By: Donna Griggs
CHANGE. MANY PEOPLE get a knot in their stomach when they hear this word. Sometimes, it is for a good reason: the changes they have been involved in were not successful. In fact, the statistics on change failures are staggering. According to Ashkenas (2013), most studies still show a 60–70% failure rate for organizational change projects, a statistic that has stayed constant from the 1970s to the present.
But what if it was different? What if you implement a change, everyone adopts it, and the success is incredible? That is what we all strive for, but it is definitely a journey, not a two‐day training event.
If your organization is facing a change now, or you simply want people to be more “change ready,” read on for the tips and tricks we have used for 30 years to reach “Change Nirvana.” The change is implemented, employees embrace it, the goals are attained, and the change sticks.
DECIDE WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
We often find competing priorities within an organization. Let’s face it—not every priority is a top priority. Make sure the changes you are trying to implement can
- Demonstrate the link between goals of the organization and the benefits from making the change.
- Show measurable benefits.
We often find too many projects within an organization that are not being completed. Why? No one is looking at the holistic picture and asking whether each project or change is critical to the organization’s goals. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that each effort has true priority and even more important, that leaders agree on the priority. This will help prevent the “just one more project/change” syndrome. Warning: There may be some unpopular decisions when someone realizes that his or her project is not getting top priority. We find that it is helpful to have top leaders involved in these discussions; after making the priority decisions, the next step is to agree on the most effective way to explain it to the staff.
After you have the list of priorities, it’s time to get serious about making the change happen.
TACKLE THE CHANGE
Think of change as a sport, like football. Any great coach has a playbook that is customized for whatever team they are playing. That is how they start the game, but it changes during the game if needed, even during the lineup right before the quarterback says “hike.” Many changes fail because they don’t start with a solid plan that considers the fact that change happens on an individual basis; it is not one size fits all. That means you will have to use different techniques to get everyone moving in the same direction. We are certified in Prosci’s change management methodology (Prosci.com, 2018). It works for any change, large or small. But there are a lot of sound approaches, so find the one that works for your organization and then embed it in the DNA of your organization so that everyone speaks a common language.
When tackling the change, your playbook should include the following:
- Leadership support. Demonstrate leadership support for the change in a variety of ways and use a “waterfall” approach to filter it through the organization. It is critical that leaders show visible support for the change. In fact, lack of executive support and active sponsorship constitute one of the biggest obstacles to successful change.
- Communication. Begin communicating early (usually before you think you need to), and use a variety of communication methods to deliver your messages. Employees want to understand the reason for the change and how it will affect them.
- Knowledge. Provide the appropriate information to help employees learn the new skill(s) they will need to make the change. When you change processes or introduce new technology, training may be required. In other cases, such as a change to the organization chart, the knowledge can be disseminated during meetings, emails, and so on. The key will be to ensure that each person understands the change. Then, work with each person to ensure he or she understands it.
- Feedback. Use feedback loops to learn where adjustments are needed to get everyone on board. When it comes to feedback, think “early and ongoing.” This will help you adjust where needed, and it will greatly increase the likelihood of adoption.
- Accountability. Holding employees accountable for making the change is one of the most powerful ways to ensure success. This accountability starts with the sponsor and flows through the entire organization. Lack of accountability can quickly damage change efforts, sometimes to the point where employees just give up. Very early in the process, we conduct sessions with leaders to help them understand what accountability means, how they should approach it, and what to do when there are issues. Honest dialogue during this session often results in additional sessions in which leaders can discuss their successes and ask for feedback when situations become difficult.
TOP 10 KEY INGREDIENTS FOR THE “SECRET SAUCE”
We provide this list to our clients as we start their “Change Nirvana” journey. It is a bit more granular than the playbook, so if they are not already in your playbook, you may want to add them. You’ll find that many of these are intertwined because your change is not linear.
- Link the change to the organizational strategy. Otherwise, your change has a likelihood of dying before it gets any traction—or worse, getting canceled during the middle of the change. There should be key performance indicators (KPIs) your change will affect. Decide which two or three are most affected and how and why. You will use this information for communication and measuring results throughout the change.
- Tackle bite‐sized projects. Bite‐sized projects are my favorites. Why? Typically, they can be implemented quickly, and only a small group is affected. If you have a project that will affect the entire organization, think about using a pilot phase to test it out. Small projects are a great way to teach people how to make change work. Think about it: if you learn how to make change work on a small project that affects only one department, the stakes are much lower than for a change that affects the entire organization. Since these projects can be implemented quickly, several can be tackled within the same year. The thrill of success does a lot to keep employees energized about the next change.
- Get involvement from all levels. Make sure the planning phase for your change involves all levels to get everyone moving in the same direction. Involvement can take many forms, and it can be as simple as
- Asking for feedback after explaining what you will be doing.
- Showing them how the change will work with their department.
- Giving them a visual to help them understand and ask for their thoughts.
Once again, the purpose of involvement is to get everyone on board; in the process, you will learn a lot about their feelings before the implementation. This knowledge allows you to tweak your plan and helps to resolve the concerns.
