The philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “The only thing that is constant is change.” It’s a statement that remains just as true today as it was back then. Yet, somehow, we still often manage to fail miserably at managing change, with McKinsey Research showing that “70% of complex, large-scale change programs don’t reach their stated goals.”
If you’ve ever tried to change something in your business, you likely know how hard this is. You propose something helpful for the company only to be met with groans or passive resistance from people who want to keep the old way because, while flawed, at least it’s understandable and familiar.
Clearly, it’s hard to successfully transform a business. So how do businesses that do it well manage? Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior, offered one suggestion when he wrote, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
It’s a brilliant thought, but how exactly does one go about it? From my own experience as well as wisdom collected from colleagues and thought leaders, I’d like to share three things to do and three things to avoid so you can effect lasting change in your organisation.
1. Do: Start Early
When there’s time pressure on a project, it’s never done as thoroughly. According to Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter, “The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases [of change management] is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces satisfactory results.”
When you start early, you’re better able to scale back the scope of the change or postpone the initiative when problems arise. You can see potential pitfalls well before they become actual problems.
2. Do: Keep Your Momentum
If you make a big deal about an upcoming transition and then nothing happens for six months, you’ll just have to stage another launch to reignite the enthusiasm. Employees hate experiences like that, which leads to crippled projects.
Better to start something and then keep going strong even if the project is a bit rocky. You can revisit the project later but start by making sure that you keep every commitment you make so that you don’t lose trust.
When it comes to an internal launch regarding your change, you have to time it right. You don’t want to unleash this big fanfare and stoke excitement in your team, only to follow it up with weeks of radio silence. If you make a huge deal out of something that turns out to only have a minor effect on people’s daily work, they’ll be left thinking, “Well, what was all that hype about then?”
3. Do: Address Internal Resistance Head On
Like change, resistance is inevitable. By building a solid case to justify the change, communicating systematically, and involving employees where you can, you can mitigate the amount of friction you’ll face, but you’ll never eliminate it entirely. There will always be people who liked things better the way they were before, especially those who have been with the company a significant length of time. Expect it.
Allow people to express their reservations appropriately. Listen to them. Give them time to process the reasons for the change. Let the resistance run its course. If you rush people through their reactions or ignore them, you’ll only strengthen their opposition.
At the end of the day, however, after you’ve done what you can to manage the resistance, you do have to enforce a reasonable deadline by which each team member has to either get on board or get off at the next stop.
4. Don’t: Neglect Building a Case for Change
Nobody wants change for change’s sake. And given the low success rates, you’re better off not attempting it at all unless there’s a strong business case in favor of the change.
It may be tempting to forge ahead without first building a solid case for the why. After all, it should be clear to everyone that the status quo isn’t working, right? Not so. As mentioned above, people are comfortable with how things are, which means you have to assume that the hurdle to convince people to change will be massive. It will require a lot of persuasion.
As you begin to cascade a message throughout your organisation around an upcoming transition, it’s important to make your reasoning extremely clear—and to have the data to back it up. Why are you making the change? What will it accomplish? What’s likely to happen if you don’t change?
You want to be taken seriously from the start, rather than being in the position of correcting false assumptions that this is just some frivolous or unnecessary decision.
5. Don’t: Overlook a Systematic Communication Plan
With all the steps involved in a significant organisational change, one piece that’s often overlooked is a comprehensive and structured communication schedule. You have to share the right things with the right people at the right time, or you’ll inadvertently rev up the rumor mill.
One employee hears one thing, passes the news on to someone else, with slight embellishments, and before long you’re in the middle of endless rumours.
Designing a diligent and systematic schedule for disseminating news about your change efforts will not only avoid gossip, but it will also help employees feel like they’re a valued part of the process.
But don’t limit your strategy to employees only; make sure you include partners, customers, clients, and other critical business associates in your communication plans. Altogether, this typically requires a solid operational system of record (OSR) to enable your team to get on the same page.
6. Don’t: Ignore Employees in the Process
Regular communication is perhaps the most important part of making employees feel involved in a transition plan. When employees feel involved, they’re more invested in and supportive of the effort—and less likely to offer resistance.
Also look for other opportunities to include employees, in ways that won’t create a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario.
When Workfront changed from its old name, AtTask, in 2015, the number of people involved in selecting the new name, logo, and brand was minuscule—the CEO, the CMO, and the creative director.
But the whole company was notified that change was coming, and everyone got to vote on the name of the new lion mascot. (His name is Kazi.) The launch party and reveal were carefully coordinated across our U.S. and U.K. offices and brought every employee together, top to bottom.
Conclusion: Celebrate Small Wins
Taking a moment to recognise small accomplishments is a great way to build momentum for your transition. Maybe you just launched phase one of your plan, with 37 phases to go, but that doesn’t mean you should just tick the box and move on to the next thing.
Stop and celebrate, even if all you do is publicly acknowledge the contributions of each individual or team and order in pizza. You may have only completed 5% of the project, but that 5% was done brilliantly.
Change — when managed well — is worth celebrating.