Leading Change – Part 1: The Truth about Change

Studies consistently show that between 50-70 percent of planned change efforts fail. Why is this case, especially considering the extensive amount of time and resources many organizations devote to getting change right? From my experience, it is less about what these organizations are doing, and more about what they are not doing.

I’ve put together a series of four articles on how to effectively lead people through change. This first one will give an overview of what leaders struggle with when it comes to change. The remaining three articles will focus on key success factors to maximize your chances of succeeding through change.

A lot of organizations have the operational and structural side of change down-pat. They spend time on the processes, procedures, and logistics behind the change plan. In contrast, they spend little time and effort in addressing the beliefs and mindsets of those involved and in developing practices and behaviors to help people adapt. Change management is well practiced while change leadership is being overlooked.

How do organizational leaders address the mindset of those involved in the change? The first step is understanding that people process change differently. For example, some focus on the purpose (why are we changing?); others on the picture (what will the change look like?); some rally around a plan (how are we going to do this?), while others think about their individual part (what will this mean for me?). No one way of processing change is right; the key is to consider them all. Some of the literature on change does put an emphasis on creating a sense of urgency. An alternate approach is to focus less on pressure-driven change and more on understanding individual mindsets and engaging people in the vision to create an internal motivation for change.

The next three articles in this series will focus on the key success factors to driving change forward, and more specifically, on effectively leading people through change. These success factors are adapted from John Kotter’s 8 Steps to Accelerating Change and include building the right team, engaging your people, and sustaining the change. Here is a snapshot of what you can expect in the next three articles.

Build the Right Team
First, don’t underestimate the power of a guiding coalition. Yes, change efforts usually start with the idea of one or two individuals, but the vision needs to grow beyond just the CEO and a few high-powered leaders if the idea is going to pick up steam and really sink in. Not developing your “volunteer army” to its full extent is one of the major reasons why change can’t work.

Engage your People
A big part of engaging your people is making sure they are all involved in the communication plan and understand that change is happening. This may sound like common sense, but I will share some startling statistics with you in article three which indicates this is not happening nearly enough. Attempt to incorporate change communication into daily workplace activities, not just once a quarter at the business meeting. This consistent communication will allow everyone to be involved in short-term wins which is another critical factor in keeping your people engaged. Achieving short-term goals and proudly displaying and celebrating those accomplishments is a change initiative’s best friend.

Sustain the Change
The change process requires a considerable length of time. Some organizations take shortcuts which may speed up the process but generate few positive results. Remember that your first big win, and likely your second, and maybe even your third don’t mean that change is done. It is fine to celebrate wins, but declaring “mission accomplished” can be detrimental to the change process. Perseverance is key. Use accomplishments to build enough credibility to tackle the next challenge and keep the momentum going.

Why are these three actions the key success factors in getting change right? Because not doing them directly correlates to failed change efforts. What I hope you will see by the end of this series is that focusing on your people and persevering until you see success are crucial elements to making change work.

References: 8 Steps to Accelerating Change in 2015 – Kotter International eBook, 2015 Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, John Kotter, Harvard Business Review, 2007 Navigating Change: A Leader’s Role, David Dinwoodie et al. Centre for Creative Leadership, 2015

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