Just over 325 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton explained to the world why planets orbit the way they do, while rocks stay put unless something moves them. When we look at that today it seems like common sense, but it was anything but “common” in the 1600s. Newton’s first law explained inertia and helped subsequent generations piece together how the universe works.
Inertia, however, seems to apply to a lot more than just physical objects. It can also be observed in people, organizations and processes—and in these instances it’s not such a great thing. But championing change is a hard thing to do, because people naturally have a resistance to change.
Businesses crave predictability. One of the big contributors here is that investors demand it (understandably so). In order to achieve this predictability, they implement policies, processes, methods and controls to help stabilize operations and turn everything into a predictable model.
Companies wink in and out of existence. New essential business practices explode onto the scene. Things that no one was thinking about a decade ago are suddenly white-hot indispensable topics (e.g. social media marketing, product placement, SEO, sustainability, governance). In order to stay competitive, businesses can’t remain static. Organizations have to be open to changing the way they do things, and on a regular basis.
Which means: The single most challenging task most leaders will ever face is leading their cause or their organization in real change.
I’ve observed quite a few change management initiatives fail, and some of them have failed spectacularly. The ones I have seen succeed have shared some common characteristics. While these are not all necessary for every change initiative you may be managing or leading, think of them as best practices to follow.
Here are five ways to lead a successful change management initiative:
1. Sell the need for change by broadcasting a vision.
Change works best when people are on board, and that requires someone to sell a vision. Watching great salespeople at work is a beautiful thing. Why? Because they believe in the product or service, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Sales often gets a bad rap with managers, but the reality is that managers have to constantly be selling. The sooner we make peace with that, the better for all concerned.
It’s the leader’s job to sell stakeholders on the vision, and when it’s done well, it can have a tremendous effect. Successful change management initiatives help people see what’s in it for them. Make your audience the hero of the story.
2. Enlist, deputize and motivate key people.
Going it alone will probably end in heartbreak for you. Do yourself and your organization a favor: Get the right people on the bus. The best people to enlist are the ones with a high interest in the outcome of the change and with a high ability to influence the organization.
Balance this by being careful not to overburden the process with too many decision-makers. I am a believer that the likelihood of reaching consensus decreases by the inverse of the square of the number of participants. For those of you who are not mathematically inclined, just keep the number of actual decision-makers small.
3. Look for low-hanging fruit.
Quick wins that score high value for low effort are great places to begin. Inevitably, people begin to ask themselves, “Why didn’t I do that?” These successes create buzz and momentum. And, this buzz lubricates the machine and lowers the friction against change.
4. Broadcast the successes.
Benjamin Jowett famously said, “The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.” This is quite contrary to today’s shrill self-promoting culture.
I would push this a little further and say that the way to get credit for your accomplishments is by laying down the desire to receive credit, and generously recognizing others’ contributions and successes. Make sure to identify others on your team who have contributed to success, and then genuinely and publicly praise their wins.
5. Systemize new processes around the change.
Have you ever heard the advice that the best way to get over a previous relationship is by beginning a new one? Well, the same thing applies to processes. When you need to retire one process, the best way to respond is by replacing it with a new one.
Whether the change is a new software application, a new department, or simply a new way of doing things, the old way will die hard. But replacing it with a new process helps move things along.
Learning to juggle bowling pins is challenging, but leading change is like juggling while riding a unicycle on a tightrope. Many people never quite get it all right, because it involves orchestrating so many moving parts in concert.
Start small, but don’t be afraid to jump in. Change is going to happen with or without you. It’s best to be in front of it than to be marginalized by it.