Chris Roebuck, Leadership Speaker

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Chris Roebuck, Leadership Speaker

Maximise your employee engagement

Get weekly bite-sized videos, 3 minutes or less with insights and immediately actionable ideas to grow your leadership and organisational performance.

From boosting employee engagement to adding 10% to your bottom line and much more.

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How to deliver successful change

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck
By  Chris Roebuck
By Chris Roebuck

Author, speaker and advisor on leadership and employee engagement

Its often said that 70% of organizational change management initiatives and transformations fail but that's a misinterpretation of the evidence. My view is, and other transformation experts agree, that a significant majority, 

Its often said that 70% of organizational change management initiatives and transformations fail but that’s a misinterpretation of the evidence. My view is, and other transformation experts agree, that a significant majority, maybe 60 – 70%, never get to full implementation to deliver anything like the benefits anticipated. That’s the reality.

How can we make sure our change is in that top successful 30% and we are an effective change leader ?  This article gives you insights and ideas for action to achieve it.

If we can achieve this our organisations will not only deliver change and transformation effectively but will also be effective in everything else they do.

There are many models and theories of change but I’m not sure how much value these have for those working hands on day to day implementing major change. Successful change is about practical tools and actions people can implement in the real world more than theories.

Change is all around us all the time. Our whole lives are a journey through constant change. That can help us grow and develop to fulfil our potential or it can prevent growth and development. The same applies at work and the key success factor in delivering effective organisational change is understanding how individuals are likely to respond to change. Once you understand that you can ensure that the change you wish to achieve will be received positively by people and so then succeed.

Many organisations are still failing to recognise the importance of creating a receptive audience for change. Any cursory review of articles on successful change and transformation going back at least 25 years shows there are a set of consistent actions which are likely to deliver successful change, making sure people are with you, not against you, is a top requirement. So the soft side of change is key to at least 50% of potential success in my view.

Here are my thoughts on the key elements of successful change management strategies which will help you in planning, implementing and embedding your change or transformation.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Start with the people not the plan!

Too often over my career I have seen credible change and transformation plans wrecked on the rocks of poor positioning and presentation which failed to present an engaging and compelling reason why people should implement the change proposed.

It’s worth bearing in mind from the start most people have to keep the organisation running as well as implementing the change, one reason change fatigue is an issue. So it’s extra work on top of business as usual. Therefore they want to know why the change is needed, what’s the end objective, what’s the plan, what’s the benefit for the organisation and, above all, for them.

Often articles about successful change launch into how change practitioners should construct a great rational plan, the important planning tools such as critical path analysis and ensuring you have contingencies.

All of these elements are of value but, too often, they miss the most critical element – how do you get people on board with your proposed change and thus move the organization’s culture to be receptive before you even implement ?.

This is the  best starting point because everything else is easier if you have an understanding of that and can make it happen before you implement your change.

Change my habits ? Why ?

As human beings we like to have regular activities in our lives which maintain stability. We get into a regular routine and we do this because our brain is pre-programmed to minimise energy expenditure. So regular routines avoid the need for additional thinking and create habits which use very little conscious brain energy.

To some degree any change is going to disrupt our regular routines. That causes our brain to very quickly assess the perceived value of us taking a new course of action based on the information we have been given. Is it worth the time and effort of doing it for the benefit that we are going to get ? Does it “feel” right ?

We do this hundreds of times a day unconsciously for every action we undertake but we also do this every time we are presented with a change at work.

It’s not that we don’t like change, our brains love to grow and develop, enjoy new experiences and insights so we are always open to change. This creates new connections in our brain which really keeps it sharp and active and makes us feel good. But we only respond positively to change if we see that we will receive benefits and that we are able to have some form of input into, or control of, what is going to happen to us.

Much of our perception of change is not always rational, using our conscious mind, it’s built in our sub-conscious, our gut feelings, based on many factors which we don’t even know we are considering, eg non – verbal signals from our boss or senior leaders.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

One thing I learnt on my neuroscience course which is worth remembering as a leader, and as a person, is that our brains have a mind of their own. They are making decisions you don’t even know about which you then consciously agree with, unsurprisingly.

