Seventy per cent of all change efforts fail – a very familiar but depressing statistic. One of the key contributing factors to that high failure rate is a lack of ability (or willingness) of the leadership team to behave in a way that supports and sustains the change effort.
Here are five key change principles that you can use to improve your odds of success:
Demonstrate strong sponsorship for the change. Leaders must get personally involved in a change. If employees don’t see that the leader cares enough to invest time and energy, it’s unlikely that they are going to be willing to invest their own time and energy. If you have ever played sports, you know that there is a huge difference between being on the field playing the game and sitting in the stadium watching the game. In organizational effectiveness work, being an observer doesn’t count for much. Leaders must remain actively involved in the change process. Be clear on what ‘success’ looks like, talk about the change frequently to keep it front and center, and hold others accountable for successful execution of the change.
Create focus on the ‘critical few’ priorities for the organization. Leadership requires the ability to differentiate “critical” work from “nice to have.” As humans, we are severely limited in terms of the amount of information that we can receive, process and remember before we begin to experience overload. Therefore, it is important to focus all of your organizational capacity on the highest priorities for your organization. And, once you define the most critical work, avoid the common practice of continually shifting priorities. That will not only dilute focused effort but will also earn the leader a “flavor of the month” reputation.
Be clear on your decision-making process. Many leaders create unnecessary chaos by restructuring their organizations when all they really need to do is clarify who has the authority to make decisions in the organization. With any change, it is important to be clear about who is responsible for key bodies of work and key decisions. Doing so can significantly reduce the high cost of an ambiguous decision-making process.
Implement effective two-way communication practices. When implementing any significant change, it is critical to establish an open line of communication between leadership and those impacted by the change. Leaders can’t fix problems if they have no visibility to those problems so they must actively solicit ongoing feedback. Once you receive it, be genuinely open to what is and isn’t working well. Once you have the feedback, implement a process for reviewing the input, separating the “noise” that accompanies major change from valid employee concerns, and then taking the appropriate actions to implement course corrections.
Recognize when you or your leaders are part of the problem. I have worked with some very challenging executives. They tend to be smart. They tend to be aggressive. Their past behavior has helped move them up the organization and unfortunately, that reinforces the idea that everything they’ve done before was the right thing to do. As a result, it becomes much more difficult for them to be objective about their own behavior even when conditions require them to change their approach.
When you are implementing significant change in the organization, the leader needs to leave their ego at the door, and be open to consistent feedback on what’s working, what isn’t working and what you as the leader might need to do differently to make it work. When leaders are unwilling to examine their own contribution to the problems the organization is having, it is generally an indicator that the organization is not going to be able to sustain a change.
Jane McNair is CEO and principal consultant with Scottsdale-based McNair Group Inc. Her recently released book is titled, “MOSAIC: Simplifying the Art of Organizational Effectiveness and Change.”