One of my favorite 80’s songs is “Change” by Tears for Fears. In the song Curt and Roland lament, “I did not have the time. I did not have the nerve. To ask you how you feel. Is this what you deserve?” When I hear this stanza, it makes me think of how well intended change initiatives often unfold. John Kotter’s research on organizational change found that 70 percent of transformational change initiatives fail (Harvard Business Review, 1995). The Towers Watson 2013 Change and Communication ROI Survey shows that only 25% of change initiatives achieve long term success. Most of us can recall a recent change initiative at work that fell short of its initial promise. So why do we keep our needle in the same groove when we know it isn’t working? There are a number of effective change models and frameworks that outline the critical steps in a change process. Where we often forget to focus is on the change preparation. What do we need to do before kicking off an organizational change?
Take the time and have the nerve. In Jim Collin’s book Good to Great he talks about how great companies get the right people in the right seats on the bus. I couldn’t agree more. But before your change bus embarks on a new initiative ask the passengers if they have the time to take on the project. The “right people” are often the same people we ask to do everything. How can this specific project take precedence over their other objectives? Why should it be their main focus? What will impact their pay and incentives — this initiative or their day job? If we don’t ask and evaluate these questions we can quickly steer the change off course before it leaves the parking lot. A real bus makes stops and lets people on and off. Before launching a change how can we give people permission to get on and off the project at different stages? It take guts to say, I would love to help kick off the project but my lack of attention to detail and work demands will make me less effective in the next phase of the project. But imagine the impact we could have if we gave individuals that license. Lack of time, passion, and commitment are common road bumps- or roadblocks- on the change path. Before hitting the gas, evaluate your team and their commitments carefully.
Ask how people feel and what results we deserve. Communication is a staple step in all change models. Understanding why change is needed is a critical element in changing behavior. Unfortunately too many change communication plans seem pre-recorded, telling employees why a change is needed once the destination has been determined. What if instead we invite employees into our recording studio to help us lay down the track? Asking for employee’s voices before decisions are finalized is powerful and insightful. It helps us hear both what they know and how they feel. Before we invest time and resources in a change, it is critical to invest in listening to our teams. What do they love about the current state? What do they hate? What do they wish for? What are they worried about? Understanding the emotional current state can provide invaluable insights on how to design the future state. While you’re having these discussions, take a deep breath and ask, “So what results do we deserve?” Be honest with yourself and encourage your employees to be honest with you. Have you underfunded or under resourced the project? If so, share the project timeline and ask what risks they see and what recommendations they have. Have you responded to the latest employee engagement feedback? If not, revisit the feedback with your employees and understand what they are looking for from you. Leaders need follower-ship to make change stick. Have you examined other factors- internal or external- that are competing for airspace with this change? Engage your employees in brainstorming how, given this reality, the change can be effective.
Change is hard work- and even harder if we don’t take the time to prepare effectively for it. So take some advice from Tears for Fears and take the time, have the nerve, and understand how people feel so you can move the needle and make change stick in your organization.