Leading Change – Part 4: Sustaining Change: The Key to Long-Term Success

The most recent Change and Communication ROI survey indicated that while employers felt 55% of change management initiatives met initial objectives, only 25% felt that gains were sustained over time. How do we improve these odds and bring about positive, long-lasting organizational change?

This is the final article in our series of four articles on change leadership. Previously, I have discussed why it is important we get change right and highlighted two key success factors: building the right team and engaging that team through effective communication. In this article, I will discuss the final component for successful change: sustaining your momentum.

There is always going to be the challenge with change. The trajectory is not necessarily going to be upward and positive right from the start, but it will get there if people persevere and remain committed to the change. The problem though is that people often don’t remain committed and they change their strategy before allowing the change to really take hold. It is when I hear about these situations that I am reminded of Kanter’s Law – “Everything can look like a failure in the middle.” We are all intrigued by the excitement and prospect of a new change effort, and we are driven by the happy ending we expect to see. It is in the middle, however, that the realization kicks in that obtaining the vision comes with overcoming some tough challenges and a lot of hard work.

In actuality, when a change effort is implemented, there is going to be struggle mingled with success: productivity may dip, morale may dwindle, and tensions may arise. However, if the plan has been well thought-out and executed, perseverance is key to seeing not only the short-term wins but the eventual lasting benefits the change will bring.

What kind of timeframe are we talking about when it comes to perseverance? Most significant organizational changes span at least three to five years. I just met a CEO who made the significant change in a very large and unionized organization. He increased employee productivity by multiples, increased employee morale, and drastically reduced absenteeism. How long did it take? About 10 years of persistent and focused effort by him and his team. Significant early wins came quickly but successful and fully executed change can take that long. Think about your company. How often is a strategy implemented and then changed after two or three years? According to Forbes, 40% of CEOs are let go in their first 18 months. Senior level turnover can also be a big factor in managing change. I wonder if 18 months really is enough time to assess success? It certainly is not enough time to achieve significant change. Are we really giving change enough of a chance?

Going back to my earlier question – how do we sustain momentum and create long-lasting change? This means continuously re-evaluating your progress against your vision, being flexible, and measuring your success. The article goes on to discuss the importance of measuring progress to sustain momentum and offers this list of check-in questions to help leaders evaluate their change initiatives to make persevering possible.

  • Tune into the environment. What has changed since you began the initiative? Do the original assumptions hold? Is the need still there?
  • Check the vision. Does the idea still feel inspiring? Is it big enough to make extra efforts worthwhile?
  • Test support. Are supporters still enthusiastic about the mission? Will new partners join the initiative?
  • Examine progress. Have promises been kept and milestones passed? Are there early indicators or tangible demonstrations that this could succeed? Can the next wave of results sustain supporters and silence critics?
  • Search for synergies. Can the project work well with other activities? Can it be enhanced by alliances?

Everyone in the organization needs to be on board with the idea of change as a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve likely put months, perhaps years, into preparing for this change. This doesn’t mean that change will come to fruition overnight. Put your trust in your preparation; persevere and remain committed to seeing the change through. Each and every person in your organization is unique and will have their own needs when it comes to change. Due to this fact, the people side of change is exceptionally complex and difficult. Don’t underestimate it but rather put in the time and effort to ensure both your processes and your people are successful.

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