We were recently asked to share our approach to change management with an organization driving multiple simultaneous transformation efforts. When we did, they were quite disappointed to learn that we weren’t going to share the “7 easy steps to change management.” They wanted a simple recipe, but we believe that catalyzing change in human systems is an art, not a science. Step-by-step methodologies look good on paper, but rarely, if ever drive long-term sustainable change.
Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years about making change happen.
It Starts And Ends With Leaders. Most change management processes bypass the most important lever for change—leadership behaviors. It is daunting to “speak truth to power” as they say, but it is also essential. The leadership signals sent often undermine the carefully crafted words on posters and in organizational communications.
For example, in one organization the leader was espousing the need to “be innovative and push the boundaries!” But in a strategic plan review, we observed him shutting down new ideas repeatedly.
“We’ve tried that and it didn’t work…”
“You’ll never get that through legal…”
As long as the leader’s day-to-day messaging reflects the risk-aversion of the past, the organization has no chance at becoming an innovator. One way in which he could stay true to his intentions is to declare them publicly—“Even I struggle to stay open to new possibilities. If you catch me shutting things down, especially before the idea is fully fleshed out, I invite you to call me on it in the moment.” A little vulnerability from leaders goes a long way.
Employees Who Are Engaged From The Start Stay Engaged. An extremely persistent tendency is to get a group of smart, senior people in a room to figure out the answer, and then to “roll it out” to the rest of the organization wrapped in a pretty package. Or to engage a consulting firm to figure it out fast and then orchestrate a change management process.
In our experience, employees see right through these change campaigns. They also have a lot more wisdom than you think. Leading a thoughtful engagement effort from the start and asking the team really good questions will lead to a more informed answer as well as ongoing buy-in. Starting the change management from the beginning through a highly participative process makes rolling it out infinitely easier and more successful.
Change Takes Time And Patience. The reason that employees are so inclined to believe “this too shall pass” is that organizations have a short-term orientation and very little patience. Most leaders get bored with the transformation message long before it has actually been received and internalized by the team. Believing “I already told them so therefore they know” is a mindset that we have disproven countless times.
If you are starting a major change effort in a large and complex organization, it’s helpful to assume that it will take at least 18 months to get real traction and probably 36 months to fully realize the end goal. Once the team realizes that you mean it, they’ll start doing the hard work of figuring out what it means for their day-to-day work.
The majority of change efforts require more than a checklist and a project plan to create a different outcome. Leaders need to consider a holistic approach that encompasses both human and organizational factors and that lasts long enough for sustainable change to take hold. By paying appropriate attention to these commonly held mindsets, you can design a systemic change effort that has a higher likelihood of success than traditional process-based approaches.