So any proposed change has to make rational sense and feel emotionally right, answering the basic “what’s in it for me” question.

Even if the change is only about some form of technological advancement, the adoption of a new system, that is easier than something that requires major behavioural change, but it still needs to make rational and emotional sense.

That all sounds self obvious but the problem is that too many change initiatives and their leaders fail to understand how really important getting this right is because they don’t understand what they are facing if they don’t. 

You will never beat evolution !

If your change management plan is not presented in a way that those involved perceive as positive they will, at a minimum, be apathetic and disengaged. If they perceive it in anyway to be negative, this is likely to trigger our 250,000 year old brain based defence mechanism. This will cause emotionally powered resistance. Such resistance may not be visible but that does not mean that it is not there.

Understanding this “brain based” dynamic is key to the planning and implementation of change. Being focused on the people as much as on the plan significantly increases the likelihood that your change is going to be successful.

Key points: 

  • Without the people who need to deliver the change engaged and positive it will fail.
  • You need to understand how to get everyone on your side psychologically – both rationally and emotionally.
  • Effective change management is as much about psychology as it is about project management.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Change – What’s the point?

One of the most vital criteria for successful change is that there has to be a good reason to make it. This is likely to be some event or information which reveals this requirement; some change in the business environment, a new technology , new processes, or change in business strategy via a new strategic vision.

This will then indicate where the organisation potentially needs to go. That becomes your vison and key objectives then start to become clear. Your change journey is how you get from where the organisation is now to that destination.

Cause or symptom ?

However one of the traps that leaders and organisations frequently fall into with a change process, particularly when dealing with change driven by problems, is a failure to distinguish between the symptoms of the problem and the real cause.

For example in a discussion with a chief executive it was his view that he had different issues to deal with; poor performance, poor customer service, poor communication and low levels of employee engagement in different places. But a deeper discussion revealed that these were the symptoms not the problem.

The core problem was poor leadership which manifested itself in different ways in different places. So if you’re thinking about making changes to address challenges you are facing really dig deep to ensure you are dealing with the real cause and not just symptoms.

Dealing with symptoms won’t stop the problem, just put you into a long term battle with the real cause which will keep throwing up more symptoms once you have dealt with the previous ones.

No compelling benefit = no engagement.

As well as a reason for change there needs to be a clear benefit delivered or people will think there is no point investing time, effort and other resources if it’s not going to produce a return on that investment. This is critical because we have all seen organisations engaged in change which takes time and effort but where the need for change and the benefits of that change don’t present a compelling case.

Sometimes we just go through the motions of making the change because we think it’s what we should do without analysing whether it’s the optimal thing to do and delivers a clear benefit. But then the change never gets fully implemented or emedded.

Making sure there is a compelling reason and ROI for your change demonstrates to all the point of it, if you can’t do that then maybe its not worth making the change. Doing nothing and not changing is as much a course of action as doing something.

It’s important to take a systematic approach that sets out the benefits that we anticipate the change will deliver. The obvious benefits relate to how it will enhance the organisation in some way, that’s the business case, but even at this early stage it’s really important to think about the benefits which those engaged in delivering the change will get personally.

Therefore before you even start planning you need to establish a clear need for change, clear vision, objective, and potential organisational and individual benefits. Back to our “whats in it or me”. This will enable you to develop a great plan, a smooth transition and help ensure a successful change effort.

Key points

You need clear:

  • Real compelling need for change 
  • Beware of addressing symptoms rather than causes
  • Destination – current state to future state journey
  • Identified potential Benefit – organisational and personal

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Change – What’s the plan?

Any plan for an effective change management process which introduces a new approach must engage staff at all levels; team members, senior executives, and the HR function.  

Whilst we all think it’s important to get things moving one of the clear reasons for failure of change and transformation is that it wasn’t a very good plan in the first place.

That said there has to be some sense of momentum and urgency in planning and then implementing. All of us have seen change initiatives which have involved such levels of discussion and debate that by the time the change has started to be implemented the world has moved on and the change is already out of date.

So a balance has to be struck between ensuring you have a viable plan but making sure that the creation of that plan is slick and optimised in terms of the time it takes to move to implementation.

