the CEO wanted a fresh start. An assessment highlighted places where the company’s organizational health was poor or needed strengthening. From these areas, senior leaders focused on three management practices: operational discipline, inspirational forms of leadership, and the use of rewards and recognition to better motivate employees.

The company then formed a team to translate these broad cultural goals into specific mindsets and behaviors that would both generate the desired organizational outcomes and also help employees better understand how they personally contributed to the improvement. For example, the manufacturer wanted employees to think of operational discipline as everyone’s job. One tangible way to promote this would be to encourage shop-floor operators and supervisors to consciously review the company’s “golden rules of safety” before every shift. Likewise, the company sought to instill a mindset of valuing continuous improvement and celebrating small victories. One way of doing this would be to encourage people to speak up immediately when they saw a colleague do something positive (a motivational take on the mantra “if you see something, say something”).

Company leaders quickly saw how roadblocks could prevent employees from adopting beneficial behaviors. For example, the manufacturer had long encouraged supervisors to take “gemba walks”—visits to the shop floor that help spot production issues and encourage useful conversations with frontline workers. Yet the analysis showed that many supervisors didn’t prioritize the walks or make time for them, in part because they thought the culture didn’t truly support them using their time this way and also because they worried they’d be bombarded during the walks by new problems they couldn’t handle.

In addition to clearing roadblocks, the platform helps employees reach the program’s broader cultural goals. A supervisor we’ll call Ana, for instance, wasn’t recognizing the small, daily victories of her colleagues, largely because she didn’t feel she had the skills to do so. When she engaged with the platform, she received bite-size exercises and coaching to help build this capability. Six weeks into the change program, Ana reported a significant shift in how frequently she recognized others—a testament to the skills she developed through the coaching and an improvement directly linked to a management practice (“rewards and recognition”) that the company was prioritizing.

The results of the three-month pilot have been encouraging, and the company is now rolling out the effort more broadly. Overall attainment scores suggest an average individual improvement of 10 percent against the three management practices the company is prioritizing. Improvements in some areas were rapid—with scores rising about 5 percent every two weeks over the span of the pilot. Meanwhile, the manufacturing unit involved in the effort enjoyed a 6 percent increase in production, an encouraging result that company leaders attribute to a combination of the pilot along with a focused effort to reinforce lean-management principles.

Change is hard, and change is intensely personal. When we know what’s expected of us, see how our unique efforts contribute to the whole, and are encouraged to treat change as a personal journey, we are more likely to be energized by the prospect of change than fearful of it. As the manufacturer’s experience suggests, smart combinations of technology, analytics, and behavioral science can help catalyze change at scale in ways that aren’t possible otherwise.

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