Do you need to change how you change?

Do you need to change how you change?

9 years ago 0 0 1948

 Are you, and those you lead, scared of the idea change?

Do you recognise the need for change, but wonder how you can make your change program successful when so many other change programs, started with the best of intent, simply fail?

Why is change so hard, and how can we ensure change programs succeed?

Understanding the need to change:

Change is inevitable.  Even with a highly successful organisation, change needs to happen as things around them evolve.  Things inside and outside the organisation change, and over time the requirement to change just to keep up, let alone ‘stay ahead’ gets bigger and bigger.  New technology, new processes, new customer requirements, new competitors, new regulations and even new social norms can rapidly turn today’s success into tomorrow’s obsolecence

Because change is inevitable, we just need to decide if we will adapt to change, lead change, or become obsolete (there is no other option!).  Whether it is forced upon us, or we decide to drive change, helping the organisation and its people to efficiently and effectively adapt to the new ways, and break through the persistence of status quo, is the job of the leader.

Why is change so hard?

Change implies uncertainty.  We know what we are doing now, but we don’t know how things will really be after we change.  This triggers a sense of potential risk and impending danger.  In these circumstances, driven by deeper and more primitive brain structures, individuals take on a ‘defensive’ mindset that works to help them protect themselves from things that may happen.

Defensive mindsets lead to ‘execution’ processes rather than ‘exploration’ ones- that is, we adopt patterns of behaving and thinking which we know have been successful in keeping us safe in the past.  We execute against plans and strategies that we already have, keeping us doing what we have always done.  We really need for change is the ‘Exploration’ mindset, where we feel safe to innovate, try new things, look more broadly and experiment with the context of what we are doing.

If everyone adopted an exploration mindset, change would be easy.  However, it is natural in uncertainty to go the other way, and be automatically triggered into a defensive one.  It is just human nature, but it means that any change process already has the chips stacked against it in terms of it succeeding.

I’m sure you have seen change programs launched with the very best of intentions, only to crash and burn.  To drive successful change, we have to move beyond this inherent fear of the idea of change, and instead adopt a more considered I.D.E.A. of change.

How do we change the way we lead change?

The best way to do change differently is to adopt the I.D.E.A. of change.

That is, Identify, Destabilise, Empower and Activate change.  AS you will see, too often change programs ignore key elements of this approach, and doom themselves to failure.

Step 1: Identify: 

The most often overlooked or inadequately addressed part of the change process is  the ‘identify’ stage of change.  Often leaders will rush straight to the ‘change program’ without taking the time to ask some really important questions.  These questions will prepare and shape the change actions, and allow the change to be based on what is really going on, rather than just the view from the C-Suite.  Here are the critical questions:

What is the current state of the organisation?  Utilising a process of examining the business in terms of the insights that can be gathered to understand where the organisation really fits, rather than taking the glossy view from the annual report or other ‘stories’ about the business is critical to successful change.  5 C’s can be used to guide our insight formulation, which are Context (what is going on in the market?), Customer (what is happening to the people who purchase, or make decisions to purchase the product or service), Community (What is going on in the broader landscape in which the organisation and customers exist), Competitor (want are they up to?) and Capability (what are our own strengths and weaknesses in serving our customers)?

From these insights, we get a clear line of sight of the state of play of the organisation.  It allows us to frame up and structure responses and change programs to capitalise on these specific insights.

What is the ‘problem’ or ‘opportunity’?  Too often change is driven because it can be to serve the needs of leadership to feel like they are doing something.  However, clearly and precisely defining the problem state or potential opportunity that exists provides the mandate for change.  It must be specific and important to the company and its staff, so that it can be appropriately communicated to get the buy in of those who must change.  Importantly, the change must be directed to help the organisation better serve its purpose.  A purpose-led change engages the people, as they understand its reasons ad needs much better than just a memo from the boardroom.