Build Your Plan Foundations

A good foundation is identifying the right people who need to be involved in the creation of the plan, who need to be consulted and provide input to the plan, who need to be a key sponsors or champions of the plan, who need to know about the plan and who need to implement.

Once you have your best planning team in place then this core group can work on building the detail of the plan to achieve the objective required. This will include elements such as timelines, responsibility’s and accountability, milestones on the journey and success measures to tell you when you’ve got to the destination. It might also include technical project management elements such as critical path analysis. But these are only tools to ensure the success of the plan. They won’t make a poorly assessed need, objective or plan better.

Your core planning group should not fall into the trap of working in isolation which happens too often. I believe that to have successful implementation 50% of their time needs to be spent on consultation and communication as well as planning.

Power of consultation

Consultation and communication gives planners the opportunity to access information which may be critical to the potential success of implementation, ideas which may help implementation, identify potential problem areas that may arise and to start gaining buy in from those who have to implement the change plan.

Consultation is not about changing the end destination because in many cases this would have been decided by senior leadership given their strategic assessment. But that does not preclude the involvement of employees answering the question “if we want to achieve this outcome how best do you think we could do it ?” This is essentially starting to create your communication plan through consultation; a great way to get ahead of the game. 

In significant transformations where I have used this approach you cannot underestimate the emotional and political significance to employees of them being asked for their opinion and, even if they as an individual have not been asked themselves, if they know someone who has. This moves the change plan from being “their”, as in the senior leaders , to “our” change plan, as in everyones.

Whilst at London Underground during the creation and implementation of the Public Private Partnership, the restructuring of London Underground into four parts three of which were privatised and one remaining in the public sector, we used focus groups to get employees input on how they thought the change could best be implemented.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

We ensured that there was one representative from every team in the focus groups. Prior to the focus group the attendees were asked to discuss with their colleagues what they thought they should say to the focus group. Thus effectively every employee had the opportunity to input to the creation the plan.

Its worth noting at this point there is significant evidence that asking employees for their ideas at any time increases their effort and engagement, Corporate Executive Board suggests by up to 26%, which then, in itself, increases your chances of success.

Taking these steps during the planning process then allows you to optimise the plan prior to implementation. But this phase is also useful to identify the key groups who will help you ensure implementation is effective.

Power of Change Champions

You will probably have already identified your key senior leadership sponsors but often in such initiatives opportunities are missed identify and engage Change Champions. These are individuals who are respected influencers at all levels of the organisation who you engage in the planning process before implementation so that they are fully up to speed when implementation occurs. They can then champion implementation within their influence groups.

A good group of people to use in this role is those who might have been identified as high potentials. This engages them further in the organisations wider strategy, increases their perception of the value that the organisation gives to them, develops their influencing skills and increases their responsibilities.

Leader actions pre – Implementation – Inform, Engage, Inspire

Also at this stage it’s important to make clear to team leaders and more senior leaders what they are expected to do to ensure successful implementation, including their role as Change Champions. Many of them would already have been involved in the consultation process in some way and be aware of the overall plan however that doesn’t mean they are clear on their responsibilities in relation to specific implementation actions.

Leaders responsibilities relate not only to the implementation of plan itself but in their role creating an environment prior to implementation where people will give their best to ensure that implementation is successful. Leaders need to inspire people about whats going to happen before it happens not once its started. This goes back to the fundamental point that even the best plan in the world is useless if people just don’t care and aren’t bothered about implementing it.

Power of emotion to enable change

It’s worth noting that the evidence suggests that an employee’s decision to give high performance is 60% rational and 40% emotional. This shows why its vital to get your that plan resonating with employees and in particular answering that ‘what’s in it for me’ question.

Another critical point to note is that 80% of the emotional element to give their best is determined by the day-to-day behaviour of the individual’s boss – within this developing trust is one of the most powerful drivers of emotional engagement.

But its not just in terms of the decision to give high performance. Its also the impact of that on effort once the decision has been made. An employees positive rational connection with the organisation may produce up to 19% extra effort, but their emotional connection can produce up to 43% more effort. (see page 10)

Think about that difference, a staggering 24%, thats the power of emotion.

