Sustaining Change is Hard

on November 11, 2019

Several years ago, I was part of the executive team at a technology company. My role, leading our customer experience team, gave me a unique insight into just how easy it is to initiate organizational change and just how hard it is to actually sustain real change

One of our executives proposed we conduct an organization-wide employee survey in order to better understand how our staff felt about the direction of the company, uncover areas of concern, and offer suggestions for improvement. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Countless companies have engaged in similar efforts over time, so nothing too risky was being proposed. We all agreed to hire a boutique HR consulting firm to conduct the survey, analyze the results, and make recommendations. Again, pretty standard stuff.

The Kickoff: When the Excitement for Change Runs High

Everyone was excited to begin the process. A steering committee was formed and chartered. A communications plan was launched to explain to employees the critical importance of their participation to the company’s future. The survey was developed and loaded into a simple survey platform. The steering committee gave the thumbs up, and we were off and running!

Participation in the employee survey was surprisingly strong. Over 50% of staff responded in the first week alone. Response was so strong that we decided to shut down the survey after two weeks because the volume of feedback was borderline overwhelming. Our CEO communicated his thanks to the employees for their efforts, and we began the task of working with the HR firm to execute our improvement plan.

A month later, the consultants provided us with an in-depth, well-articulated deck that summarized the key areas of concern, as well as a set of employee/consultant recommendations to address. Everyone involved was excited and the sense of urgency was real. Our executive team felt like we finally had our finger on the pulse of the company culture, employee sentiment, and what needed to be done to create a lasting change that would impact the performance of the company.

Time to Implement: The Change Challenges Arise

Our steering committee assigned one of our executives as implementation lead. “Z” was a capable executive, known for solid, no-nonsense leadership. Z established a set of sub-committees to manage 10 different areas of improvement. These teams focused on creating improvement plans addressing areas such as communication, collaboration, optimal behaviors, mentoring, process improvement, office design, recognition, and customer recognition. In hindsight, the number of projects was clearly overwhelming, but the executive team was so excited to achieve real gains that they blessed Z’s approach without modification.

Over the next six months, the sub-committees met biweekly to create plans, provide status updates, and drive change activities. Initially there were some wins. Employees were excited about the mentoring model, which proved to be beneficial. And a number of process improvement teams were able to solve some “low-hanging fruit” problems concerning cross-departmental communication. Unfortunately, that is the end of the success list. The rest of the projects were quietly being shut down, ignored, or kicked down the road. Staff started to refer to the entire effort as a joke, a failure. Opinions in the steering committee were harsh. “Who is responsible (who can we blame)?” “Why don’t people care?” “Were the focus areas wrong?” “Are WE to blame?”

At this point, I could probably identify a dozen reasons why this effort was a failure – lack of accountability, too many efforts, lack of leadership, and an unclear expected future state, to name a few. But the real problem in my eyes was the wrong approach to sustaining the “change” efforts required to transform the company.

The Reality: Most of Us Implement Change the Wrong Way

Everyone from the executive team through the sub-committees and staff tried hard. But clearly effort was not enough. In hindsight, I believe we were half right. It’s easy to send out a survey, take recommendations, and set up some improvement teams. The hard part is creating lasting change that becomes part and parcel of the culture, the operating model, and the daily behaviors of all employees.

This insight is one of the key reasons I joined Root. The aforementioned employee-driven change project was just one of countless change efforts I’ve experienced over my career, and most of them failed dramatically. So, what is the better way?

Over the next couple of months, I am going to create a picture of how change efforts can result in lasting, sustainable change. I will discuss aspects of several unsuccessful change efforts I observed in the past and use these failures to show how things could have gone differently with the right approach.

For starters, let’s consider the following questions to demonstrate a powerful approach to change:

  1. What is your current reality?
  2. Can you envision your compelling future state?
  3. Do you have alignment on critical priorities?
  4. What are your plans to ensure behaviors and company culture will support your vision?
  5. Are your leaders on board?
  6. How will you engage employees (capture hearts and minds)?
  7. What efforts will you take to sustain the change movement?
  8. How will you take advantage of this success to create a competitive advantage with your customers in the future?

In essence, this approach is about three overarching concepts: defining the future, building an organizational movement, and creating lasting change. Let’s take this journey together and explore how we can all succeed with a different way of viewing and sustaining change.

Thinking

Managing Change
Customer Experience
Managing Change