As primary agents of transformation within finance and, increasingly, the company at large, CFOs are expected to demonstrate a high level of expertise in change management. Just about any initiative, from implementing a new software package to a restructuring the department, calls on this crucial set of leadership skills.
But while change management has been the subject of much research for decades, there's not a lot of evidence that corporate leaders are getting any better at it. Consulting firm Bain & Co. recently studied 100 strategy and performance improvement projects and concluded that in more than 80 percent of cases, companies failed to establish a true point of departure for their initiative: They failed to adequately understand the performance issues that they wanted to tackle.
The basic elements of successful change management are straightforward, but many leaders omit or ignore them. In a new report, Bain offers a useful framework for driving change based on the acronym PLOT: plan, lead, operate, and track. Along the way, the report gives some fascinating insights into failed initiatives as well as massively successful ones, such as Idris Jala's turnaround of Malaysia Airlines.
Plan. The first stage involves cutting through complexity to identify the primary drivers of change, defining the current state and the successful end-state, and mapping the transition from the one to the other. While this may seem like not much more than common sense, many initiatives end up unraveling precisely because leaders devote insufficient time and attention to this phase.
They also underestimate the human capital and financial resources they need to get the job done. Under-investing in the project leads to two problems: it sends a signal that the initiative may not be that important after all, and it often results in slow progress toward key goals. The result is a negative cycle that can easily derail the project.
Lead. This is the people phase; it centers around assembling the right team for the job, setting accountabilities, and communicating the goals. It also encompasses the process of creating milestones and mobilizing the troops around them. At Malaysia Airlines, for example, Jala held prolonged think sessions with key managers to identify ways to achieve interim goals. He then broke the objectives down into specific activities and assigned responsibility for each one.
Operate. At this point, leaders have to make the difficult choices, including people-related ones, that are necessary to keep the project on track. They may need to overrule or remove managers who are resistant to change. And they'll certainly need to develop a system to keep people accountable. For example, Jala achieved that by establishing a separate P&L statement for every route in the airline's book. And he made sure that each P&L has a manager responsible for overseeing it.
Track. As the initiative unfolds, leaders need to monitor a small number of key indicators, reward relentlessly, and celebrate successes. Bain recommends a review of progress every two weeks to two months. Incentive programs can be linked not only to personal performance and the company's financial objectives, but also to specific operational milestones.
Jala's initiative is sharply focused on his company's cash position, and he receives a daily report showing exactly how much the airline has in its various accounts around the world. He also gets a P&L statement and details of sales and passenger loads on a daily basis.
It seems to be working. Jala's approach has helped him take Malaysia Airlines from near-bankruptcy to profitability levels nearly five times original projections for 2007 -- within the space of two years.
View the complete Bain & Co. report here.