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4 Steps for Nurturing Sustainable Change

You want to, or have to, lead a change initiative in your organisation.  It maybe because of a new software integration, a restructure or the implementation of a new process. Or it could be a plan for returning to the office and adopting your strategy for the ‘new-normal’.

It doesn’t matter what the catalyst for change, our reality is that a system of work is only as effective as the people who use it; and a change plan is only as effective as the people leading it and responding to it.  The key to leading effective change is adopting a nurturing approach, one where you create an environment that supports the required change, and provides your people with the best opportunity to understand, buy in to, and adopt the required change.  So, do we want our people to feel as though they are being forced to change, or do we create the conditions where, as much as practical, people will feel like they want to change, or at the least, are open to the idea of change?  The answer is obvious, and there are four key steps that are critical for ensuring your change event has the best chance of immediate uptake by the majority, and sustainable success; Alignment, Exposure, Saving Face and Benefits.

Alignment

Ensure the relevance of your change event by aligning it against your strategy.  If it’s a company-wide change, then it needs to align with the organisational strategy, down to a team change being aligned with your team or functional plan.  Ensure it adds value to the achievement of strategy and objectives.  Change for the sake of change is wasted energy and will kill personal and organisational credibility quickly.  The other axis of alignment is that of the leadership team.  As the leader you will be watched very closely; does your behaviour match what you are asking your team or workforce to do?  If not you are undermining the initiative from the outset.  Your thinking, feeling and behaviour in respect to the new way of being has to be absolutely aligned; as too your leadership group if it is a group wide change event.  Finally, the leadership team themselves have to find a place of alignment between each other.  Individual leader commitment in their own division, branch or team is good; however it is equally important for the leadership team to embody the change together, and know implicitly as well as explicitly what they each have to do to contribute to this new way of being.  If this isn’t happening then you can think of the leadership team as being like an airliner with one out of the four engines facing the wrong way.  It will hamper your efforts.

So some questions to ask yourself…

  • Do I as the leader know where this change is headed and how I need to be leading the efforts?
  • Does the leadership team have a goal for how they need to ‘be’ collectively?
  • Is there an understanding of the roles in the leadership team for driving and sponsoring the different elements of the new initiative in a coordinated way?
  • Does the leadership group understand the influence and power they carry as leaders of change, and how to use this wisely?

Exposure

Think of anytime you’ve changed your mind in respect to something; whether you’ve quit smoking, switched brands of smart phone or decided to leave a company after a long time.  You get the idea.  The simple fact is that you had some help in making the switch…you were exposed to a new set of information.  This information may have come from formal learning, but as we all know, most learning in life comes from our experiences in day to day life.  So when thinking of change in an organisation, it is no different.  We can ask someone to do something new, and if we force them from a behavioural perspective, then we will likely get a short term win.  The new behaviour will be shown whilst the manager is around, however when left to their own devices chances are that the preferred behaviour will kick in.  That’s simply because the thinking didn’t shift to match the behaviour, and lip service was paid to the new to way of working.

Now let’s not create any false illusions here; I’m not suggesting that we can shift the thinking of all employees, and there will be times where a change is absolutely necessary for productive work to continue – and so there is no choice but for change to occur.  However the aim of any sustainable change event is to target the goal state of people ‘wanting’ to change.  So your change event needs to be structured to do this…in other words we want to give everyone the opportunity to decide that the new way of being is something that they ‘want’ to do…not something they feel they ‘have’ to do.

To help you think about this with regards to your own change event here are some tips:

  • Expand the frame of reference of your workforce by having a carefully designed change plan that allows new ‘experiences’ for your people…whether this is a series of poster sessions at lunch or online explaining what is coming and why, a pilot program, leaders or key influencers being the first to ‘do’ the new action.  In other words, it’s not just saying ‘do it’.  We are human, we like to know why and we like to know that it is safe to do it.
  • Let your messaging convey the benefits, and reinforce that they are gaining something and not losing anything.
  • Be consistent in how new messages are distributed; think of it like a marketing campaign.  Work out what messages will be distributed, to who and when. For example, do you start with a poster campaign, followed by messaging on the intranet, then some information sessions led by senior managers? Do you have some messaging targeting the needs of those who will be in denial, and other messaging for those who are more accepting and ready for the change?
  • Ensure consistency between the messaging in your communications and the actions of the leadership group.
  • When you start to see people adopt the new way of doing things give positive reinforcement immediately.  Recognise the new behaviours and tailor your recognition accordingly.
  • Ensure a tailored mix of learning opportunities; it’s not just about classroom or town hall meetings.  Can you create opportunities for mentoring, shadowing, visits to other organisations who have already done what you are doing, coaching etc…

