From Changemaking: Seeking and facilitating change

From The Changemaking Checklists: FAQs

Seeking and facilitating change: more easily said than done

Most people manage change continually: at home, in recreation and volunteer activities, and at work. They have an intuitive understanding of what needs to happen if change is to move forward. Even if they haven't consciously thought about or documented the principles, they do what makes sense. They consult people, discuss the alternatives, try to anticipate and plan around the obstacles, adapt their plans as needed, take action, and address issues and challenges along the way.

Yet when organizations implement change, these straightforward steps are often missed. The intent and the broad strategy get the attention; the details of execution are forgotten.

  Good news . . . and bad
  The good news is that the
  core factors are well-known
  and readily followed. The bad
  news is that, in the pressure
  of ongoing business activity,
  they're often forgotten.

The elements of effective change are simple: be clear about purpose and process; listen to and involve stakeholders; provide needed resources; align systems and processes to support the change; lead with clarity and involvement; communicate relentlessly; track progress; follow up; and course-correct. That's it. But while it's easy to say, it usually proves very hard to do.

Many major change initiatives struggle, and they often fail.[1] In part, this is because implementation is through some version of the "memo-and-conference-call" approach: announce the change, trust that those involved will quickly learn and adapt, and hope for the best. Smaller-scale changes also encounter unexpected resistance and very often prove far more challenging than the sponsors anticipate.

The emphasis may be on the strategic purpose of the change ("the merger offers the opportunity for significant synergies leading to cost savings"; or, "this acquisition fills an important gap in our product range") with insufficient attention paid to making it happen.

So the good news is that the core factors are well-known and straightforward. The bad news is that these principles are often forgotten or ignored amid the pressure of ongoing business operations.

The goal is to have the transition (or transaction) occur smoothly, with minimal disruption and maximum support. In practice, though, change is often not well planned or managed. The result can be costly, ranging from a temporary loss of focus on customers to large-scale failure in integrating two organizations.

Core factors in successful change management

These seven factors summarize the conditions, resources, and processes that support successful change.


Clarity: Be clear and unambiguous about the purpose of the change, its direction, and the approach.

Engagement: Build a sense of ownership and commitment; consult with and involve the people who will be affected by the change.

Resources: Put in place the needed resources (e.g., financial, human, technical) to enable the change.

Alignment: Ensure that systems and processes (e.g., rewards, information, accounting, training) support the change.

Leadership: Guide, train, and equip leaders at every level so that they display consistent commitment to the change.

Communication: Ensure an effective two-way flow of information; be aware of issues and questions; provide timely responses.

Tracking: Establish clear goals; assess progress against these; adjust and fine-tune as necessary.

"Everyone knows you have to do these things"  is a frequent comment when the core factors or principles of successful change management are outlined. But when we ask if those principles have been put into practice, it often turns out that perhaps some of the details were overlooked; maybe most of the details; sometimes, all of them.[2]  In many change initiatives, large-scale and small, at least one of these principles (and often several of them) are not followed.

We often hear senior leaders say of their employees, "They're smart; they'll figure it out." And yes, they are indeed smart. They figure out that the direction isn't clear and the planning is imperfect. They figure out that they need a great deal more convincing that this is a change they want to be aligned with and involved in.

The details are what make change work for the people whom it impacts most sharply. It's hard work to make a significant additional effort while continuing to run a complex business. But there's a high price if that effort is not sustained. Employees get distracted and demotivated; customers' needs get ignored or forgotten; and managers are consumed by questions, issues, concerns, and distractions.[3]

Change can happen without all seven core factors in place. But it's likely to be difficult, expensive, and painful - for your customers as well as your employees.

It's been said that change happens and can't be managed. There is a valid point in the assertion: the ongoing evolution of technology, business practices, and economic change can certainly sweep organizations along with them. But while some organizations may be passengers or followers rather than leaders, others are seeking and creating change, and building success on that commitment.

This book asserts that the way change takes effect, and the way it influences the state of the business and its ability to serve its customers, can and should be managed. People can be informed, consulted, and engaged - or not. Systems can be adapted and aligned with new ways of doing business - or not. Leaders can actively communicate, listen, and persuade - or not. Through these and other processes, change can be successfully planned, shaped, and implemented.

