How often have you seen- or been a part of – a senior leadership team effort to design change? And seen it not happen at all! So often what happens is that the senior leadership team spends lots of time (days, weeks, even months) deciding on some new vision for which CHANGE must now take place. And then they announce it, . . . . . and the change does not happen. They tend to blame everyone/anyone – except themselves. They usually skip asking why it took them weeks and then they expected people to engage with the change with one short announcement! A useful tool for me in facilitating change was given to me by a mentor of mine, Carl Harshman: let me share the essence of it with you. You will note that it focuses on the reasons CHANGE fails: pay heed, it is powerful.
Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail
In the March-April 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review, John P. Kotter, a professor of leadership in the Harvard Business School and a national expert on Change, wrote of eight primary reasons that organizations are unsuccessful when implementing efforts to change.
First a beginning summary:
The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result. A second very general lesson is that critical mistakes in any of the phases can have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains. Perhaps because we have relatively little experience in renewing organizations, even very capable people often make at least one big error.
Next, a summary of the eight most common reasons transformational change is not as successful as envisioned:
Error #1: Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency
When does an organization reflect a sufficient amount of urgency? Kotter says:
From what I have seen, the answer is when about 75% of a company's management is honestly convinced that business-as-usual is totally unacceptable. Anything less can produce very serious problems later on in the process.
Error #2: Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition
Kotter's experience is straightforward: “Efforts that don't have a powerful enough guiding coalition can make apparent progress for a while. But, sooner or later, the opposition gathers itself together and stops the change.” In order to counteract this error, the membership, role, and development of the steering committee structure require major attention as part of the effort.
Error #3: Lacking a Vision
Kotter's bottom line:
In every successful transformation effort that I have seen, the guiding coalition develops a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees.
Without a clear vision, the effort often degenerates into a series of projects that are unrelated and either go nowhere in the long run or mislead the organization in terms of where it really needs to go.
His recommendation in terms of a vision?:
. . .if you can't communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not yet done with this phase of the transformation process.
Error #4: Undercommunicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten
According to Kotter, communication is the key to getting people to make the sacrifices that are necessary to achieve the vision. If the communication is done poorly or if the top leadership undermines it with their actions, everything is wasted. His recommendation? Use every possible channel, especially those that are being wasted on information that really doesn't matter.
Error #5: Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision
Kotter's perspective on this error is to be assertive:
In the first half of a transformation, no organization has the momentum, power, or time to get rid of all obstacles. But the big ones must be confronted and removed. If the blocker is a person, it is important that he or she be treated fairly and in a way that is consistent with the new vision. But action is essential, both to empower others and to maintain the credibility of the change effort as a whole.
Error #6: Not Systematically Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins
Change is a long-term investment. We risk losing the early momentum of an effort if there are not short-term goals to meet and celebrate. According to Kotter, creating short-term wins is different than hoping for short-term wins. Managers have to identify opportunities, set goals, develop strategies, and recognize people when the goals are met.
Kotter says that once people realize that the larger transformation effort will take a long time, leadership must create opportunities to produce short-term wins as a way to keep the momentum high.
Error #7: Declaring Victory Too Soon
Of all the problems that can hinder an effort (not enough urgency, an ineffective guiding coalition, a vision that does not get communicated), Kotter says the premature victory celebration kills the momentum and allows the forces of tradition to take over.
The successful strategy, according to Kotter, involves the following:
Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before. They pay real attention to who is promoted, who is hired, and how people are developed.
Error #8: Not Anchoring Changes in the Corporation's Culture
Kotter opens this section thus:
In the final analysis, change sticks when it becomes "the way we do things around here," when it seeps into the bloodstream of the corporate body. Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed.
"In reality, even successful change efforts are messy and full of surprises. . .[and] fewer errors can spell the difference between success and failure." An organization has at least two opportunities to reduce their errors in design and implementation of a successful transformation process. One is at the point of design, the other at the point the error begins to occur. Failing at both points is what Kotter is trying to help organizations avoid.