Managing change in India: Complexities of unlocking our potential

Change management now needs to be embedded across the entire company or government department and needs attention throughout the year.


Aadhaar, the world’s largest national identification project, has already enrolled more than one billion citizens. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Aadhaar, the world’s largest national identification project, has already enrolled more than one billion citizens. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there
—Charles F. Kettering

India is changing at an unprecedented rate. Most of us understand this, but underestimate the speed, degree and permanence of this transformation. Changing aspirations, technology and globalization are driving deep disruptions all around us. Many of these changes are unprecedented—India is connected today in a way that has never been true before. In October 2015, India crossed the billion mobile subscriber mark. Aadhaar, considered the world’s largest biometric identification system, crossed the billion mark a few months later. India has the largest number of Facebook users with over 195 million subscribers. Another sign was the singular focus on development as an election agenda in the 2014 general election. This was the first time since 1984 that a single party won a majority on its own.

In isolation, these are important milestones, but taken together, these represent a new reality that many of us don’t fully appreciate. Today, as citizens, customers or employees, we live in an always-on, data-rich world and have significantly higher aspirations. We are more aware of what is happening around the world, we are cognizant of competing products and services, and more likely to assert our right to a better experience. If we are not satisfied with the product or service, we switch to a different brand. If we don’t like our employer, we switch companies. If the government fails to deliver, citizens don’t hesitate exercising the “ultimate switch”, electing in a new government rather than sticking with what does not work. A one-line summary of the world we live in is “we need a better experience and we need it now”.

Consider this—it is now possible to know exactly when our taxi will arrive using an app. We expect the same ability to track government permissions and loan applications or ascertain when our new house will be ready to move in. Similarly, young employees have limited patience for “black box” HR processes that lack transparency. They want a “career GPS” to smoothly navigate their professional journey—where they are, where they are headed and which route will help them quickly land their desired role. From individuals in the society to the government and the corporate world, everyone will need to respond to these forces thoughtfully and constantly. Never before has the truism, “if you cannot change, you will not stay relevant”, rung more true.

When the pace of change was slow, it was enough to have a team of four or five senior executives driving a corporate change management programme once a year. Often such change management initiatives would also be driven by a single business function. This is not the reality today. Change management now needs to be embedded across the entire company or government department and needs ongoing attention throughout the year. If you can change faster than your competitors, while exceeding all stakeholder expectations, then you have a real advantage.

The stakes involved here are hard to overstate. When government and societal initiatives succeed, they benefit the whole country. Think about the impact of successful programmes such as the Green Revolution or the Operation Flood. Launched in 1970, Operation Flood was the largest dairy programme in the world. Over 30 years, it has transformed India from a milk-deficient nation to the world’s largest milk producer. It generated massive employment and doubled the per capita milk availability. Aadhaar is an even more ambitious programme—it is the world’s largest national identification project and has already enrolled more than one billion citizens. Other initiatives launched by the current government, including “Make in India”, offer similar potential.

While the stakes are high, those involved in change management must recognize that the odds are stacked against any transformational programme. For every Operation Flood, there are countless governmental initiatives that failed despite good intentions. In an efficiency-focused corporate world, it is easy to scoff at the inefficiency of anything that is “non-corporate”. It is useful to remember that only six of the BSE 30 companies from 1995 are still on the present-day list, while eight new companies entered the ranking in 2015. While there are many reasons why the list changed over time, any informed observer would say that the dropouts failed to keep pace with the evolving expectations of customers, employees or often, both.

Based on our vast experience with large change management programmes across corporate, social and government institutions, we believe that any transformation project has to recognize “seven key truths” to improve the odds of success.

Begin with people at the centre of change: Effective change management programmes are “of people, by people, and for people”. Memos, PowerPoint presentation slides and Excel sheets do not bring about changes, people do. Yet, those involved in change management spend a majority of their time and energy on the creation and assimilation of plans, and not on people. Change managers must focus on people and the behaviours that need to change. They can succeed by providing answers to five key questions: Why change? Change to what? What does it mean for me? Who is in charge? Will the change really happen?

