Dr. John McMackin is the course leader of the Ljubljana Executive Summer School course, Change and Innovation: Leadership in Action. Not only is he an expert on the methodologies behind successful change implementation, he has also successfully implemented these research methodologies himself in his own career and consultancy business. He is the founder and Managing Director of HRS Consulting Ltd, a Dublin-based consultancy which specialises in strategic HRM and developing change leaders, cooperating with clients all over the world.

John enjoyed a successful banking career in Dublin, London and New York with a major Irish bank. After completing his PhD, he developed a successful HR consulting business with clients ranging from major state agencies, banks and insurance companies to the Pirelli Group in Milan. In 2010 he joined Dublin City University Business School as Director of Executive and International Education, where he led the development of a successful partnership with PNU in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest women-only University.

John holds an MBA from Columbia University, New York and a PhD from the University of Oregon, and has published his research in major journals on HRM, psychology and economics.

In a recent interview with Mediachange, he talked to us about some of the barriers that hinder the successful implementation of innovation, which types of leadership styles work best for different contexts, and the best models to adopt in the current ever-changing business world.

Before going into change and innovation management, you started in the banking and money markets sector. What led you to pursue a career in change management, and where are you now?

Even though I was reasonably successful in banking, I didn’t particularly enjoy the work itself. But during my time there, I noticed that there was a constant effort to reorganise and implement change. However, most of these changes weren’t very successful, and since then I have become interested in why people who were very smart about managing finance and risk and markets but don’t seem to be really good at implementing small changes without a lot of work and effort from the organisation. A lot of what we tried to do simply didn’t work.

Then, after completing a PhD programme in change management at the University of Oregon, I worked with many different organisations on change management programmes. That involved trying to implement a lot changes to the department. I then worked for 5 years in a management role in the University during the economic crisis. But [for people in academia] a University is a public service, an environment where people don't tend to want to change very much. They think of it as a kind of a lifetime deal/psychological contract, so it was quite a challenge to introduce a commercially-viable international business. It was the crisis that made it possible. So I have worked as a change manager in banking and in a public service organisation, and as a consultant in many other organisations in different countries. But now I combine an ideal mix of teaching, research and consulting, which contribute to and reinforce one another in terms of understanding and helping organisations implement change.

You mentioned something very interesting about change being a psychological contract. Can you explain why people think of change in that way?

Research shows that people signing up to implement change believe they will have a 70% failure rate. Those are horrible numbers! And, in my experience, there are a number of problems in the way we view change, one being that we oversimplify and underestimate the complexity and the amount of effort and time needed to implement change. There is a lot of pressure on change makers to only report good news.

Another problem is that we fail to bring the middle management along in the change process. You can often get top management to buy into the change initiative, and you can get the front line employees to accept it too, but we forget the middle management supervisors. This happens because when we need to implement change reasonably quickly, and then things turn complicated, there is a need to take more time to engage the middle management, and we often choose not to do that.

The third problem is culture. You can change the structure of the organisation, you can change the physical layout of the business, you can even change the remuneration policy, but it's much more subtle to try and change the culture. It takes as much art as science and it's a very difficult task that requires a very high level of skill. The challenge of changing culture is to some extent in the context.

For example, it is easier to change in times of crisis. So we had a meeting this week with Christoph Mueller, who has recently completed a major turnaround of Malaysian Airlines as their chief executive. He goes in when there's a crisis to implement radical change. He had to lay off six thousand employees and turned huge losses to profits in just two years.

But as he said himself, if he was to go in now while the company is profitable to try to implement change, it wouldn't be possible. People don't see the need to make changes when companies are making money, even though it might be the right thing to do for the long-term health of the business. That is why it is very important to understand context in order to decide at what pace the change can be implemented.

So then, which kinds of contexts need particular kinds of leadership styles?

In a crisis people will accept a very direct kind of authoritarian leadership. For instance, if you look at Kotler’s model on change management, it suggests that we should start by creating a vision for the company. But in a crisis, when companies see their future at risk, having workshops to discuss a vision for the future feels like a waste of everybody's time. In a crisis, you maybe want to start by setting targets for the next six months and specifying specific behaviours that each of the employees is going to have to adopt in order to move forward. If there's no crisis, or if people don't feel like there's a real crisis, you have to bring their hearts and minds with you. This involves engaging people, building consensus, and creating team discussions at a much slower pace. But it is important to mention that the most successful leaders are actually those who can change their style to suit the situation they are in!

What would you recommend or advise to companies and organisations under constant pressure to keep up with change?

In the modern world we live in, as we say in Ericson, “the pace of change has never been this fast before, and it will never be this slow again”. If you look at projections of the impact technology has had on society and work, you will realise that we're never going back. People often tell me that once the changes are implemented, things will settle down, but that is a delusion. The models I’m most impressed with in terms of implementing this kind of adaptation are the Lean Philosophy models, where you have this constant rebuilding of your own process as you're implementing the changes. There is real value in putting Lean Philosophy at the core of how you organise your work. It puts your customer's needs at the heart of what you are doing by constantly changing and building their capacity to update, which enables organisations to accept change as the reality of the organisation – to consistently and repeatedly reinvent ourselves. This model seems to be the most effective to achieve an ongoing momentum.

What do you want the students of the Ljubljana Executive Summer School to take from this programme?

The international exposure they will get. The programme allows them to meet and work with people from different cultures and nationalities. The course is also designed to not only introduce them to change and leadership issues, but also to specifically enable them to apply the tools they learn directly in a real business issue. It doesn't matter that they come from a different kind of organisation. Most of the core challenges of change and adaptation to the global digital economy are the same for every organisation. The tools and methodology from the course will help them in the same way, irrespective of their sector or location. And from what I’ve seen from previous courses, the students also build a very valuable network from the course.