Daryl Conner views change as a shift or disruption in expectations.[4] And when expectations change - especially if they change in a negative way - people react by seeking to regain or retain the circumstances that were in place and with which they were comfortable. They may be open to change, and often see (at the front line) the reasons that are driving it. But they need to know that it's appropriate and well-planned. Behavior that's interpreted as resistance may be an effort to understand and learn.

Change has patterns that can be anticipated, reflecting typical reactions of individuals and groups. The pace and nature of adaptation is strongly influenced by the way change is managed, or by the way leaders explain, direct, support, and assess the process.

Whether change is initiated by the organization (installation of new systems, a merger, a new organizational structure, appointment of a new CEO) or is forced on the organization (new competitive behaviors, technological redundancy, government regulations, a hostile takeover) leaders can respond in ways that ignore and increase resistance, or in ways that understand and address it.

Some business leaders create change; others respond. But all have to manage it.

[1]. For example, two-thirds or more of Total Quality Management (TQM) programs and reengineering initiatives fail, according to Peter Senge et al. in The Dance of Change (New York: Doubleday, 1999). And according to John P. Kotter in Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), few of the companies studied were successful in making major changes to their ways of doing business.

[2]. The set of core factors listed here aligns with models and frameworks developed by many writers, educators, and leaders. For examples, see John P. Kotter, Leading Change, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996, and Daryl R. Conner, Managing at the Speed of Change, New York: Random House, 1992. The challenge doesn't lie in understanding the process, or even in putting together a plan. It's in putting the plan into action and sustaining the effort. 

[3]. Ram and Colvin, "Why CEOs Fail" (Fortune, June 21, 1999).

[4]. Daryl R. Conner, Managing at the Speed of Change (New York: Random House, 1992).

Here are just a few of the questions that recur in discussions of change management. See Changemaking for more FAQs organized by topic (e.g., managing transitions, dealing with the business impact, making the case for change). Additional questions and answers will be posted from time to time: by all means send your own to us at info@changestart.com.


How do you drive commitment to change?


Be clear not just about your goals, but about the status quo that needs to change. Identify the needs, issues, and gaps to better understand the challenge.

Provide reasons for change, establish the vision as well as the specific objectives, and then ensure that your plans and actions are fully aligned with the vision.

Involve your constituent groups (stakeholders), identify and understand motivations (‘what’s in it for us?’), as well as their questions and concerns.

As you communicate, ensure that messages are closely targeted to your audiences, and that you have built in a feedback loop to test effectiveness and guide corrections.

Identify and provide the needed resources and capabilities; show that you understand the challenges faced by those in the front line of change, and provide needed support.

Lead change respectfully; show empathy.

Seek internal and external feedback, measure results, and reward alignment with change initiatives.


How do you filter out irrelevance, keep it simple, and know what to manage?


Don’t lose sight of ongoing operations and the core business as you focus on the goals of your change management effort; create the vision for the end point and manage within and toward that.

Test every proposal by asking if it will clearly advance you toward the vision; if not, reject the proposed action or plan.

Keep the change effort in perspective and keep it in proportion; continually assess progress and reactions so that you can focus on the issues that matter.

Retain the initiative; stay ahead of rumor and speculation.

Understand the resistance points and address the concerns of the resisters so that they aren’t able to turn minor concerns into major issues.

Listen to and understand the constituencies that believe a change isn’t needed. Do they have a legitimate case? What can be learned from their arguments? Does management need to better understand concerns and issues, and more fully engage those groups?


Describe the metrics that can be used to measure the effectiveness of change.


The actions and outcomes that get measured also get more attention. Develop a scorecard that identifies the goals and desired outcomes, and the metrics you will use to assess results.

Measurements will vary widely depending on the nature and purpose of the change. Financial and quantitative goals are of course readily measurable. The more qualitative objectives call for carefully developed research approaches, including stakeholder surveys. Examples include customer satisfaction; stakeholder understanding of, and commitment to, the mission and vision; attrition/turnover rates; job offer acceptance rates; employee engagement (e.g., commitment to the goal and the team, likelihood to stay, attitudes to leadership); absenteeism; growth rate; profitability; job satisfaction.

Data collection methods include surveys of employees, customers, and other stakeholders; focus groups and interviews; informal assessment in the course of other meetings or discussions; gathering input through online collaboration tools.


How do you communicate change once a decision has been made?


Develop and document the case for the change; create a clear, concise, convincing business rationale.

Adapt communication to the situation/stakeholder, starting with those most affected.

