importance of proper impact assessment

The importance of a proper impact assessment

I ran an APMG Change Management course recently – something I always enjoy. As usual, one of the best discussions of the week came when discussing impact assessments. I love the moment when delegates realise how vital a rigorous impact assessment is. If done thoroughly, the impact assessment gives a clear picture of the size and challenge of change initiatives.

In my work as a business change manager, changes which impact organisational culture are by far the most challenging. Once my delegates began exploring the impact of their change initiatives on organisational culture, they soon realised this as well.


What is organisational culture?

Organisational culture is often defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. I like the paraphrase: ‘the way we do things around here when the boss isn’t looking’.

Basically, culture is the unique combination of values, beliefs, assumptions, and motivations found in an organisation. These shape behaviours and decision making at all levels. Culture plays a very powerful part in shaping how leaders, managers, and staff think and act whilst at work. However, very few people are aware it exists, let alone understand how much it influences their behaviour.

Culture only becomes obvious when it is threatened in some way. Often seemingly straightforward changes, when analysed in more detail, do threaten cultures. This is when change becomes a real challenge.

Why does culture matter in change?

I was recently reminded of the challenges of cultural change when I read about a change initiative currently being run at UCL. Like many organisations in the UK, UCL is having to undergo profound change to deal with external events. Universities are facing growing competition, funding uncertainties, and increasing scrutiny. UCL is having to undergo a complete cultural change to deal with this. As one of the academics quoted in the article says: “we are becoming like a business rather than a university”.

As happens in many changes which threaten deeply embedded cultures, UCL is struggling to get buy in and support from powerful stakeholders. In this case, it is the academic community which is resisting. Reports of low morale, unhappiness with management decisions and opposition to change plans are not uncommon in cultural changes. The President of UCL seems to recognise these challenges, which is a vital first step. If change leaders are unaware of the impact on culture, these types of changes have no chance of success.

What do I do next?

Every time I run the APMG change management course, I have at least one delegate who is struggling with a change initiative. Generally this is because they are focusing on the tangible things that are changing. It is easy to look at the impact of changes to organisational structure, new systems and accompanying skills. They do not realise that their change initiative is also impacting more intangible things such as leadership styles, decision making behaviours, and values. These are intrinsically linked to and shaped by organisational culture. By the end of the impact assessment section of the course, delegates have a clear indication of why they are struggling. They also have a much better idea of quite how large and complex their change initiative actually is.

You need a proper impact assessment, using a template such as the McKinsey 7S model, in order to understand the scale of your change initiative. You can then plan your business change activities accordingly, focusing on what really matters to your stakeholders – their culture.

Read The Value of Business Change Management in Projects for a case study on how to do an impact assessment using the McKinsey 7S model.