Driving Growth - Seven Keys for Initiative Success

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You and your team worked long hours. You saw with great clarity the tectonic shifts and new opportunities emerging in your industry. You decided not to be the last to come to the party.

Perhaps you crafted a new initiative that could help thousands of young children or parents for your state or local agency. Maybe it’s time to push that digital transformation initiative to full throttle. Or perhaps you fashioned a new data-driven framework that would reinvent your business model in the private sector.

Whatever the initiative, the more you worked, the more you and your team got excited. Your plan (or new initiative) would change how you go to market, how you engage customers (or how you help people) and how you can introduce new cost-cutting ways to use technology. You confidently hit the execute button and waited for the results.

Now, halfway through the first phase of the initiative, the bumps arrived. The numbers don’t seem to be going the right way. Costs and overtime went up, as cash flow declined. Red flags, once limp, seem to be starting to snap in a rising wind. The phrase “Is this going to work?” has thrust itself into management conversations.

The point? Achieving organizational change or bringing in a new initiative is not for the faint of heart.

From Winston Churchill to Heraclitus of Ephesus to Elon Musk, the maxims for change remain clear.  To some degree or the other, change holds as the ironic constant. From time to time, we all must change or adapt.

But the dynamics of when and how change occurs are critical.

To engage in organizational change means you’re up against the varsity. Two words come to mind: not easy. 

How tough is it? Harvard change management guru John P. Kotter warns that upwards of 70 percent of transformational change initiatives fail.

That cause an eye or two to blink? There’s more. If your company today has a change initiative on the table, consider a Deloitte change management study conducted a few years ago. That study reveals that some 90 percent of the companies that they surveyed had gone through some kind of major change in the past decade. Of those companies, more than 50 percent reported that some form of restructuring came down, with over half reporting new leadership.

What was the result? Those attempting to embrace innovation found that they only reached a single-digit success rate of some 4.5 percent.

So, what kind of debris field was left behind for those who didn’t achieve their goals? HR professionals in this study noted a considerable increase in “fatigued” or “disengaged” employees, with nearly half stating that budget cuts from the change initiatives “were made in the wrong places at the wrong time” and a number of “rushed decisions” resulted in harm to the overall business.

Not a pretty picture, by any standard. But take heart! At the same time, many change initiatives do succeed, and some succeed spectacularly.

So, here’s the real question: how can one increase the odds of success in change management, particularly as companies address digital transformation and the workforce changes looming before us in the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Here are some critical thoughts for success.

Change will take more time and resources than anyone thinks. When a new initiative comes along, people can get excited. Things are going to get better. But then the real work starts. In firing up the needed action to embrace an initiative, regular jobs still have to get done. Conversion to a new initiative doesn’t happen overnight, and fatigue will likely set in at some point. Leaders must be prepared to provide support, encouraging help and appropriate incentives at the right time.

Change initiatives must start from a position of trust -- don’t build deadly silos. One of the most impactful videos available online details rescue operations for someone trapped in a grain silo. In the video, the more the person struggled to break free, the faster they sank in the slippery sea of grain. Emergency rescue efforts were successful, but complicated and labor-intensive. The parallel lesson for modern change management is evident. Change initiatives necessarily often form in semi-secret settings, led by a small group of managers or executives. But if the initiative becomes trapped in a dysfunctional management or communication silo, a company may find itself in the middle of a major – and expensive – rescue operation.

Crush fear through effective communication (or people will make up their own information). Managers and employee alike need to understand the need for change and the benefits of achieving change. The roadmap for change must include adequate resources for internal communication and achieving buy-in. Change typically means that people will get pushed out of their comfort zones. Without targeted and effective communication, change can produce high levels of anxiety. Anxious people produce one tried and true outcome: in the absence of credible information, they will simply make it up, true or false.

No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Careful planning typically accompanies any change initiative (or one should hope so), but the fact is that every variable can’t be fully anticipated. Every change initiative should thus include some capacity for flexibility, and the courage to admit when something needs to be revised.

Belief, buy-in and engagement are more than buzzwords. Every company desiring successful change must include employee buy-in. That means that you have to effectively communicate why this is beneficial for them. Sounds simple, but it’s not. That message has to be credible and believable in order to be fully actionable. (And you should build in some bullet-proof feedback loops to ensure that your communication is actually working.)

Manage risk and the potential collapse point. Every new initiative or change management venture represents varying levels of risk. You need to be prepared for the possibility that you could lose key employees, customers and market share before you reach your goals. Worse, the whole initiative could collapse if trust and performance is undermined. A key point? Be prepared to be open, transparent and honest. You’ll be rewarded with trust, retention and achievement.

Deploy a strategic framework for change. Change management models like the Prosci ADKAR evaluation tool can provide highly useful development tools. The Prosci model recommends that executives consider five phases: Awareness (understand the need for and nature of change), Desire (what supports the change and is attractive), Knowledge (how to achieve change and new skills/behaviors), Ability (the capacity to initiate and accomplish change objectives), and Reinforcement (how to build a new organizational culture and sustain the change).

When the results first start to appear, don’t declare victory. This is the bonus (eighth) point. When the initiative first gains traction, the tendency can be to jump up, declare victory, breathe a sigh of relief and throttle back. While it certainly makes good sense to celebrate milestones in the path to adopt a new initiative, signs of turnaround mean that you’re on the right path. Now is the time to pour it on and stay focused for the long haul.

Real strategic change offers organizations the capacity to increase value, build equity and embrace a new culture of innovation. Focus on effective communication, reward your stakeholders and be part of the single-digit runaway success stories.

Michael Snyder is managing principal of MEK Group.

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