How Do You Know If Your Change Will Stick?

by Richard C. Reale

Change is a fact of business life. Survival in today's marketplace requires organizations that are resilient, change-capable, and effective at making change stick. Making change stick is about having the right process; how we introduce, implement, and communicate new ideas in our organizations contributes strongly to the success of our change initiatives. The people who make up the organization – their values, attitudes, and behaviors – are the key to making change stick.

In more than twenty years of working with organizations in transition, I have discovered that certain characteristics are common to organizations that succeed in making change stick. The absence of any of these factors is a strong indicator that change will be a painful and difficult process – and the painful effort is in vain if the change cannot be sustained.

This article describes twelve organizational requirements for making change stick and suggests questions to ask to determine whether an organization currently has what it takes to implement change successfully. It is intended to help organizational leaders plan change initiatives that will succeed and identify areas that may need attention before a systemic change is introduced.

Requirement #1: A clear vision of your purpose and goal

If you're not sure where you're going or why, it can be difficult to tell when you arrive! Consider these questions:

  1. Why does this organization exist?
  2. What does the organization expect to accomplish by making this change?

If you stood at front door as people were arriving for work and asked these questions of every third person coming in, what answers do you think you'd get? [You might want to try it and see!] If everyone in the organization is not clear on what you're trying to accomplish, getting buy-in for your new program is likely to be a major problem.

Requirement #2: Flexible thinking

In order to effect lasting change, the organization and all of its members must learn to look at things in new ways and think outside the box. Consider these questions:

  1. Do people in the organization tend to take an "either/or" view of processes and outcomes? How can we encourage more "both/and" thinking?
  2. Are we making assumptions about our market, our customers, or our employees that should be re-examined?

Assumptions can be a major factor in derailing the best-planned change initiative. We all make assumptions every day – about what people want, who is capable of doing what, and the best way to get things done – that affect the way we behave at work. If any of our assumptions are out-of-date or just plain wrong, things will not go the way we expect them to. Identifying and examining our assumptions about the why, who, how, and when of the change can help us to think outside the existing paradigm and make the change stick.

Requirement #3: Involvement and commitment

    Does everyone affected by this change understand both why and how it will be implemented?
  1. What can the organization do to foster a sense of ownership and commitment in its members? What can I do personally?
  2. Do the people who report to me feel comfortable asking questions or offering suggestions about the way things are done? If not, what can I do to encourage better two-way communication?

While it is the responsibility of the organization's leaders to set direction, you cannot do people's jobs for them. The most effective way to gain commitment for a change initiative is to allow the people who must do the work to have real input into how it is done. This involves not just asking questions, but paying attention to the answers!

Requirement #4: An enabling culture

Organizational culture is like gravity; it is invisible and rarely talked about, but it affects everyone. Culture defines invisible boundaries that delineate "acceptable" and "unacceptable" behavior. If the organization is to adopt new behaviors and attitudes that support your change initiative, it is essential to have a culture in place that reinforces them. Consider these questions:

  1. What kinds of behaviors does our organizational culture reward? What kinds of behaviors are discouraged or punished?
  2. Will our current organizational values support or inhibit the behaviors needed to accomplish this change?
  3. If our culture must change to support a new goal, direction, or process, which aspects of the existing culture will be most difficult for people to let go of?

If you see behaviors that support the old system rather than the new, take it as an indication that your culture is not in alignment with the change you are trying to implement. Try to identify the incentive for this person to continue this behavior (Hint: often there is a cultural disincentive to trying new behaviors. More on these below).

Requirement #5: Recognition of the human aspects of change

It is often much easier to identify the logistical requirements of a new system than the human ones. Without too much difficulty you can order new equipment, design a new procedure, and re-organize the production line. But if you fail to take into account how people feel about the change, you may discover that your carefully crafted new system produces less satisfactory results than the old one. Consider these questions:

  1. Who in the organization feels threatened by this change? Why?
  2. Who views the change as an opportunity? Why?
  3. How could the transition be structured to give more people opportunities for growth?

Even people who are involved in and committed to the change process need time to get used to new ideas and become comfortable doing things in a new way. Giving people as much advance notice as possible about changes and encouraging questions, discussion, and experimentation will allow members of the organization to work through the emotional aspects of transition before they have to get to work implementing the change.

Requirement #6: Antidotes to fear

Fear is the greatest enemy of change. People who are afraid of making a mistake or looking foolish will be unwilling to try something new – even if the organization's success depends on the new behavior. Consider these questions:

  1. How do I react when other people make a mistake? What is my first question when something goes wrong?
  2. What roles in the organization will be most affected by this change? What can be done to help these people make a successful transition?

Systemic change requires many people in an organization to learn new ways of doing things. Some of the things that people fear most during organizational change are: job loss, inability to master new skills, loss of expertise or peer esteem, loss of perceived importance of their role in the success of the organization. Making change stick requires taking practical steps to address all of these fears. Making light of people's concerns or insisting that "there's nothing to worry about" is counter-productive; it offers people no means of dealing with the issues that concern them. In addition to fostering a culture that encourages experimentation, you must provide clear information, training, and time to master new methods, processes, procedures, and skills. Offering real, practical help – training, coaching, mentoring, etc. – allows people to deal with change-related fears in a constructive way.

Requirement #7: Action – avoid paralysis by analysis and get started!