Ensure Leaders Capability

You need to ensure your leaders are up to this task. HR needs to deliver an accurate assessment of this and make up any shortfalls in change leadership capability before implementation starts, not after it’s started. 

Your leaders must have slick task delivery skills – prioritisation, time management, delegation, communication and giving feedback . If they haven’t you need to take action as these are the foundation on which successful change is built.

The simple reality is most leaders will need guidance on how to champion change. Maybe, as I have done, use short training programs, face to face or via online courses, with an “Effective Change Manager’s Handbook” as a takeaway comprehensive guide with the necessary steps for success. 

Use Planning for Engagement and Positioning

Thus it’s possible to use the planning phase not only to build the plan but to get ahead by starting engaging and positioning the plan with everybody involved prior to your launch. If you do this then everybody is aware of what is going on, they know why it’s going on, they’ve had the opportunity to input in some way and in the process potentially have any concerns they have dealt with.

By using this strategy you have set up your implementation to be successful from the moment you start rather than many change initiatives we’ve all seen where it’s sprung on everybody as a surprise, for many people a nasty surprise which they will proactively resist. People need to be deeply engaged from the start.

Key points: 

  • Identify key people:

  • Core planning group – consisting of key implementation stakeholders
  • Strategic Sponsor – senior level change champion.
  • Other Change Champions at all levels
  • Those who need to input or be consulted
  • Those who need to implement
  • Those who need to be informed as they might not implement but will be impacted.

  • Maintain 2 way communication with core planning group and all other groups
  • Use this to engage everyone prior to implementation
  • Make sure leaders task delivery skills are effective in preparation for implementation

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Change – Making it happen

Many people who haven’t been involved in implementing change initiatives or transformations often have an over optimistic view on how quickly and easily change can be adopted. Sadly that’s not the reality so it’s worth focusing on some real world factors which impact implementation before considering the implementation itself. These will help get things going in the right direction and provide a useful template of key steps and areas to watch.

Making it happen – the reality

Adopter groups

When change and transformation occurs we respond as human beings, combining a rational analysis of whether it makes sense with an emotional assessment of whether we like it. Clearly different people will take different views on this and so the response to change will vary between different groups and over time.

One simple practical way of thinking about it is that you will have three groups to deal with.

  1. Early adopters – who think it’s a brilliant idea and enthusiastically engage.
  2. The undecided  – who aren’t sure and want to see what happens. Within this group there will be a mix of those who are verging on the positive and those who may be more negative. But all of them are withholding judgement to see what happens and the responses of their peers.
  3. Change resisters – these individuals have decided, for whatever reason, that they don’t like the idea of the change. Within this group will be some who can be moved to the more positive as they see their colleagues starting to implement the change and those who will not take a positive view.

These groups are not fixed. They are dynamic and they will represent certain percentages of those involved in the change at the start of implementation but as the implementation moves forward people will tend to move between groups.

We’ve all seen this over our careers where, if a change or transformation is implemented well and the “early adopters” are enthusiastic, then the “undecided” will tend to move towards wanting to implement and this will build up momentum for the change. This may then eventually encourage even some change “resisters” to engage and implement.

However if the change is not well positioned and implemented it is likely that the “undecided” will start to become more negative and, overtime, even the “early adopters” who were positive will start to become more negative as implementation slows.

Here is an average distribution of the 3 groups at the start of a change process.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Note that the better your employee engagement the more likely you will be to have a larger “early adopter” and “positive leaning undecided”.That’s why it is so important within the planning of the change to engage people before implementation so that their perspective of what is going to happen is positive rather than negative.

So rather than the population breakdown that is normally assumed to exist for change as above you may be in a much more advantageous position as per below:

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

This doubling of early adopters significantly increases the chances of success. So its worth trying to do an assessment of your adopter groups in key areas by using any feedback you receive during planning or feedback and progress during implementation.  

Realistic Timelines

It’s probably clear from the adopter groups that change inherently takes time. And, as mentioned, one of the problems that I have frequently seen is that people are over optimistic about how quickly change can be implemented. Successful organisational change management is likely to more often need significant changes rather than minor changes to organizational structure or the organizations culture. That takes time.  

