Change Management – Building the Case for Organizational Change

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This is part of DHG’s Quarterly Series for 2019 on Change Management. In this quarter’s installment, DHG’s Director of Change Management Jeff Outten discusses why change agility is important in an organization.

Let’s be honest. Change is hard, but it is not that complex! That said, research would suggest that up to 75% percent of change initiatives fail to meet their objectives1. What a lot of wasted time and effort! You can imagine how exhausting that might be to those involved, not to mention the impact on the business. Change agility as a core competency is something that DHG has embraced with enthusiasm, and it challenges us to rethink our method of approaching strategic initiatives.

The good news is there are some basic blocking and tackling tactics that can significantly reduce the failure rate of change initiatives. In fact, these tactics can also accelerate adoption and buy-in, help build more robust change strategies and create an environment where future-focused ideas thrive to help transform the organization to meet the rapid pace of change.

These tactics fall into two categories: one is organizational, and the other is personal. And, as you might suspect, some organizations and some individuals are more prone and adept at change agility than others. Organizations that thrive in a changing environment are led by CEOs and executive teams who believe that change agility provides a competitive advantage and, therefore, they prioritize change leadership. They insist that leaders understand the role of purposeful, intentional change management and their organization’s change process. They invest the resources to raise the Change IQ in their employee population.

When studying organizations that invest in developing change agility, a number of factors are shown to be true. First, there is a defined change process, one that is widely communicated and understood. A purposeful and intentional approach to change management provides the organization focus and discipline in often ambiguous situations and in the unchartered waters of innovation. The organization that can say, “This is how we do change!” is an organization better positioned to efficiently and confidently manufacture solutions to better serve their clients, develop successful growth strategies and build a culture in which people can thrive while achieving their career goals.

The fuel that drives all successful change strategies is the organization’s ability to define and articulate the why behind the change. The secret sauce in gaining alignment and buy- in for change is answering the fundamental question of why the change makes sense, how it aligns with the vision of the organization and how the change supports its strategy… and, on a more personal level, the what’s in it for me (WIIFM) for those impacted by the change. The ability to connect change to a purpose that resonates with those responsible for driving the change is a powerful motivator.

Change is unquestionably a team sport!

When a compelling vision for the change has been communicated, and employees understand the what and the why, the next logical question to be answered is, “So, how the heck are we going to pull this off?” The answer is undeniably: TOGETHER! One approach for consideration is to engage those who know most about the change proposed (i.e. subject matter experts), those most affected by the change and/or those who have a unique perspective on the change. One way of engaging people is through a collaboration event designed to determine the actions, tactics, strategy and communications required to bring the change to fruition. Those who have their fingerprints on the change plan become change ninjas, advocates and champions for the change. This collaborative approach also contributes to the mitigation of change resistance and helps the naysayers feel heard and more engaged. More importantly, the change strategy is always more robust, effective and efficient when an organization listens to the great ideas and recommendations of its people.

To create a competitive advantage in a rapidly changing industry, a number of changes are likely to be introduced and implemented simultaneously. A critical success factor in the management of multiple change initiatives is diligence in thinking systemically and holistically across the organization. Thinking hard about the upstream and downstream (and unintended) consequences of the change can help uncover opportunities. Similarly, looking across multiple change initiatives often uncovers synergies, dependencies, overlaps and execution levers. Practically speaking, this can be accomplished rather simply by having change leaders communicate with each other on a regular basis.

Can we talk? Literally, can we talk…and listen and communicate in ways that enhance the change process? The short answer is yes, but it is not for the faint of heart. Communication is almost always the one thing called out as an opportunity for improvement. Communications that address multiple constituents with widely diverse opinions, wants and needs is, at best, challenging; however, the following core principles can help in this endeavor:

  • Transparency, authenticity and candor are our friends!
  • If we get the why right, the rest will flow from there.
  • Like change, communication is a team sport. It often takes a village to get the message out.
  • Never underestimate the power of humor!

On the personal side of change, for all the effort the organization puts into change management, success at the end of the day is dependent on the hard work, commitment and faith (yes, faith) of the leaders and professionals across an organization. Embarking on a major change initiative is like venturing into the unknown. (Lions and tigers and bears…oh my!) However, faith in the good intentions of leadership and the change strategy, trust in one another, a safe environment to fail forward and a culture which encourages growth and development are invaluable. Calculated risk-taking and experimentation, which are necessary elements in an agile growth culture, flourish when coupled with disciplined focus and accountability.

Individuals embrace change on two very different levels. One is the rational side of change, which is all about the intellectual understanding of change, such as saying, “Oh, I get it!” However, even when we understand the why and the what of change, even when we clearly understand the roadmap and milestones of the change, even when we feel we are a part of the change and have our fingerprints on the change, we can still get stalled or even held hostage by the other side of change: the emotional side. Fear, loss, anxiety or simply moving out of one’s comfort zone often stall the individual’s ability to fully engage. This stalling is not to be ignored or underestimated in its importance.

Managing the emotional side of change involves celebrating the small wins, highlighting progress and calling out individuals’ contributions. These things build confidence in those responsible for driving change. Sensitivity to the sometimes elusive motivations of all involved in the change can inform strategies and communications in ways that move people into change rather than away from it. But more than anything else, the effort spent building a culture of trust and respect will pay the most significant dividends on the change front. As former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner said, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game!”

Clarity, collaboration, compassion and communication are the bedrocks of change agility. You can bet change is hard, but with focus and commitment, organizations as well as individuals can enhance their Change IQ in order to take advantage of the opportunities and meet the challenges of a changing environment.

1Lipman, Victor. “New Study Explores Why Change Management Fails-And How to (Perhaps) Succeed). Forbes.com. September 4, 2013.