Bringing — and sustaining — change

The world keeps changing, and organisations need to keep up. Yet, when change is initiated ...

The world keeps changing, and organisations need to keep up. Yet, when change is initiated, how much time does a leader have to create true momentum for needed change within the firm? Chris Phillips-Maund says it’s not as long as you might think.


In the business world, scepticism about change initiatives is rampant. Not only do some 70 per cent of such efforts fail, but even those that look successful at first often prove unsustainable in the organisational culture. This statistic does not come as a big surprise to those who remember the words of Niccolò Machiavelli, written in the 1500s: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than the creation of a new system.” Because change disturbs and threatens those who are comfortable with the way things are, it tends to have few adherents, especially when first broached. But that is no excuse for avoiding the difficulties encountered when trying to drive needed change.

Changing times

More, the need for change is not new. In 500 BC, Heraclitus stated that “everything is in flux”, like the constant flow of a river. Unfortunately, today we all live in a time when organisations face a need for change as a result of what is better described as a raging torrent than a flow. Threats from competitors appear almost overnight. New technologies are adapted in what seems like nanoseconds, bringing new processes and improved methods of production. In addition, enhanced versions of older products keep appearing as do new products that make older ones obsolete. In fact, ‘new and better’ and ‘more effective and more efficient’ have become watchwords, making the ability to change and adapt crucial to continual success, to increased profits — and, indeed, survival. Moreover, as John Kotter has pointed out, “The rate of change is not going to slow down any time soon. If anything, competition in most industries will probably speed up even more.”

Accepting change as the new norm is not enough. Along with acceptance must come the determination to ensure that employees are able to adapt continually so businesses can meet these changes.

House of change

If bringing change and sustaining it — that is, making permanent the goals, behaviours, relationships, processes and systems for business advantage following a change — are to be successful, the changes needed must be established within a framework, using the right tools and techniques. And, change must be managed by skilled leaders.

One way to think about change management is to think of it as building a house, one with a strong foundation, sturdy floors, solid walls and a heart at its centre that can withstand the forces of nature.

The foundation

The foundation of the house is the change management framework, the tools, techniques and skilled change leaders who are familiar with what is involved in change management, which makes it possible for them to make the right choices for the organisation involved. There is no silver bullet; the truth is that no one technique will work in every scenario. The change manager’s toolbox should include appreciative inquiry, collaborative loops, balanced scorecards, six sigma processes, whole scale change plans and so on.

The floor

Trust, employee engagement and social networks form the floor of the house. They utilise organisational social strengths and intellectual capital in designing and developing employee-led change. Trust is multi-dimensional: trust in the executives to articulate the true organisational problems (without corporate rhetoric or spin), trust in the change leaders to lead in such a way that the outcomes desired are achieved and trust in the employees to own the change. The clear objective is to eradicate hidden agendas and information asymmetry through openness. Employee engagement gives employees a voice, and managers need to be open to listening to employees.

The walls

Executive sponsorship, commitment, communications and stakeholder management form the walls of the house. Although a key success factor is ensuring executive sponsorship, that does not imply top-down driven change (although in some scenarios, for example, short-term survival, this may be necessary). Rather, it means executive voice and support in the organisational power and political structures needed to make certain that the resources for bringing about change are available. Communication needs to be targeted, appropriate and timely — and it needs to resonate with the audience.

The heart of the house

The heart and soul of the house is the organisational culture. It is critical to create a psychology within the organisation that makes it seem logical to all to adopt and execute the strategies needed to bring about change. The selection of execution strategy must be cognisant of the organisational culture and psychology that exist today as well as where the organisation wants to be. That is, it’s important to get people thinking about the future state of the organisation, the one that frames the vision of its leadership.

If all of these elements are put in place in the right way, they can turn the bricks and mortar of the house into a home.

Leader’s agenda

If the changes needed are to be made — and sustained — a tight time frame is important to ensure that those who do not buy in and those who, out of fear, actively oppose the change do not have an opportunity to thwart the process. Given enough time and no clear visible and emphatic actions, the resisters can undermine the process in subtle ways. To avoid that, it is important to make it clear that management is determined to make the changes, that employees receive information about why the changes are needed and that they be reassured that they will have an opportunity to be trained in the new processes.

I have found that a good time frame for action is 100 days from the beginning of the process to the first deliverable. To be successful, that time period should focus on participative interactions with executive sponsors. It also should include the identification and development of change groups to determine the outcomes desired in terms of goals, relationships, behaviours, systems and processes. And it must address the development of the methods and mechanisms that will be used to monitor the sustainability aspects of change.

Those first 100 days should be broken down into four phases that tie directly to the leader’s agenda for this period.

  • Listen The key focus here is to identify the major stakeholders, set up change groups and listen to gain an understanding of the organisational culture and psychology. This is the stage in which such things as work/life balance issues are heard. A critical outcome of this phase is the identification of organisational strengths.

  • Formulise The formulisation phase takes the output from the listening phase, defines the problems and reaches agreement on the outcomes. During this phase the options are analysed and the obstacles addressed so that the change strategies that will be adopted are those that actually will increase the success ratio of change.

  • Mobilise The mobilisation phase energises the change groups to execute the agreed-upon change strategies. It aligns the workforce with the problems and outcomes and defines the first deliverable. This fosters the required level of urgency for senior executives. and it allows the change groups to visualise success.

  • Deliver This is the phase when the first deliverable is achieved and the change anchored. It is the stage at which everyone can measure and celebrate a success. It is important for sustainability that, in this phase, a great deal of attention is given to fostering social networks and evangelising the change activity to the wider organisation.

  • Throughout the entire 100 days, it is essential that there be a focus on managing expectations so that in retrospect the first deliverable is not seen as a lot of talk about little progress. To do that, it is important to emphasise during those early days that what is happening is only a first step in an ongoing process.

What the first 100 days is really about is laying the foundation needed to create a new environment, one in which the need for change is accepted and the value of change begins to permeate the organisation, making change less frightening and far more sustainable. But it is only the beginning.

Once that first deliverable is achieved, the critical factor in sustaining the momentum for change is to keep everyone — from the leaders to those carrying out the new process or making the new product or delivering the new service — talking about the value of what has happened for them and for the organisation. Only then will change be sustainable.

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