YOUR VERY NEARLY FOOLPROOF GUIDE TO ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE
From toddlers to trees to technology, nothing grows without transformation. But let’s be honest – change is an iffy proposition. Even when things aren’t going so great, they might not be quite bad enough to prod people to action. Change, after all, means doing something different. Something risky. Something uncomfortable.
But it’s also the only way to get anywhere great.
Following are a few simple (which is different from easy) steps you and other leaders can take to manage change successfully within your organization. From communication to behavior modeling to making sure the finish line is really seen as a fresh start, these steps will help ensure change really will do you good.
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FOLLOW A PROCESS.
Improvisation is great if you’re Miles Davis, but even the Godfather of Cool never tried conducting thousands of people in an epic jam session. When it comes to change, real success requires a real process. Sure, talented people can take you far, but never far enough on raw talent alone. It takes a disciplined, coordinated effort that, for reasons we will never quite understand, too many business leaders abandon along the way.
What to do
Find a change process that works for you (we happen to know where you can find one). Regardless of style, any good process will include steps that align leaders around a specific strategy and methods for rolling out that strategy to the entire organization. A great process – the kind you need – outlines a path for continued refinement so your strategic success remains sticky. In a good way.
START AT THE TOP.
Fifty-four percent of executives do not believe their company’s current strategies will be successful (2013 Booz & Co. survey). Fifty. Four. Percent. And if those folks don’t believe in what they’re preaching to their people, do you think any of the rank and file are going to be very enthusiastic? No. They are not. In fact, most managers and frontline employees doubt that leaders are willing to walk the walk and actually, well, lead.
That’s why successful change has to start with an all-aligned, all-in, all-for-one-and-one-for-all leadership team. Because strategy, which is often an intellectual activity for leadership, is emotional for the rest of the firm – they’re the ones it affects the most. The ones choosing to live it (or not) day in and day out. If you can’t get them on board, there’s no point leaving the station.
What to do
Be honest, be bold, be definitive, and be active. Leaders must first have an accurate picture of the current climate. Then they must be bold enough to call out the obstacles that stand in the way of success, followed by defining a clear view of what the future should and can be. Finally, they must coalesce around the cultural changes that will have to happen for strategic success to occur – and then go out and be the first ones to change.
CONSIDER EVERY POV IMPORTANT.
As social media has proven, everyone has an opinion. And while many of those anonymous observations can and should be ignored, the same should not be said for opinions within your own company. Too often, the opinions of frontline folks are discounted or relegated to suggestion box purgatory, never to be seen again. Which is odd, considering your employees are the ones who have to live with leadership’s decisions – the ones who actually know what is and isn’t working, and often how to make things better. Viewing the impact of potential changes through their eyes has no downside and goes a long way toward creating a workable plan that is also embraced by all.
What to do
Ask, listen, repeat. Really. At the barest of minimums, leadership must consider the perspectives of everyone the new strategy will affect. Which is everyone. Including customers. But it’s even better to take things a step further. Instead of sequestering your team in the C-suite and solving things with giant sticky notes and spreadsheets, get out and about – both electronically and literally – and ask your people how they would tackle the most critical challenges facing your business. Their responses won’t just surprise you, they’ll inspire you. Not only will your eventual solutions and strategies be more robust, you’ll have built-in buy-in from just about everyone you need to get change done. And done well.
APPRECIATE THE INDIVIDUAL.
Everybody handles change a little differently. Some take baby steps, others bulldoze into the great beyond, and some resist budging from the status quo for as long as possible. But in the end, most people process change over three phases:
Change always requires people to leave some things behind. A process, a technology platform, a favored way of doing things, even a department. And that can be hard for some folks.
EXPLORING THE NEUTRAL ZONE
This is the often confusing and potentially frustrating time between letting go of the old ways and fully embracing – or just figuring out – the new.
In this phase, people have started to get in the groove of the new ways and are, hopefully, seeing the benefits of change.
What to do
Leaders and managers must respect the fact that people lose something during the change process. For most, it’s just a sense of comfort (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). But for others, it may be a change in job title or responsibilities. Showing genuine concern for these issues through communications such as town hall meetings and one-on-one conversations goes a long way to help everyone move along the right way.
