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Making Change Stick

Why Change Doesn’t…

It is often said that 70% of change initiatives fail to achieve their original objectives and that poor leadership is the reason behind this appalling statistic. Whilst I certainly believe this to be true, I think blaming leadership in general is too vague and that the common mistakes leaders make can be more accurately pinpointed.

In my experience, leaders fail to make change stick due to one or more, and often all three, of the following reasons:

  • Not taking the time to properly prepare change initiatives
  • Failing to lead by example
  • Not seeing things through

Taking the Time to Prepare

As we all know, ‘to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail’ and yet leaders often rush into change initiatives in a reactive way and in a desire to see quick results. In many instances, this leads to the change initiative failing to achieve its aims which then leads to a resistance to further change.

Leaders often sit behind closed doors and feel that they have to come up with detailed solutions before they talk to any of the people in the organisation who are likely to be affected by the change and then wonder why people react badly to the proposed changes when they are revealed. There really is no substitute for engaging and involving colleagues impacted by the likely change(s) as soon as possible. Indeed, by doing so leaders will often arrive at a very different solution that has a lot more support from their colleagues.

Once it is understood what needs to be changed and why, it is the essential that it is made clear how the change process will be led and by whom. This usually requires a careful balance of top-down direction and cross-functional / multi-level leadership. In fact, of the change initiatives I’ve been involved in, the ones that have been most effective and that have lasted longest, are the ones that have been led by the people actively involved in and responsible for the affected area(s) with the most senior leaders providing strategic direction and support.

Taking the time to work through these questions up front and then mapping out the change process in some detail before identifying and securing the necessary time and resources required to implement the change process and see it through is critical.

Leading by Example

Asking senior leaders to commit to a change process and to lead if from the top is easy to do but hard to achieve. Leaders often say the right things but then become distracted by business as usual activities and fail to sufficient time communicating what is required and why.

However, as we know, behaviour breeds behaviour so if leaders do take the time to approach change effectively, it will be noticed and taken on board by their colleagues. A leader who addresses the challenges of driving change, who asks their colleagues for their input and support and who acknowledges the potential impacts on the people affected, will gain their colleagues’ trust. A leader who pushes on regardless of these issues will not and will build up a lot of resistance and resentment in the process.

It really is that simple… those that take the time to talk to people and who are open and honest about their intentions will create an example that others will appreciate and follow!

Seeing it Through

I tend to think of a change process in three phases: Engaging people in the need for change and how it should be approached; Energising people to try change; and Embedding the change(s) into business as usual. I would argue that this latter phase is the most important, although I also think this is the phase that receives the least attention…

Once leaders have taken the time to plan a change initiative and have engaged and involved their colleagues in developing the change plans, it can be tempting to think that is the job done. However, that is never the case – I am often surprised at how well thought through change initiatives fail to be fully implemented due to a lack of commitment and persistence.

Some leaders don’t build in sufficient time to see things through when planning a change initiative and others find it easier to give up when the going gets tough, particularly when they are looking for quick, instant results and tangible outcomes.

We should expect that change is rarely that easy and not lose confidence at the first sign of negative feedback. In fact, we should expect that there always will be negative reactions and initial resistance to change, particularly from those who are most desperate to keep things exactly as they are!

I often find that it is not ‘what’ the organisation tried to do that was wrong but ‘how’ they, (i.e. the leaders of the change initiative) went about it. It can be too easy for leaders to give up, to say we’ve tried this and it didn’t work, rather than to look at why it didn’t work, to put it right and keep going. And yet, not seeing it through can cause more problems than not trying to change anything in the first place and certainly makes any subsequent change initiatives a lot harder to get off the ground.