When I teach classes on leadership skills, one of the topics that attendees always want to discuss is how to successfully lead change efforts. A 2013 study by the respected Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that “rapid organizational change is the No. 2 leadership development challenge in the next two to five years.” But CCL also reports that “studies consistently show between 50 and 70% of planned change efforts fail.” So what are the key things that leaders must address in order to beat the odds and effectively navigate their people and organizations through change?
There are some thought leaders that do a great job of answering this question: John Kotter, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of Leading Change, and Chip and Dan Heath, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Senior Fellow in social entrepreneurship at Duke University, respectively, and authors of Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard. In both books, the authors agree that to successfully lead change, you must recognize that people have two perspectives toward change: analysis, or through their minds; and feelings, or through their hearts. To implement change, you must address both.
In fact, John Kotter says in The Heart of Change that the emotional aspect is even more important: “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” He gives a great example of a CEO whose factories were negotiating individual contracts with different suppliers on gloves the employees needed to wear, to wide variation: $5 a pair at one factory, $17 a pair at another. He could have presented a spreadsheet-based cost analysis to justify the need to homogenize his company’s purchasing process to save money. Instead, he had an intern collect a pair of the gloves ordered by each factory (424 kinds), and tag each pair with the price. The CEO called a meeting with the division presidents and dumped the box of gloves onto the boardroom table. The response was gaping mouths, incredulous at the inefficiency and waste in buying identical gloves marked with wildly different prices, from hundreds of suppliers. While more research and structured process followed to support the change, the visceral response provoked by the gloves display moved the executives to say, “We must act now.”
Kotter and the Heath brothers also agree on another central tenet of change: that the end goal is to get people to behave differently. Chip and Dan Heath point out that it is incumbent on those leading change to understand what they must do to support and enable change. From their research, the Heath brothers have found, “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” They give the example of two health researchers considering how to get people to eat a better diet. The researchers realized that “Eat better” was non-specific and did not give clear direction. They also realized that there were dozens of ways people could change their eating habits that would improve their diets – but that could present so many requirements as to be unattainable. After much thought, the researchers picked one specific goal: to get two communities in West Virginia to switch from whole milk to low-fat (1%) milk. Milk was consumed in most households, and in the ad campaigns to promote the change, they pointed out that each glass of whole milk had as much saturated fat as five strips of bacon. This made both the promotion – “Buy 1% milk” – and the impact of the change specific and relatable. The result of this campaign was to increase market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 35%. The more specific and clear you are on proposed interventions, the better the chances of successful implementation.
Change is definitely not simple and requires the coordinated efforts of many stakeholders and supporting processes and technology. But by considering and incorporating these central tenets of change, you increase your odds of success.
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