No matter how great a leader is at building a smart strategy, telling a compelling story, or engaging people during a launch, hard-wiring change for the long term seems to be mission impossible. Just search the phrase “strategy execution failures” and you’ll find a hefty 858,000 Google results. Yes, almost a million links you can sift through on why strategies fail, how they fail, who made them fail, and what to do (besides pray) that yours doesn’t. This is a weighty topic in management and leadership. Even if you are able to develop a great strategy for your organization and can go as far as to create a compelling story that engages your people during launch, it’s keeping the ball rolling that is the most difficult and is almost the most ignored part of a new strategy deployment.

There are dismal stats to back this up:

  • More than half of leadership teams don’t even believe in their own company strategies or their people’s ability to execute.
  • Somewhere between 60 percent and just about every single corporate strategy ever conceived aren’t executed as intended.

You have to start to wonder: What is this giant, gaping disconnect between what we think we need to do and ACTUALLY doing it – correctly – for more than the week after it goes live?

As they say, it takes 66 days to form a new habit*. That’s more than two months of doing something religiously to actually have it feel like a natural, rote behavior. Changing things at work is no different. After all, it’s still people we are relying on to execute and maintain the strategies we craft. Those people — including you — need time to get in a groove and tools to help adjust to a new strategic normal.

Here are three foolproof ways to create lasting change in an organization:

1.The Jolt

Most organizations struggle to change at the pace they desire. Even when change is needed, many people are just comfortable with the status quo. This makes it difficult for an organization to change quickly and consistently. Reframing the way your organization views and approaches an issue — or a complex system of issues — often requires a jolt (not the cola that went belly-up in 2009). The jolt I’m talking about signals there is a united willingness and need to approach things differently. The jolt is disruptive. It cuts through the “noise” that can overwhelm employees and create disconnected initiatives and work streams.

For more than two decades, we have seen and been responsible for creating many of these jolts. Sometimes they happen in town hall meetings, at conferences, or in unique small-group dialogue sessions designed to jump-start the change process. Each jolt serves as the starting point for a great strategic shift. But, the jolt isn’t the goal; it merely begins the conversation to drive the desired change. Next, you need to sustain that jolt. Keep reading …

2. Active Listening and the Feedback Loop

Many organizations make the mistake of staging strategy “launches” as one-way monologues that go something like this: “This is what we’re going to do. I’m excited! Are you? Hopefully you’re on board because now it’s time for you to go do it!” This “tell” approach doesn’t capture people’s intellectual or emotional response to the changes; it doesn’t engage them as critical players in the process. It doesn’t offer a way to answer concerns or questions that arise as people internalize everything. And, it doesn’t set up a process for people to share input on what’s working well or not at all as things get going.

So, as you ride the wave of your jolt — all the energy and chitchat and ideas — be sure you have processes in place to capture people’s thoughts, to take their pulse, and to filter all of that into a continuous feedback loop that leaders, managers, and the larger employee population can use for ongoing improvement.

I won’t lie to you. This is hard. Certainly much harder than just telling people what to do and hoping they do it. But, it’s proven: listening actively and creating a feedback machine will give you a true understanding of the proposed changes’ impact on the mindsets, perspectives, and emotions of your people. It’s the only way to find out if you’ve successfully clarified the intellectual and practical “why, what, and how” of the journey ahead that you expect everyone to sign up for and execute on.

Each employee has to be responsible for executing the strategy by connecting it to their role, recognizing the barriers that exist, and understanding how they might go faster. This is where the feedback loop comes in – if you want people invested, you need to listen to them. However, be warned, even with an active feedback loop, your strategy will not and cannot stick for the long term unless you’re using that feedback to make tweaks and adjustments in real time.

Strategy Is Not Working

3. Ongoing Conversation at the Team Level

As humans, we find behavior change to be a tough. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, stop smoking, or alter a long-standing routine can attest to how hard it is. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

One of the best ways to create widespread culture and process change is to establish an environment that is open and supportive, as well as one that drives accountability by encouraging honest, ongoing conversations where people share thoughts without the fear of repercussion. “Ongoing” is the key word — it’s the only way to illustrate that the strategy rollout or launch wasn’t just a one-and-done event.

The best organizations create a cadence of these conversations, reaching people at least four times throughout a six-month period after the jolt. These ongoing conversations are most successful when done in functional or work teams so insights from the initial jolt can be translated to everyday activities. These regular check-ins and dialogues remind everyone of the agreed-upon desired “future state” of the business. They give leaders the opportunity to reinforce and support new disciplines, and encourage behaviors and actions that move in the direction of the desired change. Without this cadence and connectivity — otherwise known as sustainment — it’s likely you will lose your employees in the execution process.

Which brings us back to that very abysmal “most strategies aren’t executed as intended” statistic. Think about the full circle — first the jolt, next the feedback loop, and finally the ongoing conversations. This is what you need to create action and behavior change. And while these three things are huge and a great place to start, there are plenty of other tactics that you should consider to develop a successful strategy. After all, sustaining strategy execution requires more than a company-wide email with a slide deck and a webinar. Change requires ongoing conversations and a system that turns action into outcomes for your business. These three steps can be a guide to going from theoretical to actual lasting, sustained change that lands you right smack in the middle of your desired future state.

* Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Wardle, “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world,” European Journal of Social Psychology (October 2010) via Wiley Online Library,

March 27, 2015


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