6 lessons for successful change implementation

Posted by Audra Proctor


In our 20+ years experience as change management experts we've heard a lot from our practitioner clients about what they have learned as they begin their change projects. We thought it would be a great idea to see if there were any patterns and consistencies. And, of course there were. We hope you find them useful in your own work.

Lesson #1: Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it

This is very true for major change projects. We tend to slip into well-worn patterns of implementation. Often, we use a limited number of tools that fit our comfort zone. Most practitioners find that a key early step in any change project is to analyze how previous changes were implemented and what worked or didn’t work. Also, this analysis will tell you how confident people are that the change will be implemented. Many of our clients use our Initiative Legacy Assessment to complete this analysis and use the information with project and steering teams to shape the way the implementation needs to be architected.

Lesson #2: It’s easy to let the imperative become diluted

Urgency and resolve is very important in change. When you train people there is a ready intellectual recognition that we call the Imperative which is essential alongside a clear picture of the future. The issue is when people leave and begin to work with sponsors, they find this harder to put into practice. Often the imperative statements become weakened as sponsors push back on agents. Strong imperatives can make them feel uncomfortable and that it’s all a bit too personal. Practitioners early learning is often that they have allowed the imperative to become weakened and then it gets very difficult as the project gets underway to create the type of resolve that’s necessary.Lesson


Lesson #3: Agents can’t be sponsors

We see some agents who believe that through their new found skills and with a bit of courage that they can drive change projects more or less on their own. Occasionally they tell us that they can’t get their sponsors to devote the time and by the way their sponsor is not the best change leader anyway. Now from time to time they can pull this off. They do somehow get the change implemented. But for the majority the old change saying of ‘pay now or pay later’ turns out be true. Their inability to create a strong coalition of sponsors – early in the project lifecycle - turns out to be their undoing.


Lesson #4: Engagement is time consuming but not so time consuming as trying to implement change with unengaged managers and employees.

Studies have connected high levels of employee engagement to better organizational performance with highly engaged employees found to perform 20% better and were 87% less likely to leave the organization. But specifically, on change projects the ability to really engage people early in the lifecycle is critical. Just telling people is rarely successful. People are far more likely to adopt a process that they had a part in designing, whether its warehouse staff designing their own implementation program, sales people designing a CRM roll-out, cross-functional teams re-designing business processes or junior executives analyzing what went wrong. Control matters to people, and besides, two heads, or more, are always better than one. Our clients find that an investment in engagement creates far greater ownership and control. The tactics they devise to get the permission to proceed and then make the engagement successful are critical.

Lesson #5: It’s not the money; it’s the recognition

Most change initiatives require extra effort from people and conventional wisdom would sometimes say that “the way to a person’s heart is through their wallet”. We find that many change agents when they first start assume they will need substantial bonuses or incentives to change people’s behavior. However, it is often the small, unexpected awards that can have a very positive effect. Some examples of what we have seen succeed in the past include handwritten letters from the CEO, impromptu celebrations, personalized gift tokens, thanks in public forums and small gifts sent to spouses or partners to recognize that project team members had been working 16-hour days. These items of recognition will often exceed people’s expectations, feel appropriate, seem personal to them and agents find out you can be very successful when you “pleasantly surprise people.” Video: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us by Dan Pink


Lesson # 6: Middle managers are the key to success

Middle managers are often cited as one of the major barriers to successful change. And, sometimes they are. The problem is we have often alienated them. Instead of trying to involve middle and front-line management and getting people on side with the change; instead of asking their opinion and getting key people in that group to help design the solution or give feedback on implementation strategies, line managers are often bypassed as change is announced to everyone at the same time. Many agents learn that they need to find ways of treating these managers as people who need to become convinced of the need for change. Once that happens, they can help the agents by convincing their own people. Somehow agents learn they need to move managers from being impediments to change to accelerators of change success.


So there you have it, six lessons we've learnt from our clients over the years. We always think of change agents learning as they go. They learn from both successes and failures. They try things and fail but they learn from that, modify their approach and try again by incorporating their experiences. Hopefully these six lessons will give you some food for thought.


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Tags: engagement, successful change implementation, change practitioner, agile change management, change planning, starting a change project

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