The only constant is change, especially in this competitive business landscape. In my career, I’ve overseen, consulted or implemented hundreds (not an exaggeration) of change efforts. Some have been more successful than others. Even though we’re just hearing more about it now, surprisingly, change management has been a recognized discipline for 30 years. And for 30 years, studies have consistently shown that 60 to 70 percent of organizational change projects fail.
Why are we (leaders, HR professionals and employees) bad at managing change? Why is it so hard to manage, implement, adopt and sustain change? As a change practitioner, I’ve beat my head against the wall trying to figure it out time and time again. This head-beating includes reviewing lessons learned, which I’m sure most of you can relate to. The funny part is that we’re not really learning from the lessons learned, because that would require change management, too!
As I reflected on my hundreds of organizational projects and initiatives, it hit me square in the face: There are two silent killers of change adoption. Just because we manage the change doesn’t mean the change will be adopted and sustained.
Silent Killer #1: Getting Comfortable
We know that change is constant and that to grow, we have to change, but what’s the hang-up? It’s comfort and complacency. Humans crave routine and love familiarity. Change forces us to get out of our comfort zone and do something different. Wanting to stay in that comfort zone is a silent killer of change efforts.
We underestimate the difficulty of driving people out of their comfort zones. During change efforts, the number one focus is often “telling” people about the change. We create training, send emails and conduct presentations and call it change management. We must go a step further. To truly attain change adoption and sustainment, the change strategies must be systematic and account for human behavior.
To truly drive your people out of their comfort zones, add the following to your change management tactics:
- Communicate the same message using five to 10 different mediums (email, video, intranet, company meeting, team meeting, one-on-one meeting, printed notes, etc.).
- Segment communications and training based on users.
- Promote the change where it’s going to happen (i.e., conference rooms, break rooms, desks, within the software with popups, etc.).
- Make it a game or contest with monetary or non-monetary rewards.
Silent Killer #2: Happy Talk
“Happy talk” is the result of too much success or the perception of it. While it’s important to cultivate a positive work environment, it’s just as important to address issues and problems head-on. When employees can’t see or feel a problem, they won’t change – or if they do, they’ll do it kicking and screaming.
Let’s use an example of something most of us have tried to change at some point: our weight. Let’s say you go to the doctor, and she says, “You look great, and your vitals are good. You’re slightly overweight, but that’s OK. If you gain 10 more pounds, then we’ll do something about it.” What’s your takeaway from a doctor visit like that? You think, “I’m healthy. I could lose some weight, but I’m good. Doc said so.”
This response is exactly how employees process change efforts. If leaders consistently focus on how great everything is and that numbers are at an all-time high, employees are confused when there are cost containment initiatives, layoffs or pay freezes. The continuous happy talk diminishes the sense of urgency that should exist for any change effort.
For example, had your doctor noted that numbers were off, you were pre-diabetic and you were two points away from suffering hypertension, it would have prompted you to take action. You’d think twice about eating a donut or skipping a workout.
The second scenario creates a sense of urgency. It conveys that change needs to happen now. The same holds true for organizations. Transparency is key in change efforts so that your employees always know what’s at stake.
What do you do if there’s no real urgency? What if you just see an opportunity to improve? You need to create a sense of urgency, because if you don’t, your change efforts will consistently fall into the 60- to 70-percent failure rate.
Why not be among the 30 to 40 percent of organizations that do change right? You can easily jump to the positive side of change management by investing the time up front, giving change management its proper respect (most leaders feel it’s just a “nice-to-have”) and involving the people whom the change will impact.
Change management is simply helping your people to grow and become more efficient and effective. It takes thought and foresight to get them there.