Change may be a constant in life, but in business, many planned change initiatives either peter out or don’t even take hold in the first place. According to a Towers Watson study, only slightly more than half of all change initiatives succeed, with only 25 percent sticking for the long term, mostly because of a variety of management failures.
I consider this a problem of oversimplification — the result of the all-too-common “just do it,” “just say no,” “just tell them such-and-such” approach. If all employees get is some executive saying, “Just tell them this” or “Just direct them to do that,” most people, from relatively senior managers to the rank-and-file, won’t absorb the nature of or reason for the change — nor will they apply, adopt, or adapt it. Luckily, three basic premises of change management can increase the odds in our favor.
1. Shift Your Mode of Problem Identification
We typically emphasize what we think needs fixing — the thing that messes us up because it isn’t working. But when you’re too focused on the presenting symptoms rather than actual causes, your remedy usually doesn’t go deep enough. In other words, identifying a problem is not necessarily solving the problem.
Instead, you need to step back, take in the entire situation, and then look intensely at the sources and underlying causes. Once you assess all your real needs, you can determine what’s missing from your current approach.
For example, at one client company a couple of executives were feuding recently. If their boss had sent them for communication training to help them interact more productively, they might have learned to speak with each other more graciously. But it was necessary to identify and also resolve their conflicting beliefs and the structural problems, which were the underlying causes of their fractured communication.
2. Work on the Concrete Level, Not Just the Conceptual
The design-thinking approach to innovation requires employees to empathize with their customers’ day-to-day realities in order to develop and improve their products and services. Similarly, it helps to treat employees as the customers of any substantive change initiative, and to learn about and understand their desk-level realities before launching and instituting the change.
A large fashion organization asked me to plan a major project to improve the quality of their customer interactions. If we had limited the change initiative to directing the service leads and unit managers to encourage their teams to conduct customer interactions differently, we would have seen a bare minimum of improvement.
Instead, we worked extensively to ensure that both the leaders and teams understood everything they needed to do and the reasons behind the change. We broke down the details of successful interactions and trained and coached the operations leaders on how to recognize success and give clear, specific, behavioral feedback. The instruction was on point, and it changed a lot of minds. But the targeted practices were what shifted behaviors and habits and made them real and reasonable for everyone.
3. Field a Champion of Change
Making change can be difficult and frustrating, particularly in the early stages. The folks who have the tough job of implementing the change on the ground can be stymied by resistance or stumble over tough cases where the new prescriptions don’t seem to apply. And there are always exceptions and bobbles, which can frustrate change managers, causing them to retreat from their vigorous efforts or throwing them back into old habits.
It makes a tremendous difference if the implementers have access to someone with the vision of the new desired state and the experience to help them regroup and recoup as necessary. That champion can be the senior executive who’s sponsoring the change, a trusted “old hand” who’s been through similar initiatives, or an outsider like me — just make sure the support goes beyond merely cheerleading for the cause.
Effective champions of change understand the mechanisms of the change initiative, are committed to both individual and group success, and have the experience and insight to provide useful modifications and tweaks as individuals learn to incorporate the new ways of working. Successful champions hold up positive examples publicly, and help fix any negatives quietly.
Smooth the Path to Change
The clearer your assessment of what’s necessary to make the change, the more likely you’ll avoid triggering complaints like “We already tried that” and “That kind of thing won’t work here.” By assessing the entire situation deeply, tending to the concrete details of implementation, and providing effective support rather than lip service, you’ll improve the chances of getting your change initiative to succeed and stick for the long term.
Onward and upward,