The adopter groups vary at every level of the organisation so you are not dealing with one adopter group you are dealing with numerous different levels, in different parts of the organisation all with different % of adoption and dynamics. For example higher up the organisation the adopter groups tend to have a higher % of early adopters than further down.

When change is initiated it inherently cascades from the top down even if people have been involved at all levels within the planning. That means that as the change cascades it has to move through these adopter groups, even if it’s the early adopters alone, from one level to another down to the frontline.

In a small single site organisation focused on producing one product or service then change may not take too long.

The larger, more complex, and more geographically spread your organisation is the longer change is going to take to move through and be implemented by everyone. Within UBS for example, 60,000 employees, with four different business divisions plus a corporate headquarters spread across the world in different time zones implementing major transformation was something which took several years not month’s, and realistically 4 – 5 years to fully embed culturally.   

That raises a number of issues in terms of ensuring success over such an extended time given changes in leadership and other elements over time which I’ll cover later.

An emotional journey

At the start of the article I said its vital to remember we are all human and we respond emotionally just as much as we analyse rationally. To some degree those emotional responses are predictable – if we view things as positive we will welcome them and in case of change potentially implement it, but if we view change as negative we will resist. That’s just how our brains are designed to work for our own survival.

This means that during any change or transformation, at all stages, you are likely to experience what appear to be irrational emotional responses, especially if you are one of the people who developed the wonderful plan and others aren’t as inspired by it as you are.

This could be a potential indicator that your planning and engagement process was ineffective. If it was effective you would not see these indicators to any great degree during implementation.

These “emotional” responses are often summarised in the various models of peoples reaction to change and its implementation. The classic journey through change is summarised below. These response stages are typical of changes sprung on people without much preparation.

But you can avoid these by effective engagement, consultation and building trust prior to launch. My experience has been that if people are engaged in the development of the change, aware of whats happening and, in particular, they trust their boss, and if possible senior leaders, then as the diagram below shows this can cut out the negative stages and move people swiftly to a positive decision to implement.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

However, if negative elements do appear you need to quickly engage people to discover what is driving that response and how, through better communication, engagement, or adapting your plan, you can achieve a more positive outcome for those involved. Promoting an open-door policy is a really useful tool which enables issues to be quickly dealt with.

Key points: 

  • Adopter groups – plan how to get early adopters maximised and then they inspire the undecided to join them.
  • Monitor key adopter groups as you implement if you can.
  • Be realistic with time – it will take longer than expected. Build in contingencies if you need to have a clearly defined completion date.
  • Avoid the negative responses to change with trust and engagement prior to implementation
  • Never forget successful change is about emotion and much as a good plan.

Making it happen – key lessons learnt

Being aware of your adopter groups, having a realistic expectation of your implementation time and understanding the signals which emotional responses are sending you sets you up to ensure that your implementation is more likely to be successful.

As implementation moves forward there are a number of key elements which you need to ensure are in place:

Cascaded responsibility and accountability

Starting from the strategic level plan, or the highest level of your plans objectives, there needs to be clear responsibility and accountability not just at that level but all the way down to the front line. That should ensure that everyone engaged in the change has a clear line of sight to how the big picture fits together and what their contribution is in it. This enhances co-ordination, breaks down silos and motivates people as they see why they are doing what they are doing together.

Holistic overview & regular slick reviews

Too often in change and transformation people tend to focus in on their own activities and forget or ignore the context within which the bigger project is being implemented. As in the previous section cascading line of sight responsibility helps create a holistic overview for those on the front line but it also enables information on progress from the front line to get to those managing the overall change which is timely and relevant. This then ensures that those at the top are seeing an accurate holistic picture of the whole project so they can fine tune as required.

This requires an open and honest feedback culture – where, if things are not going to plan, or improvements could be implemented, people are willing to speak out. That goes back to leadership creating a culture where this happens.

Constant communication

The old adage “communicate, communicate, communicate” is true, but the communication needs to be structured to deliver value to the receiver, so local relevance, clear and simple, but also big picture insight.

