Dec 01, 2015

Not Another Change Initiative!

By Susan Pennebaker
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We can all agree that successful companies plan for the future by exploring new market opportunities and developing products and services that will respond. Such innovators strive to improve and, above all, stay open to change. Change can transform the very culture—the soul—of a workplace. It can mean the difference between a company’s success and its failure, between survival and disappearance.

Yet, according to a Gallup report, more than 70% of corporate change initiatives fail, often because of a lack of managerial focus on how it will help a company achieve its desired business objectives. There is also employee cynicism to overcome. Employees learn to be cynical when planned changes don’t materialize or are not clearly understood. Is this just another flavor-of-the month? “If I look the other way, this too shall pass” might become a mantra that’s hard to break.

Sometimes an initiative fails because management attempts too much change at once. As noted in Managing Initiative Overload by Bain and Company, “Initiative overload is an ailment that permeates nearly every large company... In this situation, people are like swimmers buffeted by cross currents coming from every direction. The result is a kind of fragmentation, meaning that you don’t have enough time to do anything well or enough bandwidth to absorb what you need to absorb.”

So, what steps should management take to increase the odds of success in a change initiative?

  1. Link to the company’s business case.

    Your employees need to know how the new initiative fits into the company’s vision, values, and goals. How is it part of the company’s business strategy going forward? How does it align with other company initiatives? How does it affect the bottom line? How will it benefit customers, employees, and stakeholders? Communicate the positive changes that the initiative will bring. Make clear that it isn’t a momentary impulse that’s going to be abandoned when something better comes along. Management might say, “We may not have all the answers today, but we will continue to work towards perfecting our goals to achieve success.”

  2. Use targeted communications, early and often.

    Different stakeholders need different levels of communications. Most employees want to hear directly from their immediate supervisors when a new initiative is launched. They want clear focus and direction that is personal to them. “How will this affect our day-to-day work? What do I need to do?” Supervisors and middle management must be well informed in order to clearly define how the desired behaviors of their reports and groups will add value. They should be explicit in defining responsibilities for those most impacted by the initiative. Communicate early and often that management will do everything in its power to support the initiative—before, during, and after launch.

  3. Take proactive steps.

    If your organization is one of the 70% whose initiative failed the last time, what can you do differently this time to increase the odds of success?

    • Develop a detailed communications plan for pre-launch, launch, and post launch.
    • Include key employees in the planning phase. They will become your advocates, and their peers are less likely to see this as “just another management initiative.”
    • Identify champions and “owners” of the initiative early on, and clearly define their roles and responsibilities.
    • Ensure that communication occurs at the local level in the form of town halls or discussion groups.
    • Recognize successes along the way and reward desired behaviors.
  4. Watch out for these obstacles.

    You are more likely to fall into the 70% category if you face several of these issues:

    • Senior management is not in alignment.
    • Managers charged with implementation are not well informed, or completely on board.
    • A comprehensive plan or budget has not been developed for the initiative.
    • No one has taken ownership of the role of “champion” of the initiative.
    • Management’s own actions are not in concert with its stated values.
    • Ongoing communications don’t occur.
    • Too many past initiatives have failed, or their outcomes were never communicated.

The term “change initiative” doesn’t need to strike dread in the hearts of staff or, even worse, indifference. Such initiatives are vital to the continued growth and impact of an organization, but not all have been done or implemented well. By focusing efforts on communication, planning, recognition, and forward thinking, your company can not only affect change that fosters success, but it can also move the culture to one that is optimistic about the benefits change can bring.

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