As I’m writing this blog post there are hundreds of thousand change management programs running and unfortunately the vast majority of these programs will fail. Why is it that so many change and transformation programs fail? Even when they all have great change leaders, programs, processes and governance in place.
During the last couple of years, I learned from the mistakes I did and to be honest I’m happy I did these mistakes so that I was better prepared for the next change programs.
I can think of hundreds mistakes I made while implementing change but below you can find the top ten learnings I personally experienced and they taught me the most about effective and successful change management. The below top ten is in random order but are equally important to pay attention to while implementing lasting change.
- Trying to stop old behaviour instead of creating new ones
When the whole change team and leadership team are excited about the new strategy and the wanted behaviours that it is easy to fall into this pitfall. When you are a parent and you want to make sure your kids are eating with a knife and a fork instead of with their hands you might tell them all the time that they are not allowed to eat with their hands. What you do in this situation is similar of what a lot of big organisations are doing during behaviour change, telling them that they are not allowed to follow the old process. I made this mistake myself while implementing a new sales process and focussed too much on stopping the old process. Changes happens in parallel and we just can’t stop an old process and move to another in a blink of an eye. This will take time and trust me if you ignore the old behaviour and focus and give support on the new wanted behaviour the change will go faster and smoother.
- Focus on big leaps instead of small baby steps
This is probably one of my quickest learnings. When I first was involved in a new company strategy I was energised and very excited about the end goal and wanted position. But I realised very quickly that some changes and implementations like for example a new CRM system might take up more than a year. So no quick fixes but long term change. To keep everybody energized and exited (including myself) we needed to break down the change into small steps. When I read more about the Elephant and the Rider in the book Switch I was even more convinced that it is vital to shirk the change in order to keep the ‘Elephant’ motivated.
- Assuming the management agrees with the change
When I was asked to lead my first change program, the new strategy was already approved by the leadership team. So, I assumed they all agreed with the new strategy, change and wanted new behaviour. I actually was in the room when the CEO asked all leaders, ‘are you on the bus?’ and they all said ‘yes’. With that in mind I started to roll out my first change program and focused on the ‘employees’ who needed to change. They all got trained and started to work based on the new wanted behaviour but when they needed to report back to their managers (the leadership team that said; ‘yes, we are on the bus’) there was a big resistant from these managers and they didn’t like the new way of working. Learning; Continue to involve the leadership team during all stages of implementing change and make sure some of them are in the steering group of your change program so that they are aware and agree with the actual change that you are implementing.
- Too much focus on processes and systems (rational elements)
When I started implementing change I had no change management experience at all. I was just lucky to make mistakes. A lot of mistakes and most early in the process so that they can be adapted in the process. One assignment I got was to build a new business process and as a rational person I looked at the current process together with a change team from the business. We eliminated all the ‘waste’ in the process and build a perfect new one. When we started to implement I thought this was easy. Forget the new process and just very simple tell everybody involved to follow the new process which we documented in a very nice and simple manner. One month later, less than 5% of the employees followed the new process, WTF? How hard can it be to just follow the new process that is on paper? Then I started to learn about the rational and emotional part of people’s brain while reading SWITCH. From that day I got very interested in the Elephant and the Rider methodology and moved my focus more on the psychology of change management.
- Lack of communication
Communicate, communicate and communicate. Most change programs start with a big communication to create awareness for the change. But when the change process is running the communication part is sometimes forgotten. For effective change communication it is vital and can make or break a change program. For an effective change program, the change leader need to define a communication plan that is designed to share the right message to the right audience at the right time in the change process. I strongly don’t believe in over-communication. I believe it is better to communicate to often than don’t communicate at all. They say that a message need to be repeated between five and seven times before they are cemented into the minds of employees.
- Forget to celebrate successes, even small ones
While being busy running your change program we sometimes forget to celebrate small successes. We aim for the big end goal in each change program, but it is so important to keep employees motivated by celebrating small wins. This will release dopamine and will keep us all moving. The risk with too many dopamine is that it is addicted try to balance it and don’t celebrate everything but at least every time a mile stone is reached.
- Assuming that change is done while meeting the milestones
This look a bit contractionary based on the previous point but going from milestone to milestone is not change management. A change management process needs to have the right wanted outcome and sometimes a milestone is reached but NOT the wanted change or results. A change process and plan should be flexible enough to adapt changes along the way. A change plan should never be set in stone and successful change implementations are the ones who are flexible and can change during the implementation in order to excel the wanted outcome.
- Lack of ownership during and after the change
Change happens in the organisation and needs to be owned by the organisation and not by the change leader or change team. You can define strong steering groups, appoint sponsors and local change owners but If they don’t understand their responsibility it will never fly. The sponsors and business owners are playing a critical role in times of change. They have for example more influence over their team’s motivations to change compare to for example the change leader. Unfortunately, these group of critical leaders can be hard to convince the need of change which can lead to resistant. Implementing a RACI model is a good guidance to set clear responsibilities and accountabilities for the business leaders to lead and own the change.
- Forget to make the change big and exiting
While implementing small steps, like I learned from mistake number two “Focus on big leaps instead of small baby steps” I actually forgot to explain the big picture. I was so focused on the small steps and processes that the employees I trained had no idea “why” they are trained and need to implement this new behaviour / process. It was during one of the last training sessions to the local changes teams that one of them saw the “light” and told me, if you showed me this part during the first training it would save a lot of frustration and resistant during my local training sessions. So, a great learning, focus on small baby steps, but never lose sight of the big and exiting end goal.
- Not adapting the change process based on feedback from the employees
Managing change is not a one-way process. Involving employees is an integral part of managing change. Listen to your employees during the change process and as already said have a flexible change process implementation where it is possible to adapt the feedback from the employees. Feedback from employees is a key element of a successful change management strategy. My learning from this is that I really wanted to stick to the agreed toll gates in our newly defined sales process. After a couple of months and a lot of resistance I agreed with the changes and the users where more satisfied in using the adopted process.