It’s also important to reset expectations about people’s roles, responsibilities, and how they engage with new processes. This is much easier when you’ve prepared your managers to lead their teams through the transition instead of just being another person along for the ride. And remember, the point is to get everyone across the finish line – not to get them there at the same time. Because that’s a fool’s errand. Give plenty of opportunities for people to learn, ask questions, and figure things out. Make sure the process is an actual process if you want it to progress.
MAKE YOUR MANAGERS MIGHTY.
Managers are the key link between senior leadership and employees. Yet, they’re often the most overlooked when it comes to developing the people in their charge – leaving a skills gap that can prove fatal to even the most well-designed change plan. Success requires managers to have the communication, interpersonal, team-building, and one-on-one coaching skills you’d like to think they already possess but quite possibly don’t. They also must be able to understand the strategy and interpret it in ways that each of their employees understands and embraces.
What to do
Be the Q to their collective James Bond and equip them with anything and everything required to get the job done. Managers need to understand the strategy, its goals, and its desired impact. They need to know what changes are required to make it work, and why those changes will make it work. They must understand their specific roles in leading their teams, and what success looks like for their departments. They are your frontline change makers, so do whatever is necessary – training sessions, small groups, intranet chat rooms, one-on-ones – to ensure they’re not just ready to change, but ready to rock.
STAY COOL IN THE FACE OF RESISTANCE.
Like a corporate corollary to Newton’s Third Law, every change initiative launched by leadership has an opposite (but hopefully not equal) reaction. It’s natural. But then, so is uranium. So if you don’t want the resistance to turn radioactive, you need to be intentional about addressing it head-on.
What to do
Pull your own Newton. For every problem or point of contention that emerges, have a reasonable response. Don’t hide from the concerns, solve them. This helps prove step No. 2 above – that leadership is on board and willing to listen to all during the process. It also helps to take things a bit more slowly than you may like. Pilot some changes in different parts of the organization, proactively tweaking as you go, to prove they work. The bit of time you sacrifice doing this will reap huge rewards in the long run as you witness your company reinventing itself from the inside out.
CELEBRATE SUCCESSES EARLY AND OFTEN.
Major success is always built on minor victories. To ensure that victory train picks up steam, you’ll want to celebrate successes – both of the organizational and individual variety – across the entire organization. Generating excitement and building momentum is the goal here. After all, effective change is one part quality strategy and two parts how well you bring it to life.
What to do
Package up your early wins – no matter how small – into success stories worth sharing. And, well, share them. This will show people both types of results you’re trying to achieve, as well as the fact that leadership is willing celebrate the accomplishment of anyone at any level. And that is powerful motivation for the entire company.
KEEP TALKING IT OVER.
People are wired to forget. Unless something is repeatedly discussed or studied, it sticks in short-term memory for a while before being jettisoned into oblivion. So if you want your change to stick, you have to keep the dialogue flowing. Doing so will not only keep the news top of mind, but bring greater clarity to what is and isn’t working. Which leads to more discussions and even more success.
What to do
Town halls and manager meetings are perfect ways to keep the conversation flowing. Ask questions like “How’s everything going?” and “What do you need that we haven’t talked about?” or “Would you like another donut?” (Pastries make every meeting more effective.) If you have an intranet or even a Slack channel, consider stoking the conversation there as well. Make sure managers keep dialogue flowing with their teams. The more individual conversations take place, the more ingrained change will be. Most importantly, you and your leaders must walk the walk. We may have mentioned this before. And we may mention it again. That’s just how important it is for leadership to model behaviors, set the right examples, celebrate victories, and, you know, lead.
SET CLEAR GOALS.
It’s hard for your people to keep their eyes on the prize if they have no real understanding of what that prize is. And if people don’t know what the prize is (or the benchmarks along the way), it’s impossible for them to work in unity to achieve it. In the end, you’ll still get change. Just not the kind you were hoping for.
What to do
Make both your ultimate and intermediate goals concrete and easy to understand. Then report on your progress toward them. Often. No, more often. The more people see the effects of their behavior on the success of the new strategy, the more they’ll keep pushing for even greater results. Creating a cycle of victory for the company, your people, and your customer for years to come.
Change is inevitable, but positive, strategic change is planned, positioned, executed, and maintained. And it’s necessary for any kind of organizational growth. By following the process outlined in these nine steps, you can ease people out of their comfort zones and into a new, more successful, more rewarding way of doing business.