Too often the mantra from the board will be something like “We need to be more customer-centric”.  This neither defines the problem, the opportunity or the mandate to change.  Definitions need to be specific and vivid, to allow those that have the opportunity to both understand why change is proceeding, and decrease the uncertainty of ‘what it looks like’.

Who are the key players? The next part of the identification strategy is to determine who the ‘key players’ are.  They might not be the ones in the big offices, but rather specific people within the organisation.  By virtue of their job functions or the networks, they are the key people that will drive the change.  When these individuals move (or are moved) towards the change, then others will follow.  Importantly, some individuals may be ‘blockers’ of change, and managing these people (even only turning them to neutrality regarding the change) can be critical to a change program’s success.  Sometimes people are so resistant or incapable of change that they have to be ’managed out’ of the business to allow change to occur.  Leaders are highly visible and salient, so it goes without saying that leaders must walk the talk if we want any change to proceed..

Now we come to three critical process questions:

‘What is missing?’ ‘Appreciative enquiry’, and ‘what has to change’?  If we have been really clear in defining the current state and the end state, it is a simple process to ask the question “What is MISSING from the current state that is present in the end state?” (This is another reason why accurately describing both is so important!).  As we ask ourselves this question, we can start to appreciate that often when we add a few specific things, we can reach the new state quite easily (ie, drive a successful change).  Too often change programs are designed around “tear ‘em down and build ‘em back up” philosophies, when actually only a few small things are needed to be added to the current scenario to reach the desired outcome.

The next process centres on appreciative enquiry.  Instead of trying to find out what is wrong in the current scenario, we should ask what are people doing really well?  When we find ways so that people can do even more of (and be even better at) the things they do well, or the things which are needed in the new state, we find a rich vein of resource we can tap into to drive change.  Sometimes people are already doing many of the things that are needed to be in the desired end-state.  By appreciating these things, we encourage and empower people.  By identifying them and escalating their use, we avoid needing to revolutionise, or to spend lots of time retraining people.  Amplification of what is going right is such a gentle, powerful way to change and is too often overlooked.

The last of the process questions builds off the first two.  If we know “what is missing”, and we know “what are people doing really well that we want to amplify”, we are now in a position to plan exactly what is needed to change.  This step involves considering the gap to the end state, and really defining what the group needs to start doing, to stop doing, to do more of, and what to do less of.  By identifying and classifying actions into these four groups, the change plan becomes a simple and effective process.

Step 2:  Destabilisation

One of the biggest issues with change programs is overcoming the status quo.  This can also be considered a matter of destabilising the persistence of current cultures, processes and practices that together work to entrench the current behaviour.

From the identification phase, we can now start to build specific strategies to destabilise the status quo.  If we consider, in particular, the reasons why change is so hard for individuals and groups, we can see that the destabilisation can be difficult because people hang on to their own ways of doing things.  Destabilisation of the status quo requires thoughtful application of resources and processes.

For example, a large international company was shifting focus, and had to ‘cash cow’ one division over three years, and build up another.  However, they were struggling with getting people to accept the change as they kept pushing the old division forward.  To break the status quo, resources and focus were dramatically shifted.  All investments in the old division were stopped, large investments were made in the new division, the old division lost its voice in the excom and the new division received their seat.

These steps rapidly changed the organisation.  The ability of the old division to do what it had always done was completely destabilised.  With the resources, political power and support shifted to the new division, there was suddenly a rush of talent from the old division to join the new.  The historic culture of theobsolete division having pre-eminence was therefore destabilised, and change could rapidly occur.


In support of shifting the resources (in essence, aligning the resources to the desired ‘new state’ as fast as possible), the organisation needs to destabilise the ‘fear’ by building really clear visions of how the new state will be, and the steps that people can take to get there.  Decreasing risk and clearly defining what ‘successful’ will look like in the new framework is important to help people let go of the current status quo.

Destabilisation is a critical step in driving a successful change program.

Step 3:  Empower. 

