Every organization, at one time or another, attempts to launch a new initiative because they believe it’s necessary to their immediate well-being, or long-term survival. It might be an initiative intended to reduce costs, to generate increased customer loyalty, or to introduce an operational excellence program such as Lean Six Sigma.
When done well, it’s transformative and delivers as intended. But when it isn’t done well, it consumes resources and squanders the goodwill of its stakeholders; often making the next initiative that much harder to introduce successfully because it’s viewed as the next ‘flavor of the month’.
Niccolò Machiavelli might have said it best when he wrote, “…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”. When you consider that, Heraclitus wrote “Change is the only constant in life”, it makes a case for introducing new initiatives in the right way, that much more compelling because the way in which it’s launched, managed and nurtured determines its fate…and the fate of those who lead it.
So, if change is inevitable, and something every organization engages in, why is it potentially so perilous? It becomes perilous when forced upon people through fear rather than by earning their trust and winning their buy-in. This is when change initiative fail, and those leading the charge become their casualties.
But does a new initiative or any change management activity have to instill fear? Absolutely not. I’ve been involved in change management and the introduction of new initiatives at a local, national and international level and there is a recipe. When the recipe is followed, the results deliver the success that was hoped for, frequently even more so.
Decide to act. There’s a cost to delaying action. If, for example, an initiative might generate $600,000 in annualized savings, each month you wait for circumstances to be ideal, it's costing you $50,000. That's $50,000 you'll never recoup. Too often organizations wait for circumstances to be 'just right'. The reality is that there will never be a perfect time. There will always be someone wanting more information or more analysis or wanting something to be different before moving forward. As your competitors move forward, you either keep up with the pace or you fall behind. Not moving forward is like taking a step backwards.
Invest your leadership capital. A leader must invest their time, budget and enthusiasm in the initiative. People need to believe it's got the leaders attention and buy into that vision. The leader won't necessarily manage the initiative daily, but they need to be seen as the person leading the charge. If there is an initiative leader, they need to be seen as an extension of the leader and speaking on their behalf.
Leverage early adopters. There will often be 15% that embrace a new initiative and are excited by the chance to step out of their comfort zone to change for the better, just like there will be another 15% who resist new ideas and want to keep doing things the way they've always done them; because it's comfortable. Don't spend time on the 15% who resist. The early adopters can win over the bulk of the 70% who are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. It'll become clear early that if this is a priority for the leadership, and the early adopters are getting attention and some rewards, that they'll want to get onboard as well. It won't take long to reach a point where those people who just won't support the initiative will be in the minority and will either join or get weeded out. It’s OK if they’re weeded out. In the long run, they’ll be happier somewhere else.
Communicate the vision clearly and often. The vision should be stated in simple terms everyone understands. Don’t over complicate the message or introduce the opportunity for people to interpret it in different ways. It needs to be crystal clear to every person across the enterprise what we're doing, why, and how they plug into it. Use a variety of channels to make it easy for people. A word of caution, it’s also critical to be truthful and transparent in how it will impact people. In the absence of information, people will make assumptions to fill the void. These assumptions will undermine the initiative and create mistrust. People who do not trust or support the initiative will find a way to sabotage it.
Make it easy for people to do the right things, and hard not to. Create opportunities for everyone to support the initiative in a way that makes sense for them. Make it harder not to support the initiative than to support it. Set people up to be successful by making it easy for them to be so. It might take several iterations but keep working on this until you get it right. Build the processes and systems, measure the performance, and adjust as you learn. This way, if you try something and it doesn’t work, you’ll fail quickly…pivot…and improve based on what you’ve learned.
Identify and celebrate the wins, early and often. Go out of your way to recognize people who exhibit wanted behaviours and who visibly support the initiative. When people are celebrated, it builds self-esteem and sends a clear message that they matter. It validates them and affirms what’s expected of them. They are set up to be successful and will buy into the vision. They’ll be excited to come to work because they’re part of a community of people who are committed to accomplishing great things.
Ensure there is accountability. There's truth to the saying, "what gets measured gets done", so you'll want to have metrics that encourage support for the initiative. But you'll need to be thoughtful about any metrics used because you’ll want to ensure you avoid unintended consequences. A zero-tolerance policy needs to be in effect for all metrics. Manipulating measures or worse, cheating cannot be tolerated. Integrity must be non-negotiable.
This takes hard work and commitment, and it doesn’t happen overnight; but the results are transformational. Every great organization stands for something. And when it stands for something, its people buy into that vision. It’ll drive their behavior and inspire them to act in ways that support the vision, not because they must, but because they want to.
This doesn’t happen by chance or without design. It takes a carefully constructed recipe, executed at all levels across the organization. With the right ingredients, success will follow. And that’s fun to be around