How Executives Help Sustain Organizational Change

By Joseph Krause

how-executives-help-sustain-organizational-change

How Executives Help Sustain Organizational Change

As a leader in your organization, you understand the “big two” of successful plan execution: 1. Reliable, effective plan formulation, and 2. An established execution process.

However, as you cruise through thought capital blogs to find the reason why your organization’s results are still less than ideal, how often do you read about the third element of successful plan execution – sustainment?

I’ve been thinking lately about what happens after you’ve effectively executed your strategy. How do you sustain the change you’ve created so that you don’t slip back into old habits? You might achieve your short-term goals, but without a plan for operationalizing those newly formed habits and processes that earned results, how do you suspect your metrics will look a year later?

The more I research the topic of sustaining organizational change, the more it seems like many organizations struggle with this very issue.

As it turns out, the key to sustaining process change that produces results is a little squishier than I’d imagined. And it all falls on the shoulders of the exec to set the tone for sustaining success for the rest of the organization.

The Role of Process, Discipline, and Resources in Sustaining Change

Yes, process, discipline, and resources are important. However, even with all the resources in the world and strict process discipline, sustaining change is still a challenge.

I would compare the idea of strategy sustainment to one most people can relate to – weight loss. Many of us, at some point, have taken up a healthier lifestyle and saw the results when we stepped on the scale. You probably had a goal weight or body fat percentage in mind and, through hard work, you hit your number.

Unfortunately, after hitting that goal, it’s likely that 6 months after reaching your goal, you’ve gained weight back. This is a known phenomenon.

In an interesting article published by the New York Times in 2016, they took a look at contestants from “The Biggest Loser.” Research showed that the majority of the people on the show gained their weight back. Sustained change is hard. In this instance, there are complicated contributing factors such as metabolism and other biological circumstances, but ultimately, the habits that were formed with lots of resources and strict discipline in order to reach that initial goal were not sustained after that first successful weigh-in.

The core of this issue impacts businesses every day. But there is a way we can break the cycle.

How did we get here?

Recalibrate Your Thinking About Failure

In an excellent article published in HBR, “Stop Using the Excuse Organizational Change Is Hard,” Nick Tasler contends that our brains are already wired to think about failure.

He says that, “we assume that failure is a more likely outcome than success, and, as a result, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as flukes and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is difficult.

Does this sound familiar? I’m sure each of you can point to a bevy of examples where you chalked up a success as a fluke and a failure as inevitable. We could even call back to the statistic that’s ingrained in all of us that says 70% of all change initiatives fail.

Does this failure have anything to do with how we define success?

Yes. It’s a “chicken or the egg” argument, but it comes down to mindset.

Tasler proceeds to discuss a change management study conducted by McKinsey where they found, “A third of executives believed that their change initiatives were total successes, and another third believed that their change initiatives were more successful than unsuccessful.” But only “about one in ten admit to having been involved in a transformation that was ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ unsuccessful.”

Therefore, pointing to the McKinsey study as evidence for a 70% change initiative implementation failure rate is like saying that every time a baseball player steps up to the plate and doesn’t hit a home run, that player has “failed.”

But that isn’t true in baseball any more than it is true in organizations. The McKinsey results show that around 60% of change initiatives are somewhere between a base-hit and a home run, and only 1 in 10 are strikeouts.

Even if you’re not hitting it out of the park, your change initiatives could still be successful, if you define success as improvement. And if you set your mind to focus on seeing any improvement as the absence of failure, you could set your organization up for greater success in implementing change initiatives that work longterm.

Your team will look to you, their leader, to set the tone for success, and your chances of sustaining change will reflect that positivity.

The Key to Sustainment: A Mindset for Expecting Success

It all comes down to mindset.

In a study conducted by the University of Chicago, “researchers reminded study participants how most people do in fact successfully improve with a little bit of effort. In this study, the results were exactly opposite: study participants were quicker to notice changes for the better rather than changes for the worse. By priming people with a simple fact about the high probability of successful change, the researchers completely eliminated the negative bias.”

Think about this for a moment.

Simply reminding your stakeholders that successful change is possible, and then shouting their successes from the rooftops can redefine your entire process.

One of the crucial 4 Drivers of Execution we’ve defined is visibility. If you see change happening, communicate what you’re seeing. Create a forum where incremental improvement is shared and celebrated as success. Positive momentum is contagious and that can help executives lead the way in sustaining any strategy you choose to execute.