From good to great

By Nura Askar | March 6, 2019

In barely a generation, technology has given us a whole new way of thinking, and new ways of managing our work and our lives. The advances and benefits are immeasurable. But they come with huge amounts of rapid change. And change can be hard for people to cope with, especially if it’s not managed well.

In the last 20 years, we’ve learned a lot about how to implement complex change initiatives in large global organizations. Usually, it involves the installation of digital tools—ironically, because they are often the very thing that creates the need for change in the first place.

Leaders set the stage

In a perfect world, an organization’s senior leadership has strong change-management competency. Often, they already have a robust management operating system. There are good governance structures and clear communications mechanisms in place. Management calls on change experts early in the process and integrates them seamlessly into the program team. Most importantly, they establish change agents throughout the organization—people who are trained in change management and experienced at facilitating it with their own people and company.

Of course, in the real world, these elements are rarely in place.

It starts with the case for change

To win people over, leaders must first articulate the case for change. They must explain what the company is doing—and why—openly and convincingly. The message should be clear and responsive to feedback, concerns, and resistance.

Employees sometimes balk at change because they see it as criticism of their efforts and the way things have always been done. But if the change initiative is framed properly, workers see it for what it is. A way to take what is already working and make it better; of going from good to great.

The first step is to design your change strategy to answer four questions. Return to these points every time the subject of the change initiative comes up.

1. What is the business problem we’re trying to solve?

2. Why are we doing it now?

3. Who is involved in this transition?

4. What are the benefits for the organization and for you as an employee?

There’s always a tipping point. Usually, operations have been up-and-running for about a year before management sees things are not working as they expected. They’ve spent X amount of dollars and X-plus amount of time, and people won’t use the system. Or, the company has been restructuring, and its best people are leaving. Management wants to know why, and what to do about it.

When a change program fails to get legs, we often hear that “people are not aligned with the initiative”; that the desired outcome was “not clear.” Digging a little deeper, we usually find staff don’t have a clear sense of why the project is being done, or why it’s being done now.

And the answer is…

So, what is the number-one reason that large-scale change initiatives fail? Leadership failing to align itself or its messages to the change program. Often, the case-for-change question has not been answered. Sometimes, members of the leadership team have provided concerns or feedback that haven’t been incorporated into the change plan. When this happens, leaders aren’t acting as sponsors. They don’t explain the change to their employees or respond proactively to their concerns. They don’t hold team members accountable or realign their own team’s priorities to support the program.

Employees want to hear high-level information about the change and its impact to the organization from the executive team. The impact it will have on them personally should be communicated by their direct supervisor.

If supervisors don’t or won’t carry the messages, answer employees’ detailed questions, or model the change the company is trying to create, it simply won’t succeed. The cracks within the leadership team will become visible and employees will start losing trust in the organization’s ability to manage the process. This will make it harder to drive any change in the future.

Change failures are costly

A company can lose millions of dollars when a large-scale change initiative fails, not to mention the trust repercussions and the damage to its brand equity. Organizational change management is about mitigating risk, maximizing investments, and improving employee engagement so people continue to be productive and feel connected.

Nothing will undercut your initiative and management’s credibility faster than inconsistent and disparate information traveling up and down the watercooler pipeline. So grasp the reins firmly from the beginning. Communicate early and convincingly. The good and the bad; the benefits and detriments. Prepare people for the change as much as possible, with honest talk about what you know and don’t know. Discuss only solid, reliable plans. Resist speculating about what may or may not happen.

Start by articulating the case for change and ensure your leadership team is fully aligned. Leverage a structured approach to your change program and ask for help so your strategy is not unnecessarily expensive. Set the stage as leaders, and then step back and watch as your change project starts delivering the results you’ve been looking for.