- Set clear expectations. Make your messages and expectations clear. One leader was conducting a company‐wide meeting to announce a large reorganization. I suggested that after the meeting, he send an email with the highlights. He resisted, strongly. He explained that he didn’t want anything in writing so people could hold him responsible for the message. People will not remember everything you told them. If the reason for the change and your expectations aren’t clear and delivered multiple times in multiple ways, it is unreasonable to expect everyone to embrace the change.
- Communicate before, during, and after the change. One of the biggest complaints we hear is that employees were not informed soon enough. As a result, they didn’t understand what would change and how it would affect them. To avoid this, communicate early and often. Explain what is happening, why, and how it will affect them. Communication should resemble a funnel: it is very high level at first and becomes more detailed as the change gets closer. The person who communicates is also important. For example, the CEO should explain what the change is and why, when, and what benefits the organization will see. After that, people are interested in having their supervisor provide additional details such as how it will affect them, what benefits it offers, and the implementation logistics. One communication is not Creative methods to communicate also gain attention, which increases the likelihood of your message being received. Email seems to be a “go to” communication, especially for teams in different locations. Think about creative ways to deliver your message. For instance, if your organization typically sends emails to announce information, look for additional methods to deliver messages that are not as common and get your employees’ attention. Think about newsletters, town hall meetings, weekly video updates, messages in breakrooms, and so forth. To stimulate creativity, we typically create a team from different departments in the organization. They will most likely come up with brilliant ideas; since they are involved, they are more likely to embrace the change.
- Provide visuals to show progress. When I was growing up, we used to watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon, a television program that raised funds for a charity. When they revealed the new donation levels, the reveal was suspenseful, and when they showed the dollar amount, there was music, applause, and confetti. The enormous amount of pomp and circumstance made it fun to watch. When you have a visual to show progress, you can use the same thought process—make it cool and fun. When the visual shows the progress, it can give a much‐needed boost to those who are going through the change; they can actually see the progress. We have found that it is critical to update the visuals on a regular basis. If you are reporting progress every six months, people will stop looking at the visuals because they don’t change often enough. In addition, if a very large change is involved and you certainly want everyone to notice the progress, use the Jerry Lewis approach and add some zip when revealing the visuals instead of just taping them to the wall in the breakroom.
- Create feedback loops. Feedback loops provide a way to gather information, review it, and then act on it accordingly. You will need feedback before, during, and after the change is implemented, and gathering feedback can be relatively simple. Methods we frequently use are asking questions during weekly or monthly staff meetings, conducting focus‐group sessions, or having informal conversations. When asking for feedback, you are more likely to get complete honesty if you say, “I would like to know what you think, what you hear others say, and anything we should know to help make this smoother.” This provides anonymity and has a good chance of getting honest information. The purpose of the feedback loops during each stage of the change is different.
- Before implementation: The purpose is to check the pulse of your audience. This will tell you what you need to start, increase, or stop. You’ll definitely want to know what people are most excited about and what is most frightening.
- During implementation: Provide status updates, including positive results and what’s next. The positive results are especially helpful for causing others to adopt the change. After providing updates, the feedback loop can be as simple as asking for thoughts on whether the information was valuable and what additional information would be helpful. Knowing what the next steps are helps keep everyone informed.
- After implementation: The purpose is to learn what went well and what needs to be improved. This should occur in different timeframes after the implementation. For example, gather feedback immediately after the change and then at specific intervals (e.g., weekly, bimonthly, and monthly) until you feel that everyone is on track. (Note: When you determine what went well and what could be improved, capture the information so it can be used when planning the next change.)
- Actively manage resistance. Expect resistance. It is normal and natural. I’m always surprised by clients who complain that their employees don’t like change. One even said, “I like change; why don’t they just get on board.” This was pretty simple; the reason he liked change was that he was the CEO and always decided what the changes would be. How difficult is it to like change under those circumstances?
To manage the resistance, you have to capture it, and that’s why feedback loops are critical. We see a lot of resistance due to fear or loss of power. Try to understand why someone is resisting, then work with them to overcome their resistance. If an employee is losing power (real or perceived) due to the change, you may be able to find a way to replace it and refocus them. Remember, change is individual, and it may take time for some employees to fully adopt it. In the initial planning stages, we like to understand where the most resistance will come from and plan for it.
- Commit to completing the change. It is critical to stay the course after you embark on a change. This can be very difficult due to a phenomenon known as “shiny new object” syndrome. A popular movie would call it the “Squirrel!” syndrome: whenever one of a group of cartoon dogs thought he saw a squirrel, he’d yell “Squirrel” and distract the rest of the group from whatever task they were pursuing. Competing priorities, leaders who change direction, or lack of traction are the enemies of commitment. Combat this by making sure the change is linked to the organization’s strategy and can demonstrate measurable benefits. Before you proceed, make sure the leadership team is committed.
- Celebrate success. This is my favorite part of any change. However, I am saddened when I hear a team member say, “I can’t remember celebrating success.” When I ask why, I’m told that everyone is busy, there is no time, there is no budget. Think about it. You’ve just implemented a change that helps the organization move forward. It is critical to make sure everyone knows how much you appreciate their efforts. You don’t need a lot of time or a big budget to reward people. In fact, when we ask employees to tell us how they would like to celebrate, one of the top three ways is always “just say thanks.” People want to know they did a good job and helped pave the way for success.
There is no question: change is hard. Hopefully you have found tips in this article that will make your next change more effective.