What's the Point of Change if it Doesn't Stick?

So, it's now 2012!  Time for New Year's resolutions. And more change.  But how do we make change stick?

The goal of organizational change is to embed a new process, attitude or technology.  That is, make organizational change stick.

You've done the planning, communicating and supported the organization's transition.

As the consultants pack up their bags to move on to their next project, the organization is left holding a set of new workflows, processes, policies and objectives.

How can an organization take these new ways of doing things and make them a permanent part of the culture?  How can it prevent staff from forgetting the new changes?

How can the operation prevent itself from sliding back into the old nasty habits that the organization has very carefully departed from?

Institutionalizing Change Needs to Come First

When it comes to making organizational change stick, different change models refer to the need to make change stick with different terms. Some call it re-freezing (Lewin); others call it anchoring.

What is common among most models is that the process of embedding change is the last step of the change cycle.

Now I know some models are flexible enough, allowing proponents to jump around the process in an iterative fashion.

But, I think it's a mistake to see the process of embedding change as the last step when the change folks pack their bags, pat themselves on the back and head to the exit.

In fact, thinking about how you will embed change should start right at the outset. Â  Not at the end.

Remember, more than 65% of change projects fail.  One key to failure is failing to make the change stick.

How you embed change is a question that needs to hover over every decision you make. As you implement new processes, ask yourself how you will embed these in routines that won't be forgotten.

Every Person is Different and Every Organization is Different

Anyone with an ounce of training in organizational theory knows that teams are made up of people.

And they know that every person in the team is different.  Different motivations, interests, skills, levels of education and so forth.

So, some methods of making change stick will work for some people and not others.

We need to remember that each person is unique and we need to be flexible in our methods, tailoring our methods to work for them.

We also need to remember that the embedded culture of every organization is unique too.

I'm not just talking about the difference between government and commercial organizations, though there are significant differences.  I also mean in terms of different government agencies.

Take a stroll through the Pentagon after walking through the State Department and you'll see what I mean.

Culture is also different from one commercial industry to another.  Walk through a TV station then visit one of the Big 5 accounting practices.  The contrasts are stark.

So, making change stick is not about copying a method and applying it.  It's about knowing your organization's culture, its people and what makes it tick.  It's about using that knowledge to choose the best methods to make change stick.

15 Tips for Making Organizational Change Stick

With that in mind, there are a lot of things that you can do to make change stick.  Here are just fifteen methods that I share in my workshops on change.  They are in no particular order.