There is a tendency in organizations to wait until a plan is "perfect" before attempting to implement it. This would be a fine approach if there were such a thing as a perfect plan, but there isn't; things never work in the real world exactly the same way they do on paper. It is only by moving forward that you will discover which parts of the new system need re-thinking and re-tooling. Consider these questions:

  1. What are the primary and secondary objectives of this change? How many can we achieve (or make a start toward achieving) with a less-than-perfect plan?
  2. Can new processes and procedures be broken down into smaller steps, some of which can be started now?
  3. Can we implement small pilot programs to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the plan?

When experiments and pilot studies identify the need for changes to the implementation plan, be sure to communicate the changes and the reasons for them to everyone involved. The success of any change initiative must be measured by the achieved outcomes, not by rigid conformance to a previously-published plan or schedule.

Requirement #8: Effective communication

Every organization pays lip service to the importance of communicating effectively but few organizations do it really well. Effective communication becomes even more essential in organizations that are changing. If you want to be aware of which aspects of your change are happening successfully and which need more help to succeed, you must be receiving information as well as giving it. Two-way communication is a primary tool for making change stick. Consider these questions:

  1. How do people find out what's happening in the organization? How often is the information updated? Is the grapevine generally accurate or inaccurate?
  2. Are leadership's words and actions congruent? Are we walking the talk, or just talking?
  3. Does everyone in my department understand how his or her job and the work of the department will be affected by the change? If not, what can I do to provide more information?

Remember that involvement engenders commitment. People who feel they are "out of the loop" are unlikely to feel personally accountable for the success of the change initiative. Use as many different methods and media as you can to keep everyone informed about what is happening and what is going to happen, and be sure to establish channels for people to provide feedback and ask questions. Active participants will be more enthusiastic than passive ones; involve as many people as possible in teaching others about the change.

Requirement #9: Talent management

Never forget that it is the people in your organization who control the success or failure of your change initiative. Both attitude and aptitude – the capacity and motivation to learn new things – are critical aspects of making change stick. You can set people up for success by helping them to identify their talents and placing them in positions that leverage their strengths. Consider these questions:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals who report to me?
  2. Are the people in my department in positions that maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses?
  3. Does the organization have objective means (job benchmarks, documented performance metrics, employee assessments, etc.) of identifying position requirements and matching individuals to jobs?
  4. Is everyone in the organization informed about new positions that may be opening or positions whose roles will change?
  5. What opportunities can we offer to employees who would like their jobs to be different?

People are most successful at work when their jobs are in harmony with their personal behavioral styles and task preferences. The more control people have over the how of their work, the better their performance will be. An organizational change can provide a great opportunity to better align individual talents and skills with new job requirements and allow people to help define how their jobs are done.

Requirement #10: Positive reinforcement

There are basically only two ways to motivate people to change their behavior: you can catch them doing something right or threaten to punish the "wrong" behavior. Any guesses on which method results in a more committed, satisfied, and pro-active workforce? Consider these questions:

  1. What attitudes and behaviors do we need in order to make this change successful? How can I recognize these behaviors in others?
  2. Are there programs in place that encourage and reward the behaviors needed by the organization? Are the rewards meaningful to the recipients?

In order for any system of recognition to be effective, it must be accurate. Identify specific behaviors that provide evidence of the organization's progress toward its goal – increases in productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, etc. – and name the behavior when you reward it ("This line has manufactured parts with zero defects for three days in a row"). Be ready to reinforce small steps toward the ultimate goal; affirm that people are heading in the right direction. Consider a system that allows people to nominate their peers for recognition; peer recognition is often the most effective means of motivating change.

Requirement #11: Meaningful metrics

The mantra for measurements should be focused, few, frequent, and followed. Systemic changes are undertaken to address key strategic business concerns; select measurements that track performance against the business parameter that best reflects those concerns. Try to resist the temptation to measure too many things; it makes timeliness difficult and risks distracting people from the numbers that are most important. Select a measurement frequency appropriate to what is being measured, and stick to it. If you expect people to take the metrics seriously, you need to update them regularly and make the results available and understandable to everyone (simple graphs are an excellent medium). Consider these questions:

  1. Does every measurement tie directly to a strategic objective, or could some metrics be eliminated?
  2. Do individuals understand how their work affects the measurement?
  3. Are metrics updated and publicly discussed on a regular basis?

Select a manageable number of strategic metrics to track; start with customer satisfaction. Maintain history and graph trends so that everyone can see improvements. Try not to over-react to normal variations; measurement accuracy will improve as you refine your metrics (if your results vary widely from one measurement to the next, consider a longer measurement interval). Make sure that people can relate their work actions to a specific metric, and remember to recognize departments or individuals whose hard work is making the change successful as shown on the graphs.

Requirement #12: Passion for the change

Behind every change that sticks you are likely to find several influential people in the organization who feel passionate about the change. The ability to lead change effectively comes from within; it depends on our beliefs about the change and its outcomes and beliefs about the people who will make the change successful. Consider these questions:

  1. What excites me about this change? How can I share my enthusiasm with others?
  2. Who in the organization is passionate about the change? How can we involve these people in leading the change?
  3. How can I balance compassion with high expectations?

Always remember that people can change, but they cannot be changed. Your goal is to influence the members of your organization to change themselves. Look for people everywhere in the organization who have taken the change to heart and enlist their help in leading the change.

If all of these factors exist in your organization, forge ahead with your change initiative; it is likely that the change will stick. If any of these elements are missing or weak, you can improve the chances of making change stick by addressing the environmental issues before attempting any large-scale change.