Death and taxes…and change.
Those three are certain.
And in an era where change isn’t only guaranteed, but happens in the blink of an eye, a company will find itself perpetually swimming in shifting waters.
And it’s not just about big transformations or revolutions—like a change in management or a fundamental reversal of business strategy—that we are talking about here. Change is not the exception, but the rule.
Defined broadly, “change” is involved in practically any activity or move a business makes:
- launching a new product
- improving customer experience
- getting new clients
- streamlining operations
- getting new equipment
- hiring new people
Every time a business wants to get better, work faster, or become more productive and more efficient, some level of adjustment is required.
Sadly, the often-quoted number is that 70% of these change drives or change initiatives fail.
Why? What are the hidden flaws that riddle the improvement drives of many companies?
And what can we do instead to ensure that the noblest of intentions and the greatest of efforts translate directly to the bottom line?
Let’s find out.
4 Reasons For Failure & What To Do About Them
#1 Lack of “Buy-in”
Imagine a boat with 8 Olympic-level rowers…but rowing in different directions.
How fast do you think this boat will get to the finish line?
The thorniest problem with change is that it involves people. It’s not as simple as changing the filter of some equipment, for example. People are complex, and your employees are not passive followers who faithfully execute upper management desires.
They may nod “Yes sir!”, but you only have to turn your back to get a half-hearted performance from somebody who doesn’t really understand or agree with why things have to change.
(Why would they do things differently? The pay is the same.)
Just because some changes have been announced and presented in a meeting, it doesn’t mean that people will get in line. It takes more than a single emotional “vision casting” session for change to truly take root.
If your program is stalling, maybe it’s because the people don’t understand, don’t agree or don’t care about the changes. You have a persuasion problem.
An initiative is essentially a campaign, and you have to make a compelling case that all the guys on the shop room floor will buy.
You can do 3 things to encourage buy-in:
- Repetition—Keep on reminding people, at every opportunity and in various media, of what needs to be done. Use slogans to trumpet your program, for example. (“Company X is Clean & Green!”)
- Demonstration—Make it more real for your people. Show them what the changes actually look like.
- Rewards—Beyond monetary benefits, give recognition to people who epitomize the change.
#2 Lack of Focus
Let’s say you already have buy-in and everybody agrees that they must happen.
Why can an initiative still fail?
We’ve heard of these excuses:
- “There’s not enough budget.”
- “There’s just no time to accomplish these ideas.”
They’ve often been cited as reasons for the ultimate failure of a company’s transformation efforts.
These are symptoms of a lack of focus, or that the proposed changes are too big. Upon closer inspection, it could turn out that the company is doing multiple things at the same time. Management is wont to do this because often, in meetings, these goals are capsulized in a single slide, even a single bullet point.
For example: “We want to become the country’s number 1 car rental company in 12 months.”
Embedded in that little statement right there, with a deadline, are hundreds of changes that have to take place at different levels and in multiple roles. (And this is assuming that the actions taken individually do not contradict or cancel each other out.)
It would be best to flesh out an initiative into bite-sized tasks. A car rental company can set goals like:
- We want to drastically cut the time between when a customer wants a car to the second he sits in the driver seat.
- We want to make drop-off as quick and painless as possible.
- We want to increase our weekly numbers.
- We want to make turnaround operations more efficient.
(Yes, these goals can be further subdivided into smaller tasks, but they are now more doable and have more focus.)
Speaking of achievements, make it a point to celebrate every little milestone achieved. This will maintain good morale among your people. And, hitting one little milestone after another gets the whole organization used to achieve things—a momentum that skyrockets team members’ self-confidence and self-belief.
#3 Lack of Sustaining Leadership
Fire, if you don’t feed it, ultimately dies.
Initiatives are abandoned because of the failure of leadership to sustain them.
Changes, especially those not yet embedded into the fabric or culture of the company have a habit of melting away and disappearing completely. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the status quo will reassert itself once the initial excitement and brouhaha for the objectives have died down.
Leadership is needed to shepherd the program through expected resistance until it has found a home in company culture.
For example, a company with new green initiatives will need leaders that will exhibit the practice, demonstrate the change and consistently remind people about the “bigger picture.” Leadership needs to keep people updated on the milestones achieved and the way to go.
Management might consider themselves exempted from change. When subordinates smell this, it douses cold water on the urgency, importance and impact of the initiative.
Initiatives need champions that exude passion more than the average employee
When you see a general with the crispiest of uniforms, the most polished of buckles and the shiniest of shoes, privates have no excuse to slack.
Leadership leads. Always.
#4 Company Culture and Human Nature
The change will find its own resistance. That’s the nature of things.
When you try to change the status quo, you will always run into resistance, regardless of how sound and sensible the goals may be.
The status quo crystallized because many have come to agree that it’s the best way to go. Then here comes leadership with its newfangled initiative, a new way of doing things, proposing changes that didn’t even consider stakeholders. Of course, there will be resistance.
In addition to the human quirk that innately hates change, you’ll find that your best people will often resist the program. No surprise there. Your best people are the ones who were able to best adapt to the status quo. They’ve learned how to operate and flourish under it. They will resist because from where they stand, change means a loss of some kind.
Knowing this, smart leaders include stakeholders from the outset and include the very people most affected by the change. It makes them invested in the success of the initiative. It’s another way of ensuring “buy-in” from your people. If the ideas come from them, they will most likely support them.
(In addition to locking in the support of people in supervisory positions, look for people with social influence. They wield even more sway. Oftentimes, in an organization, there are people whose names do not appear in the organizational chart but have a strong voice in what happens. They are well-respected, well-loved and highly trusted. Get them to your side.)
Most importantly, if you are to overcome the inertia of the status quo, replace what people will lose with what they can gain. For example:
- “Yeah, this is hard work at first, but going digital will finally free us from mind-numbing paperwork in the years ahead.”
- “Yes, switching suppliers is a hassle, but with this one, we can rest easy knowing we’ll get raw materials right on time.”
- “This new system takes more time, but it will lead to fewer customer complaints and so less face time dealing with irate customers.”
Manage their expectations. Mention that it will be hard, awkward and impossible at first, but over time, will become easy and intuitive. Highlight the benefits and you just might have a workforce as excited about the changes as you are.
With proper leadership and a united organization, change is possible.
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