  • Maintenance Plan.  Draw up a plan of how the organization will maintain the change.  Want some inspiration?  Look at the service plan for your car.  It identifies things to check every ten thousand miles or so.  Look at your change project and ask what needs to be checked and then write it down with clear instructions that are observable and measurable.  Appoint someone to make sure these are checked and report back to management on the change results.
  • Executive Monitoring 18 months out.  Before the change agents move on to their next project, they should go to the change sponsor and draft an accountability plan that he or she shares with other executives to cascade through the organization.  Make it last eighteen months.  What will they put on their calendar next month, the following month and so on to monitor how people are sticking to change?  And how will they follow it up?  What will they do if nothing has changed?  Plan it.  And make them accountable to the change sponsor.
  • Survey Loops.  Every three months, conduct a survey, series of focus groups, interviews or other techniques to get people in the organization talking about the change and how it's working.  Often if there's a kink in the implementation, this is where you will find it.  The more people talk about the change, the more they reinforce it in their long-term memory.  If you've been in any of my workshops you'll know I'm a big fan of the latest research into cognitive psychology to understand how people develop routines.  This technique of talking dovetails into that theory.
  • Create Awards for Good Work.  If you're changing the way you do things, create a regular award for people to celebrate their success.  Be careful here.  If I'm working for a newspaper, I would get the staff to vote for the award so it's peer choice and then the person getting the award doesn't look like they're sucking up to the boss.  Other organizations may respect senior management awarding the recognition — know your audience so it doesn't backfire.  Understand whose judgment the employees will respect.  Think carefully of what the award will be.  It could be a bottle of wine, a bonus or an additional day of annual leave.
  • Tips & Trick.  If you're implementing a technology change, get the communications team to draw up a series of job aids and self-help tools.  Plan their distribution carefully throughout your project so it doesn't end up in information overload.  Plan the messaging strategically so it's not random but builds on the mental models people are developing and reinforces it.  (Yep, more cognitive psych.)
  • Client Satisfaction Surveys.  If you're implementing change that is meant to have a significant impact on customers, ask them to give you feedback.  Publish the details so everyone involved can see the progress or lack of progress.
  • Cut it off.  Sometimes we are too nice in helping people make a change.  I was at the BBC when a lot of paper processes went digital.  One of those changes was when we were forced (you'll notice how happy I was about this change by my use of the word “forced) to submit expenses electronically.  A great practice but it was a new process that I had to sit down and learn.  I did not start submitting my expenses until the day the bookkeeping folks in Cardiff stopped accepting paper receipts.  If they had brought the cut-off earlier, I would have started doing my expenses electronically earlier.  Sometimes that's all we need to do to get people to follow the new process.  Bring forward the cut-off date.
  • Write change into the job descriptions.  Some organizations are lazy when it comes to job descriptions.  If you are changing how someone does her or his work, re-write the job description to reflect that change.  Yes, if you are in a unionized organization you'll need to consult the unions.  I know this may seem like a burden, but once they agree, that can create momentum and help people to get on board.  Having an updated job description gives you something to hold staff accountable to.  And make sure your changes are incorporated in new employee orientation programs.  Set expectations up from the outset.
  • Merchandise.  Print postcards and posters to reinforce your change.  If you're changing to a new software process, print the steps people need to follow on a mouse mat so they see the new steps every time they look at their desk.  Avoid the superficial printed mugs and pencils and look for merchandise that's helpful such as cheat sheets printed on business cards people can carry in their pocket or wallet.
  • Management Support.  As a change agent, you'll be run off your feet.  You'll be fighting fires, making tweaks to implementation plans, briefing executives and answering questions from disgruntled employees.  One area of serious concern will be the ability of your managers to keep momentum with their deadlines and deliverables while implementing changes.  They will also bear much of the angst from the staff.  So prepare them to understand change and manage it.  Run some workshops and help them learn about change, what it involves, how people deal with it and how they can support their staff as they both lead change in their teams and keep their operation going.  This will save you considerable time and help navigate staff away from the problems of change and keep them on track.  The more they manage the change process well, the more space you have to embed the change.
  • Update Policies & Procedures.  Here's an obvious but often forgotten task.  Make sure you reflect the change in new policies.  Some organizations have so many outdated policies in their policy manual it becomes confusing.  Out-of-date policy manuals give people an excuse not to adopt change.  Don't give a naysayer an opportunity to say, “Gee I didn't realize we had to follow this yet, or come back to you with, “But the policy says X so what do I follow?
  • Align Incentives to Change.  Here's a hot potato.  Some people think this is a good idea while others don't.  The thought is that you can link people's annual performance review and bonus to how they implement change.  The reason some folks baulk at this is they think giving a bonus for adopting change is saying that it's an additional part of the job and it should not be.  With this one, see what works for your organizational culture.
  • Celebrate your successes.  If you've done any of my change workshops, you'll know I don't like the project management term, “milestones.  Instead, I call them “champagne moments because they are successes that should be celebrated in a way appropriate to the size of the achievement and the organizational culture.  Make sure everyone knows of each success.  One newspaper I worked with tripled the number of people coming to its website after our work there.  Guess what?  They talked about it, celebrated it and made sure their progress didn't recede into the background.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Keep everyone involved in the change process up-to-date on how the process is going.  That means, keeping people aware of the goals, how far you are to reaching them and then being honest about both the successes and failures.  Remember that communication is not only about talking.  It's also as much about listening.  It's a two-way process.  So listen to feedback from stakeholders.  Show them you are listening and either implement their suggestions or explain why you won't.  Be strategic with information — avoid information dumps and be strategic so people get only the info they want or need and don't need to sift through lots of useless information.
  • Take a Breath and Exercise Discipline.  Some of the biggest mistakes I've made in leading change have been taking too long to read someone the riot act.  Change management is a tender balance between people management and project management.  Sometimes the people management folks (like me) are too busy trying to help people through change.  This is important for many people because change is hard and we need to be sensitive to how individuals go through the process to ensure the change is deeply rooted.  However, some people take advantage of this extra support.  These people are like cancer.  The longer you let them get away with not adopting your new processes, the further their negativity and malevolent influence seeps into your organization and spreads.  And the more work you have at convincing other people to come on board who otherwise may have been less resistant.  Confront these people who take advantage of the support you provide.  Believe me, many will respect you for an open conversation and begrudgingly follow the game plan.  However, not all will.  If they continue to be a problem, talk to HR to see how you can manage them out.  It will cost you less time and money in the long run to address this than wait for it to grow into a bigger problem further on that takes more time, energy and resources to solve.  And frankly, you don't want one bad apple to sink your change initiative.
Making it Stick

There are many more things you can do to embed change.  You need to implement methods that fit your organizational culture.  And you need to be sure they are appropriate for the individuals.

If you're following one of the many change models that put institutionalizing change at the end of their process, be a radical and start thinking of it when you begin.

If you leave it to the end, it will be harder work.  If you start implementing techniques to make it stick right at the beginning of the process, it will be much easier to make everything stick.