Ron Ashkenas, writing in HBR in April of 2013, stated that 60-70% of change initiatives fail. He goes on to describe some of the reasons, one of which is the woefully underdeveloped ability of management to implement change.

Stress testing is a tool that should be considered key in addressing this issue, and one which serves to underpin the chances of success. Stress testing has long been used by the military (who call it wargaming), to test and evaluate ideas before committing resources into action. It is designed to stretch plans and strategies, to identify where risks lie, where contingency plans need to be considered, and where opportunities exist that you hadn’t previously considered. It is a growth area across the commercial spectrum and in a range of forms.

Traditional commercial planning considers market conditions, stakeholder behavior and other factors in depth. However, it tends to only address the situation at the time of planning. Such a static approach fails to adequately take likely future dynamics into account. Stress testing deals with this; it allows you to simulate how conditions will develop over time as well as assessing stakeholder’s reactions to your moves. It looks at stakeholder interdependencies and predicts likely outcomes. It can be an integral part of a building a new strategy/plan (e.g. market entry) or as a standalone tool to verify an existing plan.

Predicting where you are likely to have to make decisions in the future, what those decisions might be and how you might address them is obviously a great boost to any business. However, this is just one of the benefits of stress testing; the real art is in the effect it has on your team. If facilitated correctly, the test puts teams through a common experience, under a degree of simulated pressure. This builds bonds and coherence amongst your staff. It also generates cross-functional understanding of each other’s capabilities and limitations, which makes the company more agile, more efficient. The fact that it is so engaging, so dynamic and so all-encompassing means that it is enjoyable, rewarding and informative for everyone involved.

Stress testing therefore doesn’t just help you plan for the future, it builds appetite for change and appetite for success within your teams. By being part of a test, staff understand the change that is going to happen, feel they have had a part to play in it and want it to succeed.

Shell recently used a stress test to analyse their programme for decommissiong the Brent Field in the North Sea and came away with nine pages of learning, that will help them develop their approach to its implementation. It appears they have learned the benefits of testing their plans and others would do well to follow suit.

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