When leading the communication of the transformation of London Underground into the PPP we held monthly town halls for 400 senior line managers. They were briefed by the CEO on progress, big picture and next steps. Supporting that we created a team briefing system “Team Talk” when the CEOs slide deck would then be used as a core briefing document and cascaded down the organisation within a fixed time scale via team briefings.

Leaders would receive the briefing content from their boss and add in how their team would deliver responsibilities. They would have to brief their team within one working week of receiving it. So each team member would hear what the big picture was and the actions the team would take to support implementation of that.

We then checked via our feedback focus groups if those messages had got to the front line as well as asking for other feedback.

The real impact of these actions is also confirmed by Gallup: “the best habit to develop for successful managers is having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member – 15-30 minutes.”

Celebrate success

As change and transformation often take longer than we expect it’s clear from my experience that psychologically those working on change tend to get tired if there is no visible sense of good progress every month or so. That’s why milestones and celebrating success is so vital until the change is embedded. They give those involved a sense of progress and achievement which then inspires them to take on the next steps and challenges.

But this also links into the need for regular communication and feedback events. These allow both the setting out of progress at local and big picture level and the sharing of success stories to reinforce motivation to progress further.

Again remember the earlier figures on the impact on effort of connecting employees to the big picture and how they contribute.

Key points: 

  • Everyone needs to know what they are doing, why and how it fits into big picture
  • Regular slick reviews and feedback at all levels
  • Clear constant communication of what’s going on – team briefings & Town Halls .
  • Celebrate success whenever possible to keep momentum up. 

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Making it stick – spread and embed ripples

Change needs people to do things differently. At a personal level people have to change some of their established habits. This doesn’t happen overnight and some people can find it quite difficult.

Making sure your change or transformation really sticks is about keeping the momentum up of all the elements which you used during the launch phase.

From my experience the key danger point tends to appear around nine months into the change. The first three to four months there is enthusiasm, hopefully, a clear and specific plan, everybody has responsibilities To some degree, even if the plan is complex, from the perception of people it’s a simple objective.

Six to nine months in things start to get less clear, the plan will potentially have had to be adapted in different areas, people will have been working hard, the change has become almost day-to-day activity.

Also never forget that during change and transformation people essentially have two jobs – keeping the organisation running and making the change. That’s why change and transformation has to be as simple and practical to engage them and enable them to do both. If they don’t have the bandwidth to do both it’s the change which gets dropped.   

This 9 month point can be a tipping point where those engaged in the change can often move from enthusiasm to apathy so it’s essential to maintain momentum. This is done by focus on communication, clear milestones of achievement, celebrating success in teams and sharing success stories across the organisation.

Really simple actions such as Town Halls, lunch and learn sessions, briefings on progress by senior leaders and cross area focus groups can play a significant role in keeping momentum up. Also including change leadership skills in development plans keeps the leadership team capability constantly at a high level.

As long as momentum is maintained the change will spread across the organisation and overtime embed more deeply into day-to-day behaviour and organizational culture.

If the change or transformation takes a long time this momentum is critical as inevitably people will move within and out of the organisation with new people coming in. Good momentum keeps things moving forwards despite those changes. That works better if new arrivals are briefed and engaged in the ongoing change from day 1.

Key points:

  • Change is about people changing their mindset as much as their actions.
  • Change means people have 2 jobs – make it possible to do both.
  • Beware the 9 month apathy point.
  • Momentum is key to overcoming apathy and engaging new joiners.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Common Reasons for failure to deliver

There are a number of consistent reasons why change and transformation fail to deliver to the degree expected or fail completely. These are the ones I have seen most frequently.

Not seeing the need for change

The first is not a failure of change, but the failure to see the need for it, which is perhaps even worse.

Organisations which focus inwards rather than paying attention to the world around them have a habit of missing signals that change is required.

Every time this happens it means that when they are eventually forced to change to get up to speed the size and impact of that change will be have to be significantly larger and more challenging than if they had completed a number of smaller changes overtime. At some point the level of change can become so great that it is then not possible to achieve.

Perhaps the example of Kodak not adopting digital camera technology, sticking to film and failing is a good example. In their case it was worse as they saw the change need but refused to change, a number of times over a period of years.