It is one thing to focus on the systems, but in the end it is the people that have to be behaving differently for any change program to work, and to persist beyond the program itself.  Often programs are run, only to incur significant ‘back-sliding’ once the program has been completed.  Ensuring that the human aspect of change is supported allows the new ways to persist beyond the change.

One of the key ways to empower the people is to be really clear about the purpose of the organisation, and how the change enhances how the organisation can fulfil that.  Encouraging people to align their own personal purpose to that of the organisation really helps.  A purpose driven change provides a real ‘reason to believe’ that people can understand and appreciate.

To empower the people, they have to feel supported, rewarded, having appropriate agency and that things that happen (the change!) offers them fairness on process.  Without these things, people will rapidly disengage, and often work against the change process as they attempt to maintain the status quo.  Surveying the people can be useful to get a ‘temperature check’, however, too often the surveys ask useless questions.  The surveys should seek to determine how the people respond to these four ‘feelings’ as well as their current and future behaviours.

Leaders have to remember to keep making the change important for the people.  In this sense, their outreach plans need to be clear, and involve significant demonstrations of commitment, clear prioritisation of the ‘new way’ over the old way, to over-communicate, and to gain appropriate levels of participation (usually best in ‘how’ they can shift to the new way, not whether they will or not!).

Sometimes, as much as people want to change, they lack the skills for the new state.  Here the importance of leaders as coaches comes to the fore. Leaders who coach help staff adapt quicker, acquire skills and learn to appropriately apply them.  Coaching also increases engagement and helps provide a strong connection back to the organisation (increasing their feeling of value and being valued).  Leaders without coaching skills often find that people they lead struggle to ‘keep up’ with the new ways.  Coaching as a process helps them adapt more effectively and efficiently.

Defining the people that will take you forward or hold you back.  Unfortunately, there are some circumstances where there are people who cannot (or will not) make the leap to the new ways from the old.  In this case, it is best for everyone to quickly and fairly help them find new paths, even if these are outside the organisation.  Remember, that everyone else is watching how you treat such people.  Being fair, if not generous, and courteous sets a clear standard, and as people see that those that are ‘out’ are well treated, they understand that if that happens to them, that they will be looked after, too.  When a company skimps or handles exits poorly, engagement of those remaining can be greatly affected.  Empower your leaders to make good calls, and to look after those who stay, and those that go.

Step 4:  Activate.

In this phase, all efforts have to be made to effectively and efficiently get the organisation behaving in the ways envisaged in the end state.  To achieve this, everyone must be on the same page, and the plan (devised in step 1) must be followed.  As change begins, a cybernetic (self correcting) process should come into operation, where the culture, processes and practices are constantly monitored and ‘tweaked’ to ensure the plan is delivered.  Setting a plan and letting it run without ongoing leadership is a typical recipe for disaster.

As the organisation starts to change, leadership must pay strict attention to the levers they can consciously intervene with to set the new culture.  That is, the practical items (structure, process, organisation), the human process items (heroes, rituals and stories) and the communication items (language).  Each of these should be critically reviewed on an ongoing basis and specific interventions used to consciously shape how the culture will be in the ‘new’ state.

Be relentless about how you operate.  Once you get to the new state, be relentless in not allowing any backsliding.  Be relentless in setting high standards and maintaining them.  Setting a new status quo will take time and effort.  If you want the new state to persist, being relentless in your efforts to maintain it are critical.

Finally, celebrate success.  Celebrate effort to reach success.  This is not a specific step or phase needed to change, but rather it is such an important thing to do when you get there.  Too often, once people have made massive efforts to change, we reward their efforts with more change programs, or more hard work.  The process of appreciation and celebration is really important.  It helps cement the new culture, rewards those who have contributed to it, and lets them know that future change will also be worth the effort.

Has change been hard for you, or your organisation?

What has stopped your change efforts?

What, from the IDEA of change, will you now employ to make your change program successful?

If you want to discuss how this could look for your business, feel free to drop me a line.

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