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  • Writer's pictureKashan Awais

Creating a Remarkable Impact – How Long is it Going to Last?

Creating and implementing change in an organization is a formidable undertaking. A lot has been written about this subject in management literature. Many, if not most, of the change efforts fall short of expectations of their architects owing to a multitude of reasons. While these failures or sub-par results occur at different stages in the change process, in this blog we will examine the one where the endeavour does bring some notable improvements but only temporarily. The reason why it is important to examine this scenario is that it creates a false sense of success and has a strong potential of throwing all the efforts and resources down the drain without the management even realizing until it is too late. John P Kotter has comprehensively defined eight steps towards organizational change and has identified associated errors. These eight steps include creating a sense of urgency, forming a guiding coalition, creating a vision, communicating the vision, empowering stakeholders, celebrating short-term wins, consolidating improvements, and institutionalizing change. Dr. Céline Bareil’s change model CAPTE (the French acronym can be translated into English as Understand, Engage, Participate, Transform and Evolve) also outlines the stages of a successful change initiative. Both these models define some key themes which, if not managed carefully, can result in an impact that could look impressive but can turn out to be like a footprint in beach sand.

Lack of Executive Support

If a change initiative bears results in the short run, it indicates that there was a clear vision behind change and the endeavour was successfully executed, or else the effort would have failed before it could deliver any notable results. The fact that the change did not sustain can primarily result from the absence or lack of enough support from the executive leadership. If the nature of change is such that sustaining it requires material or support resources on a permanent or long-term basis, lack of executive level support will deprive the initiative of the legitimacy that is required for access to these resources. If the initiative were the brainchild of a functional leader in middle management, he or she could very well make it happen through their powerful vision and the support they were able to muster through their personal influence, networking or charisma. Providing the initiative with needed resources on a long-term basis requires the authority that only an executive leader can provide.

Lack of Active Engagement

Despite how counterintuitive it may seem, lack of active participation and engagement is a common cause of failure of change initiatives. We all have seen executives who are fully cognizant of the need for change and are genuinely passionate about the idea, but are extremely insecure about and reluctant in letting the relevant stakeholders participate in the process. Involving the appropriate stakeholders in the change process has psychological implications. Their participation gives them a sense of ownership, and once they have this sense of attachment with the vision and the process, they would make every possible effort to make it a success. On the contrary, if they see change as something that is imposed on them externally, not only will they be resistant to change, they may even actively try to thwart it.

Active participation of the recipients of change is key to the success of the change initiative. Now, by participation it does not mean that an accountant should try writing programming code for the new accounting software. Rather what it means is that all relevant stakeholders in a change process should be involved in planning and executing the initiative to the degree that is relevant to their roles and skills. If a change initiative is backed by a strong vision and has enough executive support but is planned and executed by someone other than the stakeholders who are going to be the impacted by change, albeit a highly skilled individual or team (an external consulting team, an off-the-shelf / custom solution vendor, etc.), the chances of that change successfully sustaining are pretty slim.

Failure to Celebrate Wins

The importance of celebrating successes has been emphasized in various change models (such as those of Kurt Lewin, John Kotter and Prosci ®), and rightly so, because celebration is closely linked to recognition. If a team of stakeholders puts in their best efforts and tons of energy in a change initiative that results in a desired impact, it would be a great injustice if due recognition is not given to the participants. Failure to celebrate a success in a change initiative is tantamount to brushing off all the effort as something that was just supposed to be that way, just like napkins with a dinner plate. Lack of recognition and acknowledgment of good work kills the drive to put in any more effort. If an individual or a team does not get recognition for all the hard work they did, a certain psychological response would be, ‘why bother?’, and the change will of course not sustain.

Another mindset of the leaders behind not celebrating successes is that they constantly want better from their teams, they always have new goals that need to be achieved, they have a new horizon to reach. Whatever thinking is behind not celebrating successes or recognizing efforts put in a change initiative, it most certainly torpedoes any chances of sustainability of that change.

Declaring Success Too Soon

In a way this is the flip side of the factor discussed above and is one of the reasons of failures of change efforts as described by Kotter. If a change initiative is complex in nature and large in scope, it is not uncommon to break down the whole program into smaller projects. While the importance of celebrating short term wins cannot be emphasized enough, the achievement of a milestone should not give a semblance of the overall success, which will be achieved only after individual improvements have been consolidated into the larger change. A false perception of victory may lead to disillusionment among stakeholders and could hamper the sustainability of change.

Lack of Enabling Resources

The stage of transformation or transition in Dr. Bareil’s change model (CAPTE) describes the importance of availability of resources, such as training, reliable infrastructure, technical support, etc., that are imperative in order to finally evolve into and sustain the desired state. Even if the pilot project proves to be a success due a variety of factors, such as continuous on-site availability of experts, availability of required resources from different functions across the organization, high level of executive interest, access to expertise of external change agents, etc., if the resources are not made available throughout the transition phase in order to ensure transfer of ownership to the recipients of change, the impact will not last for too long. While this particular pitfall can be closely associated with that of lack of executive support, other causes include unpredictable environmental changes, rapidly shifting priorities forcing re-allocation of resources, actual limited availability of resources to the organization, etc.

Cultural Misalignment

One time implementation of a change initiative is only half the job, the other half is ensuring sustainability of the impact achieved after the test run or pilot project. The sustainability of change depends on how effectively the change is institutionalized. Other than the tangible factor of resource availability, an extremely important but intangible element is organizational culture. If a change initiative is undertaken due to environmental pressures, industry trends, technological innovation, changes in legislation and compliance requirements, etc., but the culture within the organization does not support change, chances are that the impact of the initiative will be short-lived. Traits of a culture debilitating change could include strict adherence to set procedures, belief in ‘only one right way of doing things’, rigid commitment to the vision of its founding fathers, say, from more than a century ago (if that vision is irrelevant in today’s world), discouragement of new ideas, etc. If an organization’s culture has these traits and wants to successfully implement change, its leaders will have to reframe the organizational culture. Change cannot be sustained for long unless it is anchored into the organizational culture.

This was a brief overview of some major causes that lead to the impact of a change initiative fizz out soon. Please do write to us or add your experiences and observations in the comments section so that readers can benefit from your knowledge and can better gear up to successfully implement long-lasting change in their organizations.

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