Change is often introduced with varying degrees of reception. It begins with a slow but sure integration into an organization’s fabric and then, without warning, it’s found dead, quite often with no apparent injury. In fact, most change initiatives end up dead. The perpetrator is rarely identified.
Without creating alignment among the usual suspects who typically kill change, organizations cannot hope to generate the long-term commitment needed to sustain it. Yet, if these suspects are reformed and held accountable for contributing their time and talent to the investment, organizations and the learning leaders who support them can create the momentum and peer advocacy necessary for change to succeed.
“In any major business change project, everyone needs to be a change agent — the usual suspects, culture, leadership, urgency, vision — but too often, we point to one executive to be the person “in charge of change,” said Bob Dean, director of North American business at Profiling Online.
However, it is nearly impossible for one person to sustain change alone.
“Faced with the complexity of most change efforts, organizations need to gain everyone’s buy-in,” said Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40. “When peers become change agents together, they can become catalysts for the change process.”
One of the most likely suspects is an organization’s culture. According to Ridge the motive for the crime is usually fear of the unknown. He said leaders must remove the fear by including rather than excluding employees from decision-making processes related to the change. An inclusive, agile, high-involvement, transparent and trustworthy culture enables change, whereas a bureaucratic, secretive, low-trust culture can kill it. “The tone at the top sets the agenda for a trusted change effort and creates the culture where it can thrive,” Ridge said.
Commitment, another suspect in most change killings, describes a person’s level of confidence or motivation to engage in the new behaviors required. To build motivation and confidence, employees have to be able to influence what is happening to them.
“Community-building is a powerful enabler of change,” said Tracey Grimshaw, vice president of global organizational development for Newell Rubbermaid. “Involving people brings employees together, providing them with a relatively safe environment to learn from one another.”
To build commitment, employees’ voices have to be heard, and they have to be assured by their peers and leaders that the change is necessary and worth doing. To increase people’s commitment to change, leaders can:
• Provide forums for employees to express their questions and concerns, many of which are usually predictable and fairly easy to answer. Those occasional tough questions are often why leaders try to avoid question and answer sessions. But having all the answers isn’t what’s required. Early in the process, it’s much more important to let employees express themselves and feel included.
• Expand opportunities to increase the involvement and influence of those being asked to change. High involvement leads to higher commitment, better solutions and more buy-in.
• Orchestrate opportunities for change advocates to contact those who have yet to make up their minds about the change. Ask these employees: Are you more persuaded to change by a leader or a peer? Most will say a peer. Peers often build motivation and confidence about a proposed change amidst the workforce more easily than leaders.
Sponsorship and an effective change leadership team are also important factors in successful change initiatives. Change efforts often fail because sponsors don’t pay ongoing attention to the initiatives they launch. Essentially, there is no follow-up to the big kickoff. An effective change sponsor should:
• Select and align a broad-based team to lead the change on a day-to-day basis. The broader the group, the higher the probability that people closest to the problem will influence the proposed solutions, and those informal leaders will influence people who are neutral or even resistant.
• Model the behaviors expected of others. Actions speak louder than words. Often change is viewed as for them, not for us.
• Recognize and reinforce the behaviors consistent with the change by acknowledging the early adopters.
• Create accountability by showing the organization that leadership is serious about successful implementation of the change. Go toward resistance in the beginning of a change effort, but once early concerns have surfaced and been addressed, make it clear people need to get on the bus.
Communication is the next likely suspect that can kill change, or conversely, encourage it to thrive. The importance of effective communication to the success of a change initiative cannot be underestimated. “I have met many change leaders who are afraid to communicate, thinking open dialogue will raise questions that people haven’t yet considered. This is completely the opposite of what really happens,” Grimshaw said. “In the absence of information, people make up their own truths, which are often worse than reality.”
To increase the probability of successful change, leaders must increase the number of conversations between change advocates and those who are sitting on the fence about why the change is needed. Having more frequent conversation leads to the next suspect in many change effort killings —— urgency. Urgency explains why the change is needed and how quickly people must change. If people do not have a sense of urgency, the inertia of the status quo likely will prove too strong, and people will not make or sustain the changes sought.
Employees are smart, so to bring them into the change process leaders should start by getting all the facts out. Openly share the reasons why the organization needs to change in the clearest, most dramatic terms. When intelligent people get the same facts as those proposing the change, generally they will come to the same conclusion. After everyone agrees with the reality of the situation and resistance is lowered, leaders can get buy-in for the changes.
The following tactics can be used to create a sense of urgency among those being asked to change:
• Bring people face-to-face with the reality of the situation. Share lots of information and involve them in the process to identify the gap between what is and what could be.
• Provide credible, believable reasons to change. Answer the question, “What is wrong with the way things are now?” Develop a shared spirit of discontent with the status quo.
• Frame the change in terms of a cause that is motivating. People rally around causes more readily than they do metrics.
An inspiring vision goes hand in hand with a sense of urgency. For employees being asked to change, a clear and compelling vision allows them to see themselves succeeding in the future. Often people don’t embrace change because they focus on what they are going to have to give up now, not what they will gain later. Organizations need to help people see themselves succeeding in the future.
Planning, or the lack of a robust change plan, also can kill change. The change implementation plan is important, but the planning process is even more important. Consider the message behind the following quote: “Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.”
“It’s true that developing a robust change plan takes time at the outset of a project. But it’s a pay now, pay later proposition,” Grimshaw said. “Eventually, you will understand the impact of the change on your people and which key influencers are on your side or not. Wouldn’t you rather know that before you start implementation rather than when you find yourself missing deadlines?”
An effective planning process:
• Includes initial resisters who are effective at anticipating what could go wrong.
• Clarifies priorities.
• Defines the metrics for success.
• Pilots the change with early adopters who are willing to tackle the challenge of making the change work.
• Includes quick wins to sway the employees who are undecided about supporting the change.
• Develops the right infrastructure and resources to support the change.
The characters mentioned here — culture, commitment, sponsorship, the change leadership team, communication, urgency, vision and planning — are just a few of those that often murder change over time. Under their influence, change may die of heart failure brought on by neglect due to the failure of these suspects to use their time and talent to support it.
The biggest error that kills change is when leaders don’t involve the people who are impacted or ask these individuals to influence what is happening to them. When change is done to people, and not with people, it creates resistance.
Pat Zigarmi and Judd Hoekstra are co-authors of Ken Blanchard’s Leading People Through Change program as well as Leading at a Higher Level and Who Killed Change? upon which this piece was based. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.