Making Change Stick

The only constant is change

In the technology world we’re well used to the shifting sands that epitomise the environment, we’ve always lived with change and embrace it with a fair degree of gusto. In other industries, ones that may not have had a traditional basis in technology, their adoption rates have historically been a bit more ‘pedestrian’. But this world is waking up fast to their need to adapt and change, but in the awakening they are realising that the gap between their ambition and their ability to adapt can range from a crack to a chasm. There are more than enough challenges when determining the nature of the change that an organisation needs to adopt to meet the new opportunities without having to worry whether those changes will actually stick.

Do we need to change?

At the dawn of time, when I first started gainful employment, technology was a tool viewed largely with derision or suspicion. Even up to the nineties the levels of adoption were at a level that would shock most people today. I went back to college in Ireland in 1999, the advent of the dot com boom, and even then there were two or three people out of a class of thirty who had never used a computer of any kind. That’s shocking when you consider Ireland’s place in the technology world at this time. This article identifies Ireland as the world’s largest software exporter just a year later. So not all donkeys and thatched cottages as the postcards would suggest.

Since then, technology has moved to centre stage with a commensurate acceleration in the rate of change of human endeavours. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but simply put: technology caused more things to change, it’s caused them to keep changing and the speed at which that change is taking place is getting faster. You don’t have to buy that as a concept, change isn’t overly concerned with your beliefs and certainly isn’t waiting for your permission. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Innovation lives in the world of change being both fuel for, and fueled by it. If you can’t change, you can’t innovate and vice versa.

Why don’t we change all the time?

We’re an interesting species when viewed under the microscope of our propensity for change. It’s almost like we operate on two independent channels. On the first we’re adaptive, responsive and innovative to the point where one wouldn’t dare to predict a limit on the ingenuity and appetite of the human spirit. On the other, we’re resistant to change even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the level that large rocks might consider us fairly intransigent. The simple truth is this: we often find change hard even where the need for change is blatant.

People like new things, from pens to houses it’s easy to get someone to take something new. If the price is right and it has the right appeal then you’ll always find a market. This lulls us into believing that we are quick to adapt to new trends, technologies and so on. This fallacy persists as the vast majority of these ‘new’ things don’t require any effort on our part. We happily take on new things because the impact on us, on our behaviour and on our lives is minimal to none. I can pick up a simple ballpoint pen, or a highly expensive precision writing instrument and achieve much the same effect in terms of communication. Neither of these are particularly likely to cause a ‘Damascene Conversion’ on my desire to communicate. I might be inclined to write some more in the short term with the prettier pen but that effect is likely to be temporary.

The real problem with change

So we’re fickle, drawn to the next new shiny object of desire. This is fantastic for the consumer culture, but quite the problem for organisations. As a manager or leader in an organisation, I need to be able to identify an opportunity, line up my people and resources appropriately and then aggressively make progress. This needs to be predictable, measurable and fast. None of which is possible if after the first couple of tentative steps someone suddenly decides they’d rather do things differently, or take on some new tool or use a different process or worse yet, revert back to the old way of doing things. So many change programs reflect the ‘keep the plates spinning’ mentality. Change something, move on, change something else, go back and make sure the change is still in place, move on, back and check and so on and so on.

Lewin recognised the problem with change, and in proposing his model for change developed an approach that remains the cornerstone of most change programs to this day. His model intends for the resistance to change to have largely eroded in the ‘unfreezing’ phase allowing change to take place before ‘refreezing’ in the new norm. I’m not going to second guess him; in my experience it’s the approach everyone can conceptualise; the approach that is most likely to succeed and I would guess that he’s still smarter than me even in his grave.

How do we change

In the context of Lewin’s model, the unfreezing phase is the most challenging because it’s there that you’re establishing the need for change in the minds of the people. For me this is the heart of the matter; without question the only practical way to implement change at any level is for the people that are impacted to value the change. If the change has no perceived value, it will disappear quicker than vodka at a college party.

These are my key touch points for any change programme:

Eliminate ambiguity

Let’s start with the most obvious point. Everyone needs to understand exactly what the intended future state should look like. There can be no ambiguity and no debate. If you’re not able to establish that definition, then you’re not ready to start making change. If you don’t know what you’re shooting for, then I guarantee that you will miss.

