My favourite line from President-Elect Joe Biden’s November 7 acceptance speech following the American election is this one, on the refusal over the last few years of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another: “It’s not some mysterious force beyond our control,” he declared, “It’s a decision, a choice. So if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.”
I relate so well to this, as in my consulting work I share just such sentiments with some of the clients I support as they embark on change management initiatives designed to bring their people together by promoting higher trust and collaboration among them, between levels and between departments.
The conventional wisdom is that undergoing change is a long hard journey filled with disappointing setbacks, where few actually reach their desired destination. It’s like pushing a big rock up a steep hill, the strugglers sigh, knowing that if ever they lose their grip the rock will slide back and crush them… the most likely outcome.
I am among those who quote Prof John Kotter’s research, which showed that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. Not surprisingly, such statistics discourage organisations from even having a go. “Why waste our time and money, when things are as they are and cannot be changed?” they ask.
And yet. And yet. What about the 30 per cent of change initiatives that do succeed? What do they have in common? Kotter guided us with his renowned 8 Steps to Change, about which I wrote a column a few years ago, and through my experience with many organisations I too have learned much about common success factors.
Guess what? Everything is to do with leadership. And needless to say, starting with the top leadership: the board, the CEO, the senior management team. So the first question to ask is where are they? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem? And if the former, how strategic and ongoing, how authentic and influential, is the role they are prepared to play?
Will they merely have their HR person put some event together, show up at the opening and then let their people get on with it – with some unfortunate facilitator expected to wave a magic wand that will transform the expectations? Will there be robust follow up, with specific actions, impact indicators and so forth, to ensure the desired changes are taking place? Or does everyone just get back to work and keep on doing what they’ve always done, allowing the memory of the change management commitments to fade away?
Most importantly, how ambitious is the leadership for significant and sustainable change? How confident and bold are the leaders? How skilled in inspiring their teams to assume that change is indeed possible? Key to success is one of Kotter’s eight steps: ensuring there are enough “quick wins”, to stimulate a sense of hope and optimism, and to dilute the natural skepticism, maybe even cynicism.
For in too many cases it will not have been the first attempt at such change management. Previous initiatives had also promised much, and yet failed to deliver. Would this one also fall flat on its face?
I’m with Biden: it’s a decision. It’s a choice. If you don’t actively decide it will succeed this time then it will not. Not succeeding is the most likely outcome. But not the inevitable one. For sure the ones who most need to change may well be the ones least likely to, so again turning to Kotter it is vital to gather a “coalition of the willing”, of bold individuals who while preparing for the worst will hope for the best and show the way to other more timid and unconvinced folk.
Among role models, positive behaviour sometimes has to be one step ahead of natural feelings of doubt, hoping that subsequently such behaviour will in turn influence feelings for the better. These stronger characters are the ones to lead change, the ones to make all that pushing of stones up hills worthwhile, the ones who won’t worry about mysterious forces beyond their control preventing them from succeeding.