When a change effort fails, we always seem to do a post-mortem. And that’s reasonable, since we often learn best from our mistakes. But the truth is, you’re better off learning the key features of successful change and putting that knowledge to work.
I compared notes with a couple dozen friends recently about success and failure factors in change initiatives. We each interviewed three people, asking them to tell us about one successful and one unsuccessful project, and to talk about what factors contributed.
It’s an interesting exercise, and one I recommend. Talk to friends, colleagues, bosses, and employees. Just ask them to tell you the story of a change initiative they’d say was a success and have them identify the things that made success possible.
Be sure you agree on what success means. I’d say a change project is successful if it produces tangible, sustainable results that support business goals. But you can choose your own definition – as long as it’s not just finishing on time and within the budget. If you’re installing software or printing a brochure or something like that, those are great outcomes. But for real change – a CRM system that changes the way you do business, or reorganizing a department, or launching a new service – you can do both and still fail: The operation was a success, but the patient died.
To get you started, here are the top 10 responses from our unscientific study, in no particular order.
- Urgency: Create a sense of urgency. This isn’t “the sky is falling” urgency or “heads will roll.” It’s giving people a compelling picture of the importance of the change. In an example from Kotter and Cohen’s “The Heart of Change,” a manager collected samples of 424 different kinds of gloves bought through existing disparate, wasteful, purchasing systems to demonstrate why the company needed to change to a consolidated approach.
- Management Support: The change has to have support from top management. Even better is to have a top manager champion the change. It’s a further demonstration of urgency and indicates that resources should be available. Don’t confuse this with a manager ordering change to happen; that generally won’t stick.
- Stakeholder Voice: All stakeholders need to have a place at the table, or at least have input. Several of the examples we found involved change designed and implemented by one group in a company that stalled because it didn’t fit for everyone affected by it. If everyone’s heard, the solutions will be more aligned with the business as opposed to off-the-shelf programs, which often fail.
- Define Success: What’s the desired outcome? A 10% increase in sales? A 10% reduction in errors? Installing a CRM system or an ERP system, or just changing reporting structures, aren’t clear pictures of success – describe what the landscape look like when the change is completed.
- Tie to Strategy: Assume that your teams want what’s good for the business. If you communicate a clear vision and a strategy, people have something to shoot for in a broad sense. They also will know when a big change initiative doesn’t align with strategy and vision, and may be less motivated to make it happen. If it is aligned, the odds of long-term success go up dramatically.
- Support Skill-Building: Change will stick much better if people have the training they need to implement it and to work within the changed system afterward. If it’s a new software system, training your tech team on how it works and how to implement it is important and so is training the folks who will use it and support it later on. If it’s an organization redesign that has people doing different tasks, make sure they have a chance to learn how to do those tasks.
- Collaboration: Lone Rangers don’t generate lasting change. They just annoy people. When people collaborate on a change effort, they all have skin in the game and commitment to long-term success.
- Accountability: Don’t confuse activity with results. Teams that are having lots of meetings may not actually be making progress toward a goal. But milestones have to be realistic and achievable. Don’t try to boil the ocean.
- Flexibility: That said, remember that change is going on around you too. So if the environment changes, be willing to bend the plan or even change the goals. And if you do, go back to all the other points about communication and clarity.
- Empowerment and Trust: Give the teams a clear vision of success and clear goals, give them the skills they need, and set them loose to find ways to get there. In most cases, they’re closer to the customers than managers are, so they know best what needs to happen tactically to achieve a goal. And they respond to being trusted much better than to micromanagement.
We looked at some of the factors that contributed to the failure of change, but they mostly tended to be the reverse of the points above. Plus, you don’t really want to learn about failure and if you want to learn about success, study success.