Too many changes can overwhelm people

The simple reality is that most organisations, if you take a holistic overview, there are probably too many change initiatives running at any time. You may have strategic initiatives, departmental initiatives, and even change within teams.

Those operating at strategic level will only see the ones they have initiated; they won’t necessarily see all the others which people further down the organisation are also having to implement.

I’ll never forget a comment from the CEO of a global logistics company to the assembled leaders when I finished my keynote and mentioned this challenge as they were going through transformation. He said “Chris is right. We need to focus on the critical changes to deliver real success, not just a tsunami of changes we think are a good idea because our people just can’t do everything.”

With change coming from all directions people just get overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, don’t know what’s most important, and their fall back position is to do what their boss tells them. That might well be some form of local change rather than change which directly supports strategic change and transformation.

Unrealistic expectations & incomplete implementation

It’s obvious that unrealistic expectations of the time it takes to implement and embed change will cause a problem. As a minimum there will be a time overrun and potentially people will get disenchanted, momentum may decline, and as a result implementation never be fully completed.

But there is another problem which often remains unidentified and which in my view is the reason that many change initiatives don’t deliver on expectations. This is driven by executive team and other business leaders expectations not being managed by change project managers. 

We all know from our experience that we feel much more positive when we tell our bosses good news, so we’d much rather tell them good news and bad news. This simple emotional bias leads to a problem with strategic change initiatives.

As previously explained you may have 15 to 20% early adopters who are implementing the change. Thus when asked by your boss if the change is being successfully implemented there could be a justification to confirm that it is, even though the reality is that potentially 75% of the employee population hasn’t seriously engaged in implementation as yet.

Naturally your boss is happy to receive this good news and then passes it up the system. If your colleagues give their boss the same information it gets to the strategic level with a clear message that the changes which senior leaders wanted are being implemented.

The strategic leadership of the organisation now thinks that the implementation is moving forward swiftly and successfully and they can then start preparing to launch the next change initiative in their grand plan.

The problem is that, as major change and transformation takes many months if not years to implement and embed, if, based on the information they are receiving, strategic leaders think the implementation is nearly completed, they will then push another change down through the organisation.

The impact is that further down the organisation you end up with people who haven’t implemented the first change initiative then suddenly being asked to implement a new one.

What do they think ? We have all seen it before, they quickly come to the conclusion that there is no point implementing any change initiative because by the time they have another one will have appeared and therefore the best course of action is to ignore them all and carry on as normal.

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

I have frequently heard this justification for not implementing change in many organisations from mid-level leaders and below.

More insight on this in Forbes from Brent Gleeson.

Leaders don’t lead

Even before the planning and launch of any change or transformation, organisations must look at the leadership capability and culture of the organisation to ensure  leaders at all levels are capable and motivated to get the best from their people and then focus that effort on to what delivers success.

If they can’t do that the change won’t get implemented and, in addition, day-to-day performance will be significantly below what it should be. Not only that but this creates the following problem which then is also likely to block successful implementation.

Employees don’t care

If employees don’t care, implementation will just not happen. There may be token efforts at implementation to get the required “ticks in boxes” but in reality the change will never embed or spread across the organisation.

If employees don’t care the cause is likely to be ineffective leadership at strategic and operational level which has offered them a poor plan, poorly positioned, poorly communicated and poorly launched.

They’ve seen that leaders don’t lead well or genuinely care about their people, so they think why should they care about the organisation. This was a key driver of the Great Resignation and continues to power Quiet Quitting.

But the damage isn’t just about the impact on this specific change. It also makes employees sceptical or suspicious of any future changes they might be asked to implement.

Inflexible plan

One of the challenges that senior leaders sometimes have during implementation is distinguishing the difference between determination to succeed and arrogance. All successful change and transformation adapts during implementation.

Trying to stick to the original plan and force it through despite events or feedback that suggests adaption is needed is counter productive.

There is significant evidence that inflexibility can also be linked to lack of regular progress reviews and assessments. If such reviews aren’t happening at all levels and feeding back up then any need for adaption will be missed so increasing the chances of ineffective implementation.

Poor communication and engagement

As with any form of effective organisational delivery people need to know what’s going on and need to be engaged in the process. Successful change and transformation is about it being implemented “with” people rather than “to” people.