Saving Face

We can’t force someone to change their way of thinking.  However we can create the opportunity, as we have started to explore in the above section on Exposure.  However for some people moving to the new way of operating this may be a really big deal; especially if they have been doing the ‘old’ way for a long time, or if there is a safety element at play – whether this is psychological or physical safety.  In today’s climate of working out whether we should be transitioning back to the office environment, you can see how this would have both the psychological and physical safety aspects to be considered.

Allowing people to save face is more about the overall demeanour, or style, of the change initiative.  If the starting position is ‘change or else’ resistance will be the order of the day. If the starting position is ‘ let’s do this together’ then we are starting to get somewhere.  Remember that even if your intent is the latter, but you don’t address the Exposure stage (no or poor communication or exposure to why etc) then you will be perceived as driving a ‘change or else’ mentality.

This is an unconditional approach, that is backed by a strong air of protection…the communication, and leadership actions supporting the change demonstrate that it is ok to try it, and to make mistakes, and to give it another go.  

At the same time though, this is tempered with the provision of boundaries; the rules attached to the change event.  As mentioned above, often change is not optional.  So our efforts need to be addressing more than the obvious levels of change, and the dynamics.  We also need to address the supporting factors, the frame that surrounds the change event.  Factors such as the amendment of job descriptions or adjusting the organisation design so that it reflects the new way of working.  Whilst taking an unconditional approach will get you results quicker, it is also important for employees to know clearly what is expected of them, and that performance management underpins the inability to move to the new way of operating.  Most importantly, for the most stubborn of employees, the new job description may create their opportunity to save face.  In other words, “I’m doing this because it’s in my job description, not because you want me to do this”.  Some people need to start their journey of change from this point – and that’s ok too.  We are all different.  

The key points to consider for saving face are:

  • Is your leadership team conveying through words and actions that “we are doing this together”?
  • Is there a tolerance factor built in for failure or not getting the new way of working right first time?
  • Is your communication strategy reflecting the same?
  • Do you have a policy or agreed approach for how to deal with those who just can’t grasp the new way of being (don’t let them fall through the cracks)?
  • Do company referential systems, job descriptions and the organisation structure reflect the new way of being?

Benefits

People want to know that there is something in this for them.  What are the benefits for the new way of being?  The simple fact is that some of your workforce will not believe there are benefits until they see them.  Therefore your actions in the Alignment and Exposure categories should reflect the benefits in a personal way and realistically.  

But as a leader of change, you do not have the luxury of having a ‘wait and see’ approach. Your job is to believe it before you see it!  Seek out other people or organisations who have already done what you are about to do; see the results for yourself, listen to their stories and create a picture in your mind as to what you can expect to achieve in your organisation.

At the outset, when creating your communications plan, clearly understand the benefits for the employees and not just the organisation.  Weave these benefits through your messaging and exposure strategy.

Always remember…we change our way of being the easiest when we perceive that there is a clear benefit. This is because we aren’t focusing so much on what we are losing, we are more focussed on the future gain.

The final word?

Which of these steps is more important is debatable; but one thing is certain – they are interdependent.  For example, thinking about the Exposure stage often takes care of the Save Face and Benefits aspects.  At the same time though, if your leadership team, or you as the leader, are not personally aligned with the changes then you have a great deal of work to do in the other stages to compensate for this.  There will be times when you don’t agree with the change, but do agree with the need for change.  In these cases you will have to find a way to be authentic and honest, without compromising your integrity, the integrity of your people or the integrity of the change initiative.  

Change does not need to be difficult.  It certainly isn’t easy; but then where’s the growth for us personally and professionally if it was always easy?  These steps will help you lead a change event in a more efficient manner and can underpin, enhance or integrate with most corporate change strategies.  

So remember, Align, Expose, Save Face and Benefits.

Ponte Valle Insight: 4 Steps for Nurturing Sustainable Change

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