6 tips for lasting change

You’ve figured out what needs to change in your organisation. How can you get it to happen?


What do you want to change? Maybe it’s your organisation’s culture: there’s not enough communication, people are too isolated in silos. Or you need to implement a new IT system. Perhaps you need to get established in Asia, or to build a new venture in the UK. Maybe you just want to know how to persuade your boss to support your plan. 

So your change might be strategic, structural, cultural – even personal. Is it possible to identify principles that can apply across such a wide range of situations? Yes – but first you need to take a step back and think more deeply about what you’re really asking.  

The truth is, most organisations know what they need to do to improve – they’re just not doing it. You can pay a consulting firm millions of dollars to come into your company and tell you what your strategy should be and they’ll probably arrive at the right conclusion – but they won’t be addressing the real problem. 

How hard can it be? 

The question you should be asking isn’t, “What should we do?” The much more powerful question, at the heart of all successful change is, “Why aren’t we doing what we know we should be doing?” 

If I then say, “Let me be your personal consultant. What you should do is sleep more, eat more healthily, get more rest…” you’ll say, “Thanks very much but I knew that already. I’m just not doing it.”

The lesson from this is you’re unlikely to achieve the change you want if you try to do it on a purely intellectual level. This is why one of the most crucial skills for any leader is the ability to engage both the head and the heart. The great organisations of today are the ones where every person in the hierarchy has a strong sense of where the company is going and feels that they can do things that they are good at to help the organisation achieve its ambition. 

Here are six tips for successfully implementing change that lasts. 

1. Build a sense of shared purpose – Make sure your people know why they're here and why you're asking them to do whatever it is that needs to be done differently. Very few senior executives think they’re bad communicators – they’ll always tell you that their people understand the company strategy – but when you ask those people, “Do you understand where you’re going?” they almost always say “No.” If there’s a disconnect between what you think you’re communicating to your colleagues and what they’re actually hearing, you need to address that. 

2. Role-model the behaviour you want from others – As James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders but they’ve never failed to imitate them.” It’s the same in organisations. You can’t just say, “Do this” and expect it to be done. Bear in mind the old cautionary saying, “The fish rots from the head.” How you behave sets the tone and impacts on the outcome.

3. Make people feel they can contribute  – They want to play to their strengths, to do things they're good at that can help the organisation achieve its ambitions as well as fulfilling their own ambitions for personal and professional growth. This isn't optional: if you don't manage to offer them that, they'll leave and then they'll be quite likely to trash you on social media. Millennials especially won't take any abuse. They've been well-parented and made to feel they are people of worth. 

4. Be collaborative – This means challenging as well as supporting. Great teams do this all the time. A NASA astronaut told me that on the Space Shuttle people constantly challenge each other: "Should you be doing that?" Nobody gets defensive. People welcome it because that's how you stay alive in space. If someone makes a mistake they could all die. In business this means having difficult conversations. The flip side is you have to look out for each other and give real support. 

5. Create a high-trust environment – If you treat people like children, they'll behave like children. If you treat people like adults, they'll behave like adults. Evidence has shown that, one way or another, your attitude to people directly affects what they go on to do. So if you think the people below you are stupid, lazy and incompetent, you'll be right. But if you expect the best from your people they're likely to reward your trust. One way or the other, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

6. Break the cascade – Forget the idea that knowledge flows down from the top. You need to gather it from every part of the organisation. Maybe you could consider a programme like General Electric's Workout, where a group of people from any part of the company are given two days with a facilitator to find the solution to a problem. The group then makes a presentation to senior management, who are only allowed one of three responses: "Yes", "No" or "Let's get more information". 80% of the suggestions get an automatic, instant "yes". 

It's not so surprising when you think about it: the people close to the problem are almost always the ones who can find the answers.

What if you want to make changes and you’re not in charge? Our work relationships are a lot more complicated than they used to be because the world is more complicated. The traditional hierarchical pyramid has been binned along with the organisational chart and their place is a complex structure that has evolved its own processes, which often aren’t working terribly well. 

Nowadays you don’t just report to one person. You report to one person for one area of what you do, someone else for another. And your colleagues, the people who need to help bring about the change, might be around you rather than below you. So how do you influence these people if you have no formal authority? 

This is what the people who come on the Leading Change Programme often ask: “How can I get these people to do what I want when I’m not their boss? I can’t fire them if they don’t do it!” That’s the key challenge and it’s not limited to middle managers. Even with CEOs, I’ve had conversations where they’ve said, “I’ve told them what to do, over and over again, and they’re just not doing it! What do I do now?” 

Organise for change

So the real challenge, wherever you are in the organisation, is trying to influence the people around you. I often talk about Saul Alinsky, who was one of the key drivers of the civil rights movements in the US. He understood how you get people to change. He saw people desperately wanting change but feeling powerless to do anything about it. Alinsky's insight was that the people who are powerful in any system are the ones who get organised. 

This is your most powerful tool. Build a group of people around you – an alliance, a coalition – who share your beliefs and your passion for what you’re trying to make happen. That’s what engenders change. As the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

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