As has been suggested communication and engagement must start during the development of the implementation plan so all involved feel they have real input and contribution to the outcome. That’s driven by the point made about our brains resisting change that we can’t control or have no say in.

Culture clashes

This is often a challenge in M&A scenarios. People tend to resist when they are told their way of doing things isn’t right and they need to change.

When there are significant cultural differences I’ve found that the best way to move people forwards is, as well as presenting compelling organisational and personal benefits for the change, to encourage people to focus on “the best of both”. That’s where those from both sides of the cultural divide sit down and identify what are the best elements of their current culture.

What happens in most cases is that the best elements, eg professionalism, quality, forward thinking, will tend to be common between them. Thus revealing that in reality they have more in common than they have differences and get them to agree on a set of common behaviours they will all act on.   

But this isn’t always easy.

The developing merger between UBS and Credit Suisse will be one where there is significant culture clash and it’s likely that, to make sure the merger is effective as quickly as possible to stabilise the markets view, for the Credit Suisse side it will be more done “to” than done “with”.   

For more insight on these issues this summary HBR article may help together with this from John P Kotter.

Effective Change – Leaders roles

There are some really simple practical steps which both line managers and senior leaders can take to significantly increase the chances of you change or transformation being successful

How to deliver successful change - Chris Roebuck

Line managers

3 simple steps ensure that change is successful at all levels of the organisation and across the organisation. Line managers must be capable of implementing these.

Step 1. Firm Foundation

Ensuring that every leader has a firm foundation of development in critical task delivery skills – vital for implementing change. Prioritisation, time management, delegation, communication and giving feedback.

Evidence would suggest that, for example, up to 70% of line managers have not received formal development in effective delegation. Have you?

In the case of delegation a simple 15-minute introduction to the topic has been shown to give most line managers an extra half day a week free time.

It is this firm foundation which enables effective control of the change agenda which then allows that extra time for leaders to implement the next step – getting the best from people to implement the change.

Step 2. Get employee best effort

Leaders should focus on the actions which they are already doing which deliver the highest return on investment (ROI) for their effort, eg asking people for ideas, developing them, empowering, explaining how their work contributes to organisational success, as a leader leading by example, showing you care, understanding people make genuine mistakes, giving regular day to day feedback amongst others. But above all building trust. This is perhaps the most critical.

These steps positively impact the emotional more than the rational perspectives of employees, thus delivering the significant extra emotionally driven effort quoted earlier.

All leaders will have experienced these actions over their career from their own leaders so can easily utilise them to get more effort from employees.

Step 3. Focus effort onto your change or transformation

It’s possible for a team to work very hard doing something which adds no significant benefit to implementing your change because it’s not aligned to that strategic objective. So to get maximum ROI from employees giving their best, that best must focus on specific actions that deliver your change.

This is why everyone understanding the big picture and having line of sight to strategic objectives is so important. They can align action and measure what they’re doing. But also adapt the change plan to maintain that alignment if needed. Within a wider context this will start to break down silos across the organisation and motivate them more.

Senior leaders – example and multiplier

C-Suite executives and other senior leaders need to lead by example – leading implementation with their teams and creating the example for other leaders to follow. Any change or transformation I’ve seen which has been launched but not been role modelled by senior leadership has achieved limited impact.

This must include frequent visible presence of senior leaders communicating to engage people at all levels in the change and showing genuine interest in people, delivery and progress. Town Halls are a great way of achieving this as are front line visits to engage with employees.

We are all human – key to successful change

Maximising employee engagement for success - Chris Roebuck

If there is one key focus I think would make change and transformation more effective it’s simply to remember that to make change happen successfully people need to want to make it happen.  Ask yourself the question “If someone presented this change to me this way would I be engaged and want to make it work ?”

Aristotles reflection from 2350 years ago encapsulates the need for change to be seen as positive. It was true then and its still true today, engaged people give their best, and thats more than just doing their job well. They genuinely care about the organisations success, they have an emotional connection. which gives all the benefits I’ve set out.

To get that engagement we want to be told what the need for change is, where is it taking us, what’s the benefit, to organisation and to me, will my ideas and input