It is also important to limit the demands you make on people over and above their day jobs as endless demands of “one more thing” have the potential to doom most programmes. On the other hand, giving people more information, better tools, more on-the-job training, early on, often improves the enthusiasm and odds considerably.

Solve for simplicity: We live in a complex world and successful change management programmes are no different. Complexity is inevitable but lowers the odds of success. For instance, programme managers often adopt the wrong but far too common approach of outlining plans through a 100-slide presentation or a “book-sized” memo, making them unnecessarily complex, and tough to comprehend.

However, simplicity is not the same as “dumbing down”. It is thinking carefully about the core agenda of change. A good yardstick for a simple, well-articulated plan is to check whether it fits the 5x5x5 template—five pages, five sentences on each page and five words in each sentence. People can use such simple, yet well thought-out templates to come up with rich thoughts on how they can execute their ideas.

Design for scale: The scale of operation of a majority of programmes run by the government, companies and non-profit organizations in India is truly massive. Therefore, it is critical to design programmes that can continue to work well as they are scaled up to cover the intended population. Many programmes work well in the pilot stage but require unwieldy managerial support when scaled up. Large- scale programmes need to accommodate multiple approaches rather than one unified, consistent model. Asking critical questions around how would systems operate when 10 million or 100 million citizens start using it, often throws up different answers related to team, data, IT systems, resources and flexibility.

Move fast and adapt design: Experienced change managers do not aim for perfection. Instead of spending six months designing a programme, they “go-to-ground” quickly with well-designed experiments (or prototypes), and incorporate feedback regularly to improve effectiveness. This is quite difficult in most cultures where any departure from the “corporate centre” or “north and south block” script is seen as an act of failure, or worse, deliberate defiance. Leaders must make it known that they expect many experiments to fail. Good change management programmes always take into account possible improvisations throughout the life of the project.

Use technology and data as force multipliers: India has the unique advantage of scale but it also represents a significant challenge. Government and business leaders must acknowledge that their personal charisma alone will not solve the problem at hand.

With the advent of cheaper, more powerful digital technologies, it is possible to break down the entire plan into digital workflows. This helps eliminate subjective decisions on what and when to escalate, enabling progressive governments to ensure timely completion of programmes. Technology should also be used to gain greater transparency into what is working and what is not, to be able to collectively remove key stumbling blocks. Modern governments, new-age enterprises and non-profit organizations can also make use of “planet scale” data to make intelligent decisions throughout the programme.

Drive frequent communication: The more important the change, the more it needs to be communicated. In a large- scale change management programme, people need to hear messages 7-10 times before they believe that their organization is serious about any transformation. Often leaders make the classic mistake of believing that an announcement at a company retreat or open house is sufficient. They need to realize that while this is just the beginning, successful execution requires consistent, frequent and multimodal communication. With the help of technology, leaders can drive hyper-customized and frequent communication, sharing timely and specific action-oriented messages through popular digital mediums like “WhatsApp” to motivate team members.

Leadership matters: Leaders have to be fully behind any change management agenda. Before anyone changes, leaders need to themselves model the behaviours they wish to see in their organization. Mahatma Gandhi had a very perceptive thought about change: “be the change that you wish to see in the world”. This is especially true for leaders. Top leaders must invest time, energy and their own credibility in convincing the middle managers and rest of the organization about transformation programmes.

The science of change management is not complex, but its application requires deep commitment. It is easy to dismiss one or more of above lessons and believe that they won’t matter. However, in our experience, wherever a programme compromises any of these lessons, the results, reputation and sustainability of the initiative invariability suffers.

The massive forces of change, while disruptive, are also a godsend to India. These have the potential to inspire positive transformation, and help scale up the coverage and quality of government services. By fulfilling the changing expectations of Indian customers, Indian companies have the opportunity of becoming global giants.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to build a better India. When they ask us in 2030 about our contribution to a changed India, we should not come up short.

Vikram Bhalla is senior partner and director, and Amit Kumar is partner and director at BCG.

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