Changing the Unchangeable: Three steps to overcome scale, complexity and bureaucracy

Oliver Wyman examine the three steps that spell the difference between a successful transformation, and a stalled one
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By Oliver Wyman

01 Apr 2021

When nine out of ten of organisational transformations fail to deliver, it takes three things to be among the small number that succeed: framing the future, building the movement, and sustaining the momentum. 

Through our work with HMG, including independent reviews of major departmental transformation programmes, and drawing on experiences with other governments and the private sector, we’ve identified what causes transformation to fail and what can make it work. 

Failure comes from a lack of alignment and convergence. This leaves the organisation without the conviction to see the transformation through. Rigorous programme management in itself cannot deliver transformational change, but our three steps will equip any transformation with the ability to manage the trade-offs or difficult decisions that will inevitably arise. 

“I don’t want to build another transformation empire, I want to actually change things.”

– Senior civil servant

Frame the future. Change starts at the top, and leaders usually show strong commitment to change. However, this commitment is often not aligned between individual leaders. When anyone is unwilling to let go of their personal vision to converge on a shared one, the transformation as a whole is in jeopardy. Instead, a common vision of the future must be agreed, and supported by the leadership’s conviction to see it through.

Build the movement. This is the ability to convert conviction into real change. It requires ongoing, effective leadership throughout. Leaders need to take the whole organisation on the journey, building commitment, convergence, and conviction at every level. To achieve this, they must articulate the transformation in a way that explains it to team members in the context of their personal roles. This allows everyone to take ownership of delivering and driving the change while staying true to the core objectives. It also accelerates the speed at which change can happen. 

“I can see the teams are excited – they can pick up the ball and run with it now.”

– Senior civil servant

The operating model – including governance, decision making, processes, and incentives – must be adjusted to support the rapid delivery of transformation goals. This can be particularly challenging in government departments, where the bureaucracy and complexity can feel insurmountable, but our clients have often been surprised by how much is in their power to change.

Sustain momentum. Leaders must take time to understand how the change is being delivered. This will allow them to identify and address any blockers to success, such as staff engagement. 

To keep momentum, the organisation needs some changes to be visible early in the process. A common pitfall is spending about 18 months in a design phase without delivering anything different on the ground. Teams are doomed to fail if they focus on planning, organisation, and processes instead of delivery. Instead, each step of the change programme should be set up to start small, deliver something – good or bad – quickly, then stop what doesn’t work and scale up what does. 

Without leadership, new ways of working, and early experiences of success, the organisation’s commitment, convergence, and conviction for change will be diluted, putting delivery at risk. 

“Whatever you do, do something.”

– Senior civil servant

Start delivering your own change programme

There is a plethora of tools to support each of these stages, from immersive events and co-creation workshops to deploying agile methodologies. Often the same tools are used in a successful programme as a failing one. The difference is the context, the purpose, and the order in which they are deployed. That’s why our three steps – framing the future, building the movement, and sustaining the momentum – should be at the core of your transformation.


Jessica Smith, Engagement Manager
Andrew Bailey, Principal
Lisa Quest, Partner
Dean Addis, Director
Crispin Ellison, Partner


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