How Change Really Happens

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In an earlier post I described some of the foundations for successful organisational change. In this post I show how change happens once the foundation has been laid.

Change is both and individual and a team sport. It is based upon three interlinked feedback loops.



Personal Change Driven by Emotions
The first is the personal change loop. Change requires individuals to commit themselves to give the change a chance. Without that commitment the change is unlikely to ever get off the ground. Every individual has their own reason for commiting to a change, or not. For some, knowing that there is a crisis is enough to bring out the best in them. For others it is how they are provided with open and honest information about the change. For others it is the experiential training they have received so that they can almost feel how the change will make things better. Once they start to implement the change they discover the benefits of the changed way of working. The benefits are as much of feeling that things are better as a cognitive decision that they are better. The feeling od personal success increases their commitment to the change and the likelihood that they will experience further benefits. A positive change feedback loop develops based upon personal success.

But that is not enough for the change to stick, even if personal experience has been successful. It is very hard to stick with a change, even a successful one, if all your colleagues are not making the same change and are not experiencing the same success.

Team Change Driven by Social Networks
The second loop is the team change loop. Once individuals begin to experience success with the change, they quickly tell the friends in the many social networks to which they belong. These social networks obviously include their team mates and close colleagues, but they also include others in the same organisation and even others outside the organisation. If their friends also report their own personal successes with the change, their resolve to continue is increased, even in the face of the inevitable difficulties that change programmes develop. And the change start to gather momentum within the organisation. Once the change and its successes reaches about 50% of the organisation, the word on teh ground about the change in the different social networks coalesces, the change ‘tips’ and takes on a life of its own.

But even that is not enough for the change to stick over the longer-term.

Long-term Management Support
The third loop is the long-term support loop. Once a change starts to gather momentum and tips, top management may be tempted to consider the change complete and to move on to the next change in the queue. This is a big mistake. For change to really become embedded in the new organisation, for it to replace the old way of working as the new daily business, it takes from 18-36 months of continuous support from management. Particularly from middle and lower management who set the work agenda for individual front-line staff. If this support is removed, or if it is transferred to another change, there is a high likelihood that the individuals, teams and organisation will revert back to their pre-change state. And that the change will unravel. Some organisations are full of these ‘change survivoors’ who have been through countless change programmes that were hailed as a success, but who never actually changed themselves.



Managing the Blockers of Change
Even if you build the foundation necessary for change to happen and manage the feedback loops, the change can still fail. This occurs if the blockers of change are not actively managed. Most organisations have a small number of staff who relish change and the opportunities it brings (typically 25%), a larger mass who eventually accept change (60%) and a small number who actively resist change of any sort (15%). Irrespective of what the change requires. The minority who resist change produce the vast majority of complaints that the change “is not for us”, that “it isn’t working”, and that “we don’t really need to change”. All it takes is one of the many little setbacks that always emerge during the dynamic process of change, particularly at the beginning before the change has gathered momentum, to trigger a new wave of blockages.

The blockers of change must be pro-actively managed so that their problems don’t become everybody’s problems and so that the change will not fail. This involves responding to the content of the complaints. It also means tackling the 15% who actively block change. There are many ways to do this, ranging from active recruitment to an active role in the change, sidelining them out of harm’s way, all the way to formally dismissing them.

Change isn’t easy, but it is necessary if organisations are to make progress. Hopefully, the foundation stones described in the previous post and the feedback loops described here will help you make your next change even more successful than the last.

What do you think? Is change a team sport win your organisation? Or do the blockers of change rule the day?

Post a comment and get the conversation going.



Graham Hill

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