We've all seen it happen. A company leader shares plans for a new change, and then it fizzles out as fast as it started. The change doesn't gain traction. It doesn't generate advocates. It doesn't even get piloted. The change never makes it past the starting gate. And worse… all those staff members who said "It won't happen" were right. In these cases, the change initiative was not viewed as a process, but rather a declaration or edict from above.
You might be incorporating a small change, like a kitchen duty rotation for the break room, or one that’s much larger, like a leadership change as the result of a retirement or merger. You might be rebranding or renaming your company, or maybe you’ve asked staff to start tracking time in a new platform. No matter the focus of the change, there is an easy process you can follow to improve your likelihood of success.
I'm a big fan of John Kotter's book, Leading Change. In his book, Kotter describes eight steps that every company or organization should follow when initiating change.
I have presented workshops on change management to staff and leadership from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses and non-profits/associations. No matter the company, one thing always holds true: There is always room to improve how they implement change. There is always an "aha" moment in the room or a tactic the organization hasn’t tried before. Managers will say aloud, "Oh...so THAT was what we didn't do."
Kotter's model is relatively simple and logical. Following these eight steps can make this process digestible. It establishes a road map for embedding your change initiative into day-to-day operations.
Below is my high-level summary and interpretation of the eight steps.
1. Create a Sense of Urgency
This is where you help people understand the importance of making the change. You can share what will happen if you make the change (ideal future state) and what will happen if you don't. Use industry data or case studies to show the potential impact of the change.
TIP: 75% of your management and leadership teams need to embrace the change publicly and have buy-in for the change to succeed.
2. Form a Powerful Coalition
During this step, you gather cross-functional stakeholders to help drive the initiative forward. Find people who feel the same pains and see the importance of the change. Consider people who you will need to execute the change and those who will be affected by the change.
TIP: Include team members of all levels, not just leadership and managers.
3. Create a Vision for Change
A clear vision can help people easily understand and remember why the change is important. When people understand the why and the value the change can bring, they are more likely to support it. Leadership might create the first draft, but then the coalition should provide feedback.
TIP: The vision needs to be simple enough that the coalition can share the same consistent vision (ideally no more than one or two sentences).
4. Communicate the Vision
This is when you share your vision with your team members, partners, or customers. The message needs to be heard and understood. It should also cut through the noise of other communications (emails, meetings, flyers, etc.). Leaders and coalition members must ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to the change.
TIP: This can't be a one-time message or a special meeting. The change should be discussed frequently with updates provided on a regular basis.
5. Remove Obstacles and Barriers
There are many things that can prevent a change initiative from being successful. One of those is lack of foresight. It’s important to think about all the potential obstacles to change and address them. You want to make it as easy as possible to execute the change. People will feel empowered to do their part if they know you understand and have taken care of potential barriers.
TIP: Have a member of management or leadership serve as a champion for the change initiative. This person can receive concerns or challenge and help mitigate them quickly.
6. Create Short-Term Wins
I like to call it ‘Create and Celebrate Short-Term Wins.’ Set small measurements that can help you tell if you’re moving the needle. If you set lofty and unachievable goals (100 percent participation or 100 percent incorporation), you are setting yourself up to fail. Those naysayers who said it wouldn't work will be happy to say they were right. Short-term wins need to be reasonable and reachable. These wins are a great way to reinforce the change and generate results.
TIP: I encourage people to recognize staff who "get it" and are doing their part to contribute to the goal. Share these success stories with the larger team to help them see the value in the change.
7. Build on the Change
There may be new things you can do now that you couldn’t do before the change. Or perhaps you’ve identified a better way to execute a process based on the change. Continue to build on the change and improve it. Identify what is going well and what isn’t. Seek feedback on pain points and obstacles and work to address them.
TIP: Consider enhancements to the change once you know it has positive momentum. Too many adjustments in the early stages of the change may cause confusion.
8. Anchor the Change in Corporate Culture
Is the change part of day-to-day operations, or are people going through the motions only because of the change initiative? At this point, the change should be a company expectation and part of daily work. Make sure leadership continues to support the change and talk about the impact it has made.
TIP: For consistency, incorporate the change into your job descriptions, onboarding, training programs, etc. Make sure the change appears as part of the company infrastructure.
One of the biggest tips I can provide is this: Change takes time. Change also takes planning, preparation, consistency, and involving the right people. By following these eight steps, you’ll be better positioned for your change to succeed.
Kotter's book includes a variety of supporting anecdotes and case studies to help illustrate these points. If you’ve found them interesting, I recommend reading his book.
Do you have a large change initiative coming in the next six months to a year? Reach out and let’s talk about your upcoming efforts, especially if you think you might need some additional guidance or coaching along the way.
Jeff Sears is the Vice President for Strategic Marketing with Meld Marketing, a full-service marketing agency based in Coralville, Iowa. Jeff joined Meld after spending nearly 15 years working with Fortune 500 pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Jeff is a recognized expert in key opinion leader (KOL) engagement and change management, and has presented atindustry conferences, community workshops, and corporate events around the country. As an active volunteer, he serves on CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank (in Iowa) Board of Directors, UIHC Patient and Family Advisory Council, a trustee for the Iowa City Community Fund, and a leader for the Iowa Future Business Leaders of America Professional Division.