It’s important to note that you can’t be certain exactly what your final state will be. The ambiguity you are looking to eliminate is the ‘desired’ future state, and that is the point that everyone must converge and agree upon.

Spend some time on this before you make any public announcement or declarations. As soon as people hear that change is coming you can be sure that there will be questions. Questions are fine to clarify and enhance understanding, but be sure that they don’t sow the seeds of doubt.

Have a plan, rigidly stick to it and move through it quickly

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Planning how you will roll out the change programme is an exercise fraught with pitfalls. Without exception the biggest mistake I’ve seen here is relates to only visiting an area once and then moving on. Whether its the entire organisation or an individual team it’s unlikely that there is one single thing that needs to be changed. It’s a programme because there are multiple parts that must complete before the entire programme is complete. You can’t do all of those parts at once despite so many change programmes trying to do so.

I offer my approach, which favours width over depth and speed over caution. It’s far from the only approach but it is one that has a track record of success.

  • Go wide

In a large scale change programme I like to hit every department / team (I’ll use team from now on) soon after the initial announcement (see below). I want to build a sense of momentum in peoples minds and specifically don’t want to give people too much time to build resistance.

  • Go Shallow

Fix one thing at a time, then build on that success. Trying to fix too many things in one fell swoop tends to fail in my experience. When things start to go wrong, you’re never quite sure which part is failing because you’ve moved too many bits at once. Stick to fixing one specific aspect, define the metrics to make sure it stays fixed and move on to the next team. Then come back and fix the next aspect once the first has bedded in.

  • Go fast

Go fast on two levels. First, make a small, quick to implement change that gives an early win that in turn will start to build momentum. Second get to every team quickly. It’s difficult to get people on board when you announce ‘change is comming’ and then take months, or in some cases years, to show up. You lose credibility and you lose momentum. You need both to succeed.

  • Iterate

As soon as you have done one round of each team, start again and build on the momentum from the last cycle. You don’t necessarily need to continue the work from the last cycle directly but sometimes it can help.

  • Theme

When possible have each cycle support a particular theme. Define a simple goal for a cycle and try to relate each team’s work to that goal. Theming will create a sense of common purpose which in turn can lead to more open communication across teams as they ‘share the pain’.

  • Stick to your dates

If you tell a team that you’re going to appear on a certain date, then that’s the date you show up. If you’re not there, people think you’re not going to show up. If you don’t show up, the change programme isn’t showing up and so the vicious spiral begins that will kill your programme.

Communicate and reinforce

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is in relation to communication, particularly when trying to change the culture of an organisation. You simply can’t communicate enough. It’s not just about communicating status reports to stakeholders, it’s equally important to communicate to the entire organisation.

The communication needs to occur in phases starting with the initial communication on the change programme. This sets the stage, and sets the tongues wagging. It needs to be positive, refer to the past without attributing blame to what has gone before, clearly identify the change and offer a broad outline of what is going to happen. I’ve always found that this communication needs to come from the most senior responsible person. Where the change is organisation wide then it needs to come from the CEO or chairman / president, if it’s divisional then it needs to come from the division head and so on. The goal is to build excitement and anticipation not apathy and dread!

From that point on, communication needs to be both public and frequent. The scope of the change combined with the size of the organisation will determine what size your audience should be. Pay particular attention to the teams that have been invited to ensure that no team is left behind. Few things will impact your efforts more than accidently ignoring a team.

The communications plan should be sinusoidal (stick with me there’s loads of buzzword bingo hits in here…) with the peaks representing status reporting to the stakeholders and to the staff as a whole. The troughs representing communication at the lowest level be it team or group. This granularity of communication will ensure that the programme is kept at the forefront of people’s minds which (as we’ll see later) is important in building the sense of inevitability.

Value the change

I’ve a firmly rooted belief that the only effective way to bring about any change is to get the people involved to value the change. That starts with you and goes from there. If you don’t value it you’ll struggle to get anyone else bought in. The best sales people know this which is why they only sell products that they believe in (regardless of how deluded that may be).

There are many paths to getting a thing to be valued, but leaning on my own missteps in this regard I would recommend leaving the stick at home and only using the carrot. There are a few things you can do to help people change their minds and as a result their attitudes and behaviours.

  • Make it inevitable

There’s a large body of work in the social psychology space relating to inevitability as a motivator. The theory in very short form suggests that if you can convince someone that something is inevitable their mind makes a nice leap from resistance to acceptance by virtue of the fact that there’s no longer any value in resisting. They have to change their mind because there’s no alternative. How to introduce inevitability? Set a hard date by which the change will be in place and enforce it rigidly.

  • Make it beneficial

Change for the sake of change is no use to anyone. Clearly (I presume) change is contemplated to bring about some positive future state. You must be able to translate that future state into a direct benefit for those that you require to bring about the change.

  • Make it positive

Closely related to the beneficial point, but more related to what the person experiences during the change. The end goal is beneficial, but where possible make the journey as enjoyable as possible. Get the people to record their experiences throughout the change, this forms the stuff of legends for the future. Even if the transition is torturous learn to laugh at the pain then you can laugh about when you’re done. “Strongest teams are forged in the hottest fire” as they say.

Enforce the change – leave nowhere to hide

This is a little drift over to the dark side. Whilst it’s all rainbows and unicorns when building the value of the change at some point you’ll find the rocks. You’ll identify them by what they say: ‘This way has always worked’, ‘There’s no value in this approach’, ‘This way will just slow me down’ and so on. Invariably the specter of lower productivity, lower morale, more mistakes and the dreaded failure are all raised and in extreme cases are deliberately made reality. I’ve seen so many cases of this that its actually startling the degree of effort and ingenuity applied to proving that change will fail.

The approach to dealing with these ‘Luddites’ (yup, also a word) is two fold:

  • Make sure that everyone is on message

Relating to inevitability mentioned above, you can’t give the arguments any oxygen. All these people are looking for is some whiff of support that they can hang on to. Everyone has to be on the same message from the board of directors down – the change is happening now.

  • Make sure that there is a consequence for non-compliance

Pardon me whilst I don my secret police uniform. It should naturally be the case – the consequence not the uniform – that any change is reflected in someones regular performance review. With longer serving or senior members of staff this can be a bit of a tightrope to walk, but in the end you must be able to measure compliance and support for the change and similarly be able to measure non-compliance.

Now I’ve seen other approaches taken, such as moving senior staff ‘out of the path’ of change, or allowing special dispensations. This is all rubbish, first because the behaviour is being rewarded and that will come back and bite you sooner than you want and secondly because its very implication is that the change doesn’t have the value you’ve spent so much time establishing. In short you can’t pander to the rocks and expect your change to succeed.

Make the change a collective responsibility – not individual

At the end of the day, whether you’re changing a team, a department or the entire organisation you’re changing more than one person. You need the future state to be part of the culture, which implies that everyone must be bought in. You want your teams to move in unison, which requires you to use existing mechanisms or develop new ones that allow for the entire team to be acknowledged for succeeding on the journey.

As stated before,  regular communication, not just up but across the board is vital to the success of your change process. With teams, you must celebrate only those that are succeeding. You want the teams to feel a little bit competitive on the journey, this will help with bonding on the team and help motivate towards the future state.

The most crucial benefit of making the entire team responsible is that they will start to police themselves. You expect your teams to want to be recognised and acknowledged. This can’t happen if the everyone isn’t moving towards the team’s goal. I’ve found that teams very quickly start to bring outliers in line when they aren’t getting the public accolades.

Establish metrics measure often

What does success look like? I started by saying that you need to be unambiguous in your intent, by extension you must be unambiguous in recognising when your programme is working. Defining specific measurables is crucial to tracking progress. Measure weekly at a minimum. Remember, the gap between measurements is the size of the gap by which you can get off track. Measuring monthly? Your timelines can be out by a month.


At the end of the day the worst thing you can do is fail to begin. The world is changing around you every minute of every day. Either you’re going to deal with that, or you’re going to be left behind.

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