5 tips on how to drive successful change initiatives
Greetings, change agents! Given the rapid pace of change transforming our world today, people who can lead successful change initiatives are in high demand. Wondering if you have what it takes to lead change successfully? Good news: driving change is a professional skillset that can be learned! Every change initiative begins with an idea—a vision of creating a tangible benefit. But ideas are not enough. Change—or innovation—is the process that transforms an idea or vision into a reality that delivers on the benefits it promised.
Whether you are implementing a small change to an internal process or unit or are aiming to transform the processes of a large organization or even your community, the key to success is to approach change as a carefully designed process. By understanding why change is difficult, how change initiatives derail, and how to mitigate the risks, you can become a successful change agent. Follow these five tips to transform your promising ideas into visible, positive results.
How to Help Ensure the Success of Change Initiatives
1. Involve others. Very rarely can you make change happen on your own, particularly when the initiative you have in mind will affect others. You will need supporters among your stakeholders (all the people affected by your change initiative). Solution: It’s important to get all your stakeholders aligned around your shared vision and then ensure that they remain actively engaged throughout the process.
2. Understand why change is difficult: lack of resources. Change happens because of the people driving that effort. And very often, people working on a change initiative are also working on their regular jobs or other projects, so carving out time on a structured basis and maintaining that effort over months is a huge challenge. Solution: To facilitate and recognize that extra effort, you must ensure that the right support and incentives are in place.
3. Understand why change fails: not adjusting the initial scope (and lack of resources). Every project begins with specific parameters that help define its scope. But once you begin implementing the project, that scope inevitably changes. If the resources remain allocated based on the initial scope of work, the project will be at risk of failing. Solution: You need to regularly re-examine and adjust the resources to take that new scope into account.
4. Ensure your goals are realistic, measurable, and sustainable. How will you know when you have achieved change successfully? And once you have achieved what you set out to do, how can you ensure your success lasts? Make sure you use measurements of success that are meaningful to your context/organization/community and be brave and honest enough to admit when success has not been achieved. Sometimes, when we have already invested so much into an initiative, such as time, effort, and resources, we may fall into the trap of the Sunk Cost Fallacy reasoning, also often known as “throwing good money after bad.” Why are we likely to continue with an investment even if it would be rational to give it up? The sunk cost fallacy occurs because we are not purely rational decision-makers and are often influenced by our emotions, driving us to continue to support our past decisions despite new evidence suggesting that it is not the best course of action. We fail to consider that whatever time, effort, or money that we have already expended will not be recovered. We end up making decisions based on past costs. But the only ones that rationally should make a difference are the present and future costs and benefits.
As for measuring success: traditional metrics (e.g., on time, on budget) are usually not sufficient indicators because they can be achieved without meeting the actual goal: which is to deliver the benefits which the project initially promised to deliver. And even if you do achieve the goal successfully, change does not stick. People may start out with the best of intentions, and even when they know the change is in their best interest, the effort is still hard to sustain. Think of how hard it is to change your own habits. How much more so when the change is externally imposed by a boss, senior leadership, or some third party? Solution: Understand that resisting change is human nature and then act to overcome that resistance.
How? See tip # 5.
5. Understand timing and culture. Another factor that can have a profound impact on your success is your company’s or organization’s cultural orientation toward change. Most places are resistant to outsiders bent on change. Often, highly talented leaders are brought in from the outside and are told to challenge the status quo. Unfortunately, many of these "outsiders” fail. Either they misread the cultural cues as to how disruptive they should really be (which is very often contradictory to what they had been told) or they did not build the supportive relationships needed to back them on key decisions — or both. If you are joining a company for the first time and do not receive the proper onboarding advice, if any, you may run the risk of underestimating the cultural bounds you have to work with. So, the challenge for any incoming leader is to determine what can be challenged in the culture, and when to do so.
You need to ask yourself: Can I be a highly assertive, fast-paced champion of change, or do I need to slow down and invest some time in engagement, dialogue, and consensus building first? Nobody can answer these questions for you — you will have to figure it out yourself by watching reactions to the initial recommendations you make. Start with a few trusted people to test your ideas. Ask them how others might respond before sharing your big idea in a formal setting with senior leaders. Know which leaders have your back before you propose major changes.
It is important to keep in mind when you join a new company that your previous successes and achievements will not necessarily give you the leverage to act outside of the norms of the culture you’re in now. Even though most organizations will hire you for your past experiences, your future success will depend on how well you understand and work within your new culture. This will determine your impact in your new environment and whether your initiative will succeed or be derailed.
Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions by John Kotter
Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson