Change : Leading Successful, Sustainable Change

John Covington is President of Chesapeake Consulting, a firm that provides value chain improvement solutions that enhance growth through increased speed and predictability. A manufacturing industry specialist for nearly 30 years, he has served in a variety of positions including Vice President of Operations and Plant Manager of a Fortune 200 company.

As an undergraduate at the United States Naval Academy and the University of Alabama, John earned a BS in Chemical Engineering. He is author of Tough Fabric, a supply chain case study, and serves on several boards of directors including Bello Machre, a non-profit that provides group homes for the developmentally disadvantaged.


E-mail John : , or visit Chesapeake Consulting.

Many change efforts are declared failures and abandoned before they are given a chance to succeed.

Most major change initiatives fall far short of the goals and expectations set for them. Does this mean that we are overestimating people's ability to learn to do things differently, and underestimating their resistance to change ? I don't think so. I've learned that specific things need to happen to make change succeed and stick.

Here are the seven steps that make the critical difference :-

  1. Create a sense of urgency

    For an organization to change, it needs to have something like a heart attack-a wide-spread sense that if we don't change our ways, and soon, and we may die. This pain and fear is behind almost every major change initiative. You don't go 
    through the expense and hassle for the fun of it. You do it because you believe you have to. You don't try to do twice as much with half as many resources just for the challenge of it. You've got your stock price to think about. You don't go global for the adventure of world travel. You do it because the domestic market has dried up or matured, and there's nowhere else to grow. The reasons to change are often compelling but only the executive team feels the heart attack. Even one level down, there's no sense of pain.Creating a sense of urgency means telling the truth, saying bluntly, "Here is the financial reality. These are the numbers. The investors are angry. If we don't produce better results, bad things will happen." People have to realize that the bad things will affect them. Layoffs are usually a possibility, a bad thing for those who lose their jobs and for those who remain and end up trying to do the work of two or three people. Connect the dots, and show people how their world is connected to the pain that is prompting the need for change. Let people see that only their ability to change and improve things will ward off the catastrophe. Selling the need for change is the job of leadership. If you can't get people to imagine the painful consequences of staying with the same old thing, you will likely lose the sale.

  2. Build a strong guiding coalition

    Most change initiatives flounder or fail because of problems in the management team, even when there is no evidence of discord. Everyone sits around the conference table nodding their heads in agreement when the change initiative is proposed and discussed. But any change will shift the balance of power, bringing rewards to some and leaving others worse off. No matter how much they are smiling and nodding at the outset, you have to deal with their resistance down the road. Unwillingness to support the change takes many forms - foot dragging, finger pointing, stirring up crises, and giving lip service to the change while subverting it at every opportunity. All change is largely dependent on relationships among people, and the most critical relationships are those among the people who are leading the change. Break through their surface agreement and get down to their real doubts and fears. Also, revise the measurement system for the guiding coalition. The way bonuses are calculated may have to be changed when you are moving toward work behaviors that cut across functions in new ways.

  3. Develop a clear vision

    Usually people are confused about the purpose of the change and the expected outcome. At the beginning, bring clarity to the initiative. What will success look like? What's the plan for getting there? How will this plan overcome the pain of not changing ? Articulate the vision in a few forceful and memorable words.

  4. Ask different questions

    When you have a clear vision of what changes need to happen, communicate that vision by walking around and asking people questions, not by handing out wallet cards or posting vision statements or broadcasting slogans via e-mail. People respond to questions. If you want a different response -a different set of behaviors-then you should ask different questions that are aligned with the new strategy. These powerfully communicate what matters now. If you create a sense of urgency around your plan, anticipate and fix problems in the leadership team, develop a dear vision of the end state you want, and encourage behavior change by asking different questions, you will have a strong foundation for change.

  5. Work the action plan

    Get people involved in the action plan. Look at the people who will implement the change as the arms, legs, heart, and nervous system of the organization. You can't expect the whole body to move if the brain hasn't figured out where it wants to go. Get the leadership group into strong alignment, develop and communicate the vision, and stress the need for urgent action first an d the body will know what to do. When people know why the change, they can figure out what needs to change and how to change it.

  6. Design in a short-term win

    Major change initiatives take time. Enterprise resource planning systems, for example, may take years to install, and things will get worse before they get better. The disruption, the learning curve, the initial clumsiness all of these take a human toll. People get discouraged when the new thing feels like a step backwards. People who didn't want to change in the first place feel justified when the new thing is sluggish, sloppy, and ill-fitting. Too many managers jump on every little glitch and bug, and fail to see the large improvement coming about more slowly.

    The better alternative is to look for the things that are going right, publicize and celebrate them, and make sure that there are successes to celebrate by designing some fast-results goals into the project. People shouldn't have to wait until the end of a huge initiative to get positive feedback. Project plans can be designed to yield visible, measurable improvements almost immediately. Early wins are critical to creating a climate where people will keep motivated. Look at the political implications of the short-term wins, and deal with them in advance. For example, hitting the short-term goal is almost certain to make one group of people look like heroes. If you're not careful, employees in other areas will be jealous, and will find ways to subvert and sabotage the project. To prevent this, change the measuring system so various functional areas are responsible for the same goal.

  7. Embed the change in the culture

    New behaviors take time to become habitual. Spaced repetition is the best way to embed new ways, and means, and attitudes. People are taught a new concept or skill then turned loose to apply it to their work. After a few weeks, they are brought back together and the idea or technique is presented again, along with some new thoughts or methods. This process is repeated at regular intervals. If you skip this simple follow-up, all the expensive, painful, disruptive process of changing is wasted. Over time, people revert back to the old, familiar ways, and one more change initiative fails and is forgotten. Spaced repetition is a highly effective way to make change stick and to make the idea of change a permanent characteristic of the culture. With each spaced repetition, you not only review and reinforce something, you also introduce some new concept or procedure. You send the message that there is no end to change. Change is part of what it takes to survive, compete, and thrive. It's not only this month's change initiative that needs to be ingrained in the culture - it's a whole attitude toward change. To be learning and changing, in light of new learning, is the essence of becoming better, faster, and more responsive and innovative. Getting good at changing is a goal in itself, then. As organizations and individuals become more flexible and adaptable, they discover that change is not something to be dreaded, resisted, and sabotaged.

It's invigorating. It's fun. It is the very nature of life.

© Copyright 2002 by John Covington. All rights reserved

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