Ask five thought leaders their recipe for change success, and you’ll probably get five different answers.
Ask five executives what they did right on their most successful transformation, and you might get five other answers.
Major change is challenging, but there’s also little agreement on the most critical success factor. Some say mindset is the most important; others say culture. We can debate the merits of top-down versus participatory approaches to change, or whether soft factors (leadership, culture and motivation) are more important than hard factors (governance, data and resources).
But while we might struggle to reach a consensus on the one thing that influences success, we can all agree on this: there’s no substitute for timely, effective, repeated, heartfelt and transparent communication from executives direct to their people.
Unfortunately, it’s one thing that many change projects don’t do very well.
Instead, project teams rely on lots of emails and presentations written to and for senior leaders, expecting leaders to “cascade” them to their teams.
Is the project team writing (and delivering) all the communications?
What happens? Maybe a cursory forward of a PowerPoint deck, with little discussion, context, or explanation of what it means for the team specifically.
Or, because the deck is in corporate-speak and the leader is reluctant to share it, or he suspects the change will be unpopular, he doesn’t share it.
Are important messages getting “stuck” at the leader level?
“By communicating too late or inconsistently, senior executives end up alienating the people who are most affected by the changes,” write the authors of the “The Hard Side of Change Management,” an oldie but a goodie initially published in the Harvard Business Review in 2005.
“It’s surprising how often something senior executives believe is a good thing is seen by staff as a bad thing, or a message that senior executives think is perfectly clear is misunderstood.”
What about when change is unpopular?
It also happens that leaders can resist backing initiatives that are perceived as unpopular, so they stay quiet about it.
This is understandable: we all want to be liked and admired; no one wants to deliver bad news.
Unfortunately, if executives don’t communicate the need for change—over and over—and what it means for employees, they endanger the project’s success.
A safety-focused company was changing how work was performed on its network. Instead of simply doing what they thought was best, managers would have to plan access ahead of time and fill out forms explaining what was to be done.
Leaders thought this was good because it created governance, transparency and thoughtful planning of a risky process: people performing maintenance or critical repairs on a live network.
But it was unpopular because it was perceived as administratively burdensome.
Instead of leaning into the imperative, or the why—there are too many injuries and near misses, and we need to get better—leaders resisted talking about the new process.
Unfortunately, this silence created an echo chamber in which frustration bounced around and grew louder. The project team felt like poster children for something disliked, so they didn’t want to talk about it either.
Because the why was lost, no one bought into the new process. The company achieved a level of compliance but not its actual goal—commitment to a new way of working that keeps people safe.
Don’t just communicate—do it consistently
It’s not enough to just communicate. Executives need to communicate consistently, particularly on delicate matters.
In “The Hard Side of Change Management,” the authors describe a project with low staff commitment because of a subtle but essential difference in what leaders said. Employees had become confused and distrustful when one senior manager said, “Layoffs will not occur,” whereas another said, “Layoffs are not expected to occur.”
Are your leaders describing the change differently? This can create confusion and mistrust.
To mitigate this risk, we recommend that every project has an agreed elevator speech that’s conversational, easy to deliver and easy to remember.
The senior executive sponsoring the change and their direct reports need to know it, understand it, and deliver it consistently—again and again.
Every change needs an elevator speech: short, sharp, and easy to say, remember and share.
Leaders also need to check for understanding and reactions to the elevator speech so that messages can be tweaked if they’re not hitting the mark, and support tactics can be planned for employees struggling to understand or accept the change.
How much is too much?
What about “over-communicating?” Is that a risk?
Maybe. But there’s probably something else going on.
A master’s student in a program I ran at Deakin University said it perfectly: the problem isn’t that we’re overcommunicating; our communications aren’t hitting the mark.
Maybe the channels aren’t right (too many emails?), the spokespeople aren’t confident or credible, or the message isn’t simple enough. (Project communications can be overly complex, in my experience.)
Too many project communications—or too much of the same (emails)?
Under-communicating is undoubtedly a more significant risk than over-communicating.
An ASX top 20 company was undertaking a significant safety initiative. Everyone, no matter the role – whether in corporate headquarters or a traffic control room – was responsible for looking out for and reporting safety hazards and risks.
Across the company, managers started every gathering, from team meetings to town halls, with a safety moment: are there any exposed cords on the floor? Are any of those glasses chipped?
Anecdotally I heard that some managers felt they were overcommunicating. (Another safety moment, really?) Still, it was effectively drummed into people through frequent messaging and role modelling: safety is everyone’s responsibility.
I worked at that company, and gradually, over time, I saw people waiting for the red light to cross outside the office, walking on the correct side of the stairs, and fewer exposed cords in meeting rooms.
Here’s a rule of thumb for executives and change agents, again from the “The Hard Side of Change Management”: when you feel you’re talking up a change at least three times more than you need to, people will probably think that you’re backing it.
Is there a single, most critical success factor?
Back to the opening salvo. Everyone in this business has an opinion on what’s most important, so what’s ours?
We don’t think there’s one critical success factor that makes or breaks a change. We believe there are six important ones:
- Shared change purpose
- Effective change leadership
- Powerful engagement processes (communications is one of these)
- Committed local sponsors
- Strong personal connection
- Sustained personal performance
These critical success factors are named for the business outcomes we’re seeking. Put them together, and you get our change management methodology, People-Centred Implementation (PCI®)—which you can learn in one of our change management courses.
Over to you! What do you think are the most critical success factors for organisational change?