Change doesn’t just happen

I was listening to the radio whilst driving to see one of my clients yesterday morning and the presenter and his guests were talking about organisational change. Specifically, they were exploring the reasons why so many organisational initiatives fall flat. Why they fail completely to bring about the positive change that they seek. And sometimes even manage to make things worse.

Their conclusion echoed my own experience. Change initiatives fail because we don’t appreciate that saying we’re going to change and actually making that change happen are two entirely different things.

The members of the guest panel, which included a business school professor and two well-known business leaders, were less than enthusiastic about snazzy videos from the CEO and stage-managed town-hall meetings as a way of bringing about change. Such approaches can kick things off, to be sure, but they’re merely the start of the change process.

Actually bringing about the desired change requires considerable and long-term investment in – among many other things – working with people to explain why change is required, exploring what it will mean for them, getting them on board with the proposed change, and agreeing how they will need to change their behaviour to make that change happen.

A successful change initiative, suggested the panel, will create a clear and enticing vision of a better future that inspires people. Something that justifies the hard work that will be required. And something that allows us to recognise when the job is done and we’ve done what we set out to achieve. (This latter bit is, in my view, especially important.)

Even when these things are done right, organisations need to constantly monitor the change process, to reinforce desired behaviours and to identify when course corrections are required. Change needs to become embedded. It needs to become ‘the way we do things around here’. It’s all too easy for organisations to revert back to what they did before when they think the spotlight has moved on to something else.

Change can be a good thing. And sometimes it’s not just desirable but necessary. But even good change can have a negative impact if it’s done poorly.

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