I do have one question that has plagued us as we have attempted to lead organizational change and that is once we get buy-in and start to make progress, how do we sustain it?
Great question! It seems “Leading Change” (not managing change, because that would be too old school…. OK, now that was sarcasm) is all the rage these days. However, like all things in life, there are to sides to every coin. If you’re dehydrated, a few glasses of water could save your life. However, too much water could drown you.
Same thing with change. One of Edmund Deming’s 14 points was “Create Constancy of Purpose”. In other words, sticking to the plan, or staying the course.
The say the average life span of a senior manager is about three years. I’ve even read it’s as low as six months for CEOs. So, managers are conditioned to start fast, shake things up, drive change, and get quick results. Which is fine – unless you happen to work in one of these hamster wheels, where you’re in a constant state of chaos and nothing ever really gets done. Someone once told me “yeah, a new regime comes in every year and makes all kind of noise about change. You just have to hang the posters, fake it, lay low, and it’ll soon blow over.”
Actually, some of the change models I referenced do address the need to hold the gains. The last two steps of Kotter’s 8 step model are “Build on the Change” and “Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture”. Bridges calls it “reinforcing the new beginning”. A of lot the great books on strategy speak to “sticking to your knitting” and staying “ruthlessly focused”.
With that as a backdrop, here’s 5 ways a leader can “maintain the status” quo during times of change:
1. Grow and retain your own leaders.
In his book “How the Mighty Fall”, Jim Collins talks about how organizations that are in decline (but may not know it) are always looking for the latest hotshot visionary leader to come in and rescue them. It’s one of the signs that an organization is grasping for salvation, his 4th sign of decline. A continuous carousal of leaders is a damn lazy talent management strategy. It’s also expensive, ineffective, and creates constant change for the sake of change. Let’s face it, senior leaders all have big egos, and nothing that the other guy did could have possible been right. So of course it all needs to change.
Instead, organizations would be better off methodically assessing, grooming, developing, and promoting their own talent. Growing your own is always a better bet than buying talent, and with careful succession planning, there’s a better likelihood that change batons will be passed on from leader to leader.
2. Don’t disband the team and declare victory too soon.
Real change takes time to get used to. Remember those front line employees I referenced that have gotten really good at faking it? Don’t be fooled by superficial signs of compliance. A change task force or committee needs to commit to staying together until the change is deeply set in stone. When it’s at the point where you couldn’t get employees to go back to the old way if you tried, then you know it’s embedded in the culture.
Sure, nobody wants to make a lifetime commitment when they sign up for a change project. Membership on a team can change, but the team needs to stay in place. Idea generators and visionaries can gradually be replaced with project managers and doers. Lasting change needs oversight until the change is permanently embedded, and that usually takes years, not months.
3. Leverage your HR systems.
HR systems can be a managerial nuisance or a powerful set of levers to change behavior (I guess you could say the same about government). Take a look at your performance appraisal, hiring and promotion criteria, compensation system, and training programs and make sure they are all supporting and reinforcing the desired change.
4. Inspect what you expect.
Employees are busy, and they often prioritize based on who’s screaming the loudest. When a “mandate” goes out, and then no one takes the time to see if it’s actually implemented, it sends the message that it really doesn’t matter. It’s not a matter of trust; it’s about establishing the expectation that what you have asked for is important – that it matters to you. For those employees who have done what they were supposed to do, it’s an opportunity to praise and reward. Others will appreciate the reminders, and may even learn to manage their own priorities a little better. And what about those chronic offenders? Make sure there are negative consequences that matter to them. The rest of your team will appreciate it.
5. Practice Kiazen (continuous improvement).
Major software programs always have inherent bugs that need fixes, and users are always suggesting ways to make it better. Think of your change in the same way – the first wave is version 1.0. Then, there’s a continuous series of fixes and modifications to keep making it better and better. The “Plan Do Check Act” (PDCA) model for continuous improvement is a circle, not a straight line with and end point.
For high performing companies and leaders, there really is no such thing as a “status quo”. If something hasn’t been recently improved, it’s only because it’s not a high priority for now. But when they do take on a major change, they have the discipline and focus to stick with it and reap the real results. The changes take root and continue to grow, like the giant redwoods.