For each group, identify concerns, and what’s in it for them; define the message you want to leave and how it’ll be delivered.

For example, in communicating with employees, a key issue may be job security and professional development. The appropriate focus will be on messages about expanded career opportunities for most, and outplacement/severance packages for the rest. Methods might include team and one-to-one meetings, severance details, online resources and guidance.

Ensure that communication is timely, constant, consistent, complete, and open.


How can you overcome resistance (to change) in a non-receptive organization?


Expect that introducing change will generate resistance; try to channel that energy into developing ideas and tactics by consulting with and engaging those resisting.

Be very clear about the business rationale and the urgency, describing the negative consequences of failure to change.

Support the commitment by ensuring that change-ready and change-committed leaders hold key positions.


How can change be managed in a widely distributed organization (e.g., many small offices distributed over a wide geographic area)?


Web-based communication can bring distributed organizations together in online meetings, calls, and through other collaboration methods.

Ensure that core activities (establishing focus and purpose, engaging people, communicating, building alignment with systems and processes) lay the foundation for successful collaboration.

Support the effort by creating some needed links and relationships. Send individuals or teams to different locations to communicate and listen. Face-to-face connection still carries great impact.

Use conference calls, video, online meetings, social media, and other forums; hold regional meetings where multiple locations can gather.

Ensure that local leaders are engaged, committed, and accountable; and help them to customize the process for the local environment.


How can a mid-level manager, not involved in planning and implementation, adapt to leadership transitions during challenging change?


Be ready to change and change fast; be open and flexible; recognize that change creates opportunities.

Listen to the new leadership and understand their goals and their approach to achieving them. Apply their ideas and process to your own team.

Support the leadership and the goals laid out; if you have concerns and questions, raise them with the change team or your manager—don’t speculate or question the process with your team.

Be sure you understand the vision and direction. Ask questions, and identify obstacles—but also offer solutions.

Forget the past and don’t hold onto old roles that should be changing.


When and how might we use external advisers to support change?


A consultant can bring a wider industry view, another pair of hands, experience with similar changes in other organizations, objectivity, and a framework or approach for managing change.

Clearly define the area of expertise that you need—scope, timing and deliverables.

Advisers can be useful in establishing clarity of purpose, gathering data (e.g., stakeholder research), building systems and plans, and creating communication systems, frameworks, and content.

Ensure that you keep your own team fully engaged; have your own people fully involved so that they learn and develop, and remain committed to the process.

Wherever possible assign internal resources rather than engaging additional consulting team members.

Build an open, effective relationship—make sure that what you see is what you get; define deliverables and clear performance expectations.


Motivating change: How can we stay alert to the need for change, and to opportunities?


Remember that change needs to be continuous to keep pace with developments in markets, customers, technology, the legislative environment, and societal, and other changes.

Look for improvement when things get comfortable and success seems normal.

The idea is not to engage in change for change's sake, but to strive for continuous adaptation and increased readiness.

Build a change-ready, adaptive culture so that when a critical unanticipated threat (or opportunity) arises, the organization is trained and conditioned to respond.

Deploy metrics that recognize and reward continuous improvement; encourage experimentation targeted at improvements; and don’t punish failure of a genuine effort.


How can you approach widespread skepticism or even cynicism about change (“We’ve seen it all before”)?


Be clear about why earlier efforts fell short, including loss of focus, limited resources, lack of clarity, or other primary causes.

Demonstrate that the lessons learned will be applied to avoid the same mistakes and implement a viable plan.

Seek input and guidance from those expressing doubts as a first step to engaging them in the process.

Commit to a robust and fully resourced process; continually evaluate and course-correct; and sustain the effort, including seeking feedback on progress from the skeptics.


Which of the factors in the change framework are the most critical and deserve the closest attention?


They are all important, but there are three factors that in some ways drive all the others: strategic clarity, stakeholder engagement, and sustained communication.

Strategic clarity is the platform on which change planning and execution is built. The sponsor of change needs to express clearly and concisely what’s changing, why and how it’s going to be accomplished.

Engagement of stakeholders is the process through which issues and concerns are identified, ideas are developed and questions are documented. Resistance to change develops from concern, uncertainty, and distraction from those involved and affected.

Effective and sustained communication means listening as well as telling, together with discussion, persuasion, and feedback. It’s a continuing purposeful process, not a single step or action. The typical “e-mail and conference call” approach is almost always far too limited