How to sustain change

Designing and planning for change takes much time and effort, only to find that the execution fails or the intended benefits are not realised. This article looks at some of the things you can do to increase your chances of successfully leading personal or organisational change.

Don’t focus only on the ‘hard stuff’

Often, change efforts focus on the ‘hard stuff’ such as organisational structure, processes and systems. This, however, is only one part of the equation; it’s important, but won’t work in isolation.

Successful change begins and ends with a focus on people – that is, yourself as an individual and a leader, and the relationships with your stakeholders and your staff. To lead successful change, you also need people to connect with the aims of the change based on their individual values and motivations.

In his book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath shows that there are two sides to how we think about an issue. There is the rational, analytical, problem-solving side of the brain but also the emotional side that is fearful of change and wants to keep things as they are.

The psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant: the rider represents the analytical, planning side who decides the direction. The elephant, who provides the power, is the emotional side. So part of enabling and sustaining change is to take care of and align both the rational and the emotional sides of our brain.

If you’d like an article summarising this rider/elephant concept, please contact me.

Shifting mindsets

Like an iceberg, human behaviour is driven by what is hidden underneath the waterline.

As stated above, in order to implement successful change, you need to feel personally connected to the objectives and engaged with what you are trying to achieve.

To do this, it helps to become aware of your mindset towards the change, to understand why you are resisting it if you are. You can do this by assessing your underlying values, assumptions and beliefs – these are the core of who we are and can become fixed over time, even if they no longer serve us.

Once you are aware of your assumptions and beliefs you can then decide if they enable or limit you in your goals. If they enable you, then great – use them! If they are limiting you, then it helps to re-frame them by determining what you need instead and trying to replace your limiting assumptions with enabling ones.

Building on this theme, the psychologist, Carol Dweck, identified two basic mindsets with which people approach their lives: ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’:

Individuals with a growth mindset

  • believe that intelligence and talents can be enhanced through effort
  • treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve

Individuals with a fixed mindset

  • believe that intelligence and talents are innate and unchangeable
  • think mistakes signal a lack of ability

Researchers at Michigan State University examined the neural mechanisms to mistakes and found that those with a growth mindset actively process errors to learn from them, whereas those with a fixed mindset displayed considerably less brain activity.

Once you are personally connected with the change, you then need to support your people through it. They also need to become inspired by the change, and the role they will play in implementing and sustaining the change throughout their work, style, and relationships with key people in the business.

In the same way as you did this by connecting with your values, assumptions and beliefs, your people can do the same – your relationship with them will support them going through this. Key skills for you to utilise are: providing clarity on the change; listening and empathy to help them connect; and storytelling to visualise the benefits.

Depending on the nature and complexity of the change, you can determine the leadership role and style you need to adopt in order to execute and sustain the change. The model above comes from Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline and he discusses how the role of the leader moves from telling, through to selling, consultation and ultimately co-creation for unknown and complex transformation.

Given that most of our working life is now about complexity and navigating the unknown, the leader cannot be the one with all the answers – the ‘hero’. You need to access the creativity and capability of all the other people who have a stake in the change, including your staff and other stakeholders across the business – therefore you will be the ‘host’.

Involving key stakeholders in coming together to co-create means you stand a greater chance of successfully implementing and especially sustaining the change, as the quality of the output will be higher and each will have a vested interest in making it work.

Please contact me for a 4-page PDF article about how to be the host of the change, not the hero.

See also my articles on leadership agility: part 1 and part 2.

Let’s attend to the ‘hard stuff’ first…

It’s important that you:

  • Define what you want to accomplish as a result of the change
  • Diagnose where you are now
  • Create your plan and strategy

These need to be clearly set out so people understand what the end result will look like, and the benefits and rationale for doing it.

In tangible terms, describe the execution plan to achieve the vision. Talk to both head and heart.

Agree a plan for meetings and decision-making governance, so you can keep on top of the change without micro-managing it.

Put metrics in place to track the progress of the plan.

How to sustain change

Here are some of the things to pay attention to (see also the Role of the leader, below):

  • Depending on the nature and size of the change, you may find it beneficial to pilot it in one area, so you can learn while you can still ‘get your arms around it’, rather than having to course correct on a big scale
  • Review progress regularly and be seen to be ‘on it’
  • Train your staff. Do a gap analysis of capability, and identify what needs to be done to close those gaps
  • So that people can let go of the old ways and adopt new ways of doing things, you may need to adapt your organisational processes, particularly reward systems
  • Find opportunities to showcase your successes, where individuals or pockets within the business have implemented something successfully, or handled something in the way you want
  • Run action learning sets in small or large groups within or across departments (this is particularly useful for minimising the risk of silos). Use them to review what has been implemented – both what is working well and how that can apply to other parts of the business, and what is working less well so you can learn from that. Obviously, the style of the sessions should be safe and supportive

Role of the leader

I always say the role of the leader is to set strategy, ensure it is executed, and that your people are supported to feel engaged, inspired and empowered.

While you have been reading this article, maybe thoughts have come into your mind about how you need to behave in order to focus both on people as well as tasks and processes in a change context.

Here are some ideas for you to consider:

What can you do to inspire and encourage your people?
It’s really important to invest your time with people who are engaging in the change, because they are the ones who will make it happen. This is in all the textbooks so it’s not new!

Make sure you spend time with individuals. Once you have set the strategy, your role is to be the conductor of the orchestra – they play the instruments (implement the change), your role is to remove roadblocks and pull it all together so the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Also, spend time supporting those who are resistant or nervous of the change. Sometimes, you may need to ultimately make a tough decision if there are individuals who are clearly never going to accept the change, particularly if they are bringing down the energy of your team.

Allow people to take risks and experiment
When things go wrong, adopt an enquiring mind so people can learn rather than be scared and therefore paralysed.

Don’t let things slip
Keep on track with your processes, metrics and governance. People pay attention to what you pay attention to. If you ‘take your eye off the ball’, so will they.

Celebrate successes – big and small
Focus on behavioural and cultural elements as well as the task itself. Even celebrate baby steps.

Helping others to let go
Acknowledge from the outset that people may have to let go of ways of working and aspects of their role that have become normal and natural to them – and they may find this difficult. Agree with them how to support each other when this crops up. This ‘takes the heat out’ when it does happen.

Communicate clearly and regularly
Regular communication reduces the risk of gossip and scaremongering.

Consider branding all communications that relate to the change, so people can quickly identify updates and know what they are about.

The Dance of Change  

In his book The Dance of Change, Peter Senge suggests three factors that increase the chance of change being successful, which is an elegant summary to this article:

  1. Because it matters / Personal results
    “We have consistently found that direct personal benefits constitute the first source of reinforcing energy for sustaining deep change. It is inherently satisfying to work in a team where people trust each other and feel aligned to a sense of common purpose. People seek joy in work; few would not elect to be part of a team where there is excitement, commitment, perseverance, willingness to experiment, and genuine appreciation of one another’s gifts and limitations.”
  2. Because my colleagues take it seriously / Networks of committed people
  3. Because it works / Business results

Next month: How to create a learning organisation – large scale transformation depends on it, so we shall build on this month’s newsletter by exploring this subject in more depth.

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