Deliberate change management is hard, very hard. The familiar saying, “Change is easy -- you go first,” reflects the ambiguous feeling most of us have toward leaving behind our tried and true behaviors.
It's also the sentiment that explains why over 75 percent of culture-change efforts fail, despite the good intentions that typically accompany those efforts.
Indeed, many culture-change initiatives start out with compelling rationales, committed leaders and zealous launches, only to have the wheels come off the wagon before promise can yield payoff. When great starts have poor endings, change pioneers are left disappointed, hard-working organizers disheartened and skeptics certain they now have proof they were correct all along.
But at other times, change efforts can be salvaged: Spotting derailment hazards quickly and taking steps to counter their influence can mean the difference between simply a great intention and a superior impact.
The lessons learned from the successful change-effort versus the unsuccessful one can also be instructive, especially to entrepreneurs eager for a return on their emotional and economic investments. Below are some of the more menacing hazards that can wreck a well-intentioned change effort.
1. The appeal of tactic overcomes the power of strategy.
Culture change requires a compelling vision and a clear set of strategies. It also takes concrete tactics. A vision is the picture of the destination, strategies are the major areas of concentration that must be coordinated and managed and tactics are the myriad of actions needed to implement a particular strategy.
Tactics are vital; they're also seductive. When executors become too enamored with tactics, they can lose sight of their original vision and strategies. They can wind up being highly efficient (doing things right) or highly ineffective (doing the wrong things).
Culture-change champions, meanwhile, who have a map and a compass focused on what can be will likely trump culture-change mechanics with a wrench repairing what is.
2. The critically urgent erases the long-term necessary.
“When you are up to your backside in alligators,” goes the oft-quoted line, “it is hard to remember you were there to drain the swamp.”
Organizations under pressure are fraught with alligators, aka those seemingly never-ceasing crises that keep leaders up at night. But, if all your energy goes into simply fighting alligators, there will always be alligators. Culture change is more about focusing on the source, not the symptom; on the cause, not the contest.
Focusing on the critically urgent is enticing because it is easy to see immediate results. However, the illusion of advancement is far worse than none at all. Unless the leader sees a link between “alligator fighting” and “swamp drainage,” he or she is likely to remain in a maintenance mode, and ultimately little will change.
3. Elegant plans convince us change is in the works.
Three turtles are sitting on a log in the edge of the swamp. One decides to jump in. How many are now on the log? Nope, not two; there are still three -- because deciding and doing are not the same thing. Until you execute, all decisions are just plain old intentions.
Execution -- putting some skin in the game -- is the true test of commitment. “I believe, I support, I approve” are all just weasel words unless coupled with a visible demonstration. All that planning and preparing is “just getting ready to.” Plans, no matter how elegant and well charted, are simply maps of a journey that's yet to be taken.
4. The familiar and comfortable rule the new and awkward.
Leaders sometimes achieve their roles through competencies other than superior leadership. While there are obviously administrative and process-management aspects to all culture-change efforts, the core of success comes from the effectiveness of leaders at inspiring, modeling, coaching, affirming and communicating with people.
Consequently, any change effort requires all leaders to engage in behaviors that for some may not be not their best strengths. Leaders naturally want to demonstrate competence to their associates. Their self-esteem can sometimes cause them to be hesitant to rely on behaviors that are awkward.
5. Naysayers have more proof than visionaries.
Culture change is disruptive for everyone -- employees and customers alike. After all, change implies “doing things a different way.” And employees do not fast-forward from novice to master; there is an inevitable learning curve. What's more, old ways can die hard -- for employees and for customers.
Even if the old way has been a negative to customers, they have learned to deal with it. They can also harbor some of the same cynicisms as employees and may actually work to sabotage change efforts. All of this provides cynics and naysayers with clear and present evidence that they were right to resist.
6. Entrepreneurs get tired before they get change.
Culture change is hard work, requiring enormous patience. Many leaders are by nature impatient people who want drive-by culture change, produced with the snap of a finger and completed by the end of the week. Some want drive-by culture change. But, culture change takes a long time, because it is complex and disruptive.
Culture change also involves unlearning old habits and acquiring new ways of thinking and behaving. To get people to abandon their old ways and embrace new ones cannot be accomplished through an edict or “to all employees” memo. And, the larger the organization and the more dispersed the employees, the more challenging and time-consuming the change effort.
So, what’s a change ally to do?
What then separates the culture-change winners from those that drop out of the race? Winning starts with a clear, compelling vision that is used both as the anchor for judgments and the lens for alignment. It requires strategies that, like pieces of a puzzle, fit together to ensure an aligned, coordinated management of divergent efforts toward a common end. And, it takes tactics that support the strategies and contribute to the vision.
It also requires the active participation of those impacted; substantive and continuous communications; alignment of core processes and practices so they “fit” the new vision; and the selection, on-boarding and coaching of employees with the goal of ensuring consistent performance in harmony with the vision.
But, the real make-or-break component is leaders who demonstrate congruence, consistency and courage. Congruence means leader actions are in sync with the culture-change vision. Consistency suggests leaders stay the course rather than simply engage in superficial pap and shallow pomp.
Courage involves defying the skeptics by taking bold forward steps that depart from the more comfortable past. It means championing the vision even in the face of temporary setbacks and defeats.