There’s a well-known and widely used statistic that ‘70% of transformational change initiatives fail’. It comes from a research study published back in the 1990s by John Kotter1, but other management consultancies, academics and ‘gurus’ have espoused similar views and stats.
Happily, there are ways to make transformational or organisational change easier and more likely to last in the longer-term. Here are six tips based on some real-life work experiences.
Six ways to make your organisational change sustainable
Be clear about the why
People aren’t sheep. We like to know why we’re being asked to do something. And critically in commercial environments that ‘something’ needs to be beyond shareholder profits. Change should be aligned to organisational purpose, with a clear rationale and story. In some cases, there’s a ‘burning platform’ that drives the need for change and provides a sense of urgency. But fear of what will happen without change isn’t the only way of building belief and support; sharing the possibilities and opportunities can have equal impact, particularly if connected to wider social or environmental benefit.
Scratch the surface
Change has to feel authentic for everyone involved, and the external brand proposition needs to be aligned to the internal culture. The working environment, systems, policies, processes, and communication streams all need to be considered, with change embedded throughout. For example, if you want your people to feel more empowered and better able to make decisions, but you have a travel-booking policy that requires c-level sign off, then you may have a problem. Similarly, if you talk about being a non-hierarchical, open organisation but have a floor in the building that only execs can use, it won’t feel credible.
It can’t be delegated
While there’s room for organisational change specialists to facilitate and guide the change process, the success will be driven by whether or not the actual leaders of the organisation are visibly supportive of the change. Leaders need to walk the talk, otherwise employees quickly realise what is and is not important. Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century philosopher got it right when he said, ‘What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say’. If everyone knows that the CEO or marketing director doesn’t believe in the change then it becomes optional for everyone else, and casts doubt on the potential success.
It’s all about people
Organisational change might encompass significant changes to processes and systems, but when it comes down to it, a process only works if someone follows it, and systems need people to operate them. Change is all about people, and people are complex. Don’t work on assumptions – take the time to understand people’s needs, motivations and potential barriers to action.
Don’t expect too much too soon
Change won’t happen overnight. Don’t confuse a great ‘launch’ of a change initiative with the actual change itself. Often in bigger organisations, the execution of the communication plan is accepted as delivery of change. Whereas in reality, all that has happened is that people have been made aware of the need for change and the plan for doing so. The stages of change need to move beyond awareness into motivation to act, action, and repeated action. All of which takes time. You don’t expect to lose weight or improve fitness overnight just by telling your friends and family you’ve joined a gym – the same principle applies. Also, there’s very rarely one single change in any organisational change programme, so identify priorities over time.
It will never be complete
Greek philosopher Heraclitus said change is a constant, which is trite but true. In organisations, to ensure your preferred culture and behaviours are prevalent, there’s always going to be a need for guardianship, regular temperature checking, and bursts of activity to accommodate recruitment or acquisition. The key is to celebrate progress and milestones.
70% of transformational change initiatives fail
Kotter’s process is used in business schools and university courses around the globe. Far be it for me to challenge such robust established wisdom, but I can’t help thinking, in the 30 odd years since the research that informed this 70% statistic, has there not been any progress?
Change can be challenging, but it’s not all doom, gloom and failure. And it’s less shrouded in mystery than ever before. Is organisational change something that you can only make work if you have a business management degree and a team of expensive consultants to sort it out for you? Absolutely not.
1Leading Change, John P Kotter 1995