Inevitably when I work on change management research, David Bowie’s “Changes” runs through my head.
“Still don't know what I was waitin' for
And my time was runnin' wild
A million dead end streets and
Every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet”
But what do song lyrics from 1971 have to do with business today?
Change has always been hard. But now, change is a constant. Consequently, change must happen faster and more frequently, which leaves employees feeling overwhelmed and change fatigued.
Defining change—the new strategy, business model, or process the organization needs to retain market share—is difficult enough. Leading the organization through the change is even harder. Much like the sentiment in the lyrics above, organizations and the people in them feel like they make it to the end of a change project, only to realize what they wanted out of it didn’t happen.
But why do we get to the end of these projects only to miss out on the value they promise?
Our change management efforts need to mature. While organizations have made strides in committing resources and planning for change, they continue to struggle with long-term, sustainable change.
But what really creates sustainable change?
In recent research, we found that sustainable change means moving beyond “check-the-box” efforts—focused on the execution of communication plans and project milestones. Instead organizations should bolster their efforts with a focus on leading, not just communicating, the change and engaging staff cooperatively to drive new behaviors.
Leadership is essential to the success of any change projects. According to John Kotter, “Nothing undermines change more than behavior by important individuals that is inconsistent with the verbal communication.”
This means that organizations must:
- Make leaders accountable, not just responsible, for change. While most organizations require a sponsor for their change projects, leadership’s performance is typically not tied directly to the success of the change initiative.
- Scale change responsibilities by role. Leaders at different levels of the organization play different roles in managing change. Senior leaders have the power and authority to provide high-level guidance and issue key communications, while middle managers should play an active, tactical role in guiding their teams through change.
Engagement is critical for all change efforts—be they enterprise-wide transformations or smaller improvement projects. If employees aren’t engaged, the change effort can easily get derailed due to unforeseen roadblocks and resistance.
The research found that though most organizations incorporate engagement into their change management initiatives—many are just going through the motions. A majority use broad, general communications and standardized training to inform and manage employees during change.
Hence organizations need to:
- Build interactive components so change happens with, rather than to, employees. When employees feel like they are at least partially in control of the change and that their inputs matter, they are less likely to resist. People tend to support things they help create.
- Leverage natural centers of influence to drive adoption. A key component of effective change is also trust. Employees are more likely to buy into change if they learn about it from someone they already know and trust.
Overall, change management is a team sport. If you want it to be sustainable, all the players in the organization from senior leadership to front-line employees must understand and play a role. For most organizations this means moving outside of our comfort zone in how projects get implemented. But to truly drive change and develop a culture that embraces change, we need to rethink how we change and sometimes that means—in the word of Bowie, “turn and face the strange.”
Want to Know More?
Check out the two best practices articles Upping Your Change Engagement Game and Leading Effective Change: The Roles of Leaders in Change Management. These articles explore 11 best practices for organizations—around leading the change and improving your change engagement practices.