Here at Cloud9, it’s never lost on us how transformational the IT solutions that we implement are for our clients. But in order to be transformational, businesses that we are working with have to view the process as so much more than a technology implementation. It’s all about change.
For some, hearing that word engenders a sense of excitement. For others, an extreme sense of unease. But, of course, change is necessary if we want our businesses to grow. Adapting to new markets, creating competitive advantage, new members of staff, different ways of working – all these things require us to be good with change. But given that many of our staff will find transformation difficult, it’s important for all business leaders to gain skills in how to make change successful.
One of the world’s authorities on change is John P. Kotter. His seminal paper, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, is great reading and his recommended process is widely regarded as best practice. I’ve distilled this 8-step process down for the purposes of this post.
Step 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency
If everyone is of the opinion that this change can wait or that there is no compelling need for it, there will simply be no buy-in. I think that the best way of communicating why the change is necessary is to use a 3-step approach. It goes like this:
• Because of X, the business needs to change
• The benefits of the change would be Y
• If we don’t change, X will happen.
Step 2: Gather Your Guiding Lights
You need a great team to be in charge of the change. If transformation is important to the business, put your best people on the case. If it’s important enough for them to be invested in, then creating change throughout the rest of the business becomes substantially more possible. Kotter points out something in this step, that is vital to the success of the change. There should be no sacred cows. He states that a successful change team will have:
• A shared and accurate view of the organisation’s opportunities and problems
• The ability to communicate
What looks like a simple three bullets contains some critical factors. Change is not for the fainthearted, untrustworthy – or for people with the communication skills of an icy rock. Choose your team wisely.
Step 3: Creating a Vision
I’m going to quote directly from Kotter’s paper here, because it is so wonderfully articulated – “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”. The vision has got to be a statement where people can conjure up an image of success in their mind. And if you’ve done a good enough job of the ‘why’ in Step 1, then they’ll care about it too. Once you’ve communicated the vision to stakeholders, you must ask yourself the question – “Did the recipient demonstrate understanding and interest?”. If the answer is no, you need to think how you can communicate the vision more effectively.
Step 4: Communicate the Vision by a Factor of Ten
It’s almost impossible to over-communicate the vision and this is so often an Achilles heel in change programmes. Once you’ve been clear on why the change needs to happen, brought your great team of people together and created a compelling vision, you’re going to need to use every communication channel available to you in order to make the change happen – and it’s not just about a team meeting followed up with an email. Kotter highlights clearly that the behaviour of key individuals, especially those in a leadership position, is crucial to successful change. Ask yourself whether the whole change team is ‘walking the walk’.
Step 5: Remove Obstacles to the New Vision
It would be lovely to assume that the path to the vision will be a clear run. It seldom (never?) is. And removing any obstacles can be painful. But organisations that are set for successful change aren’t afraid to address individuals, teams or processes that hinder the transformation so necessary to bring about extraordinary results. It could be a manager unhappy with a change in reporting structure or the entire remuneration system – whatever it is, to be successful; you need to tackle it head on. Be bold!
Step 6: Systematically Plan for, and Create, Short Term Wins
I’ve only ever worked for one very large company. Change required turning the proverbial oil tanker and was invariably lengthy. Change initiatives rarely succeeded because after a number of months with nothing to show for the ‘hype’, people lost focus. Posters about the initiative were sometimes embarrassingly pulled down from next to the drinks machines because everybody had forgotten what ‘Project Phoenix’ was all about.
Take a marathon as an example. If you just had a start and finish line and told the participants to work out the 26.2 miles themselves you could end up in quite a mess – people going off in all directions, losing their way, their interest, their momentum. Mark out a route with clear mile-markers in place and you have everyone pointing in the same direction. They know where they’re going, what the reward will be at the finish and along the way have the opportunity to celebrate each and every mile they put under their belt. Participants will come together and support one another in that common goal – it’s a very potent kind of energy that truly enables people to achieve things they didn’t think possible. Imagine that in your business.
Step 7: Wait – The War’s not Won Yet!
It’s very easy to look at the green shoots of performance improvement and take the foot off the gas. Kotter has this to say – “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.” Potent stuff.
Step 8: Make it Stick
Change has really only been successful when the vision is now ‘just the way we do things round here’. That can often mean that there is a new culture. So it’s important that everyone continues to ‘walk the walk’ and that new hires and day-to-day decision-making are congruent with the new way of doing things. You’ve done all the hard work. Don’t let things slip back at this point! Particularly as this will have a significant effect on stakeholders’ belief in future transformation initiatives’ chance of success.
I hope that going through this process has given you some thoughts as to how to make change in your business more successful. We’d love to hear your stories.