Experts from the Harvard Business Review to IBM to Forbes/Towers Watson agree that change programs are successful about 25 percent of the time. It follows that if you are doing what everyone else is doing, you can expect to fail 75 percent of the time.
So what are some of the biggest misconceptions about change? Here are three tips to help you zig where others zag. Put yourself in the happy minority of companies that consistently introduce effective change.
1 We must align to company mission, vision and values.
No. Successful change is about behavior, not culture. It’s the first premise of expert John Kotter’s approach. Read his “Leading Change” for what is still the leading primer on how to create effective change in your organization.
Change enough specific behaviors over time and the culture will shift. Specific and measurable behavior changes support accountability. Positive reinforcement and celebrations of success turn good behaviors into habits. Habits create new assumptions and establish culture. The lesson? Focus on behavior, let culture follow.
Call three prospective clients a week, not “We need to be more entrepreneurial.”
Wash your hands before and after you handle food directly, not “Cleanliness is one of our core values.”
Get away from your desk and move for 15 minutes at least twice a day, not “Help us be a more fitness-focused company.”
2. Big problems need big solutions.It is tempting to create big solutions to solve big problems. Big solutions feel important. In bureaucracies it’s easy for each approver to add just one more thing, so that even solutions that start small can get huge in a hurry.
Big solutions require a big lift from the people who have to make it happen. It assumes that those people will prioritize your effort above all else. They won’t get distracted by their day-to-day responsibilities. They won’t get tired and overwhelmed with multiple initiatives from other parts of the company.
The reality is starkly different. Everyone gets tired and distracted. We may agree with the new customer satisfaction initiative when it kicks off on Monday. Will we recall our roles in that effort when we’re working overtime on Friday?
Change needs to be simple for me to remember it, so that I can act on it when the actions count. Not five minutes after the kickoff but five months later in the midst of my real-time job.
Company leaders often say that they yearn for more accountability and better execution. Complexity is the enemy of both. Make your solutions small. Solve as much of the problem as you can with a simple solution. Generate success, celebrate it, and then turn to the next prioritized area of need.
3. If our employees understood the reasons for the change, they would support it.
Unfortunately, no. Reasons are notoriously terrible for helping us to sustain efforts long enough to get any benefits. Appeals to reason can be particularly frustrating because people often resist change by saying, “Why are we doing this?” when they mean, “I don’t like it.”
Asking why is often coded language for resistance: easier to say to authority, harder to address. Take that kind of feedback too literally, and it can send you back and back again to core messaging and additional FAQs without ever achieving a successful end result.
If you are working for weeks on messaging to explain the whys and the hows, it may be time to look up and ask yourself how you will appeal to the emotions. Positive emotions give us resilience. Feelings of success create an atmosphere of winning that makes it easier to accept change and shrug off minor setbacks.
Companies often like to begin large projects by asking what others have done. Three-quarters of those organizations followed perfectly reasonable-sounding approaches that ended in failure, often because:
1. They focused on culture and did not hold themselves to a high standard of defining change through concrete behaviors.
2. They let others add ideas to a simple solution until they ended up with something so complicated that no one could remember it and act upon it.
3. They spent so much time aligning and explaining why, what, and how that they forgot to appeal consistently and regularly to employee emotions.
If you’re interested in learning more about change that sticks, register for the IABC Heritage Region Annual Conference in October and stop by my presentation with Megan Hogan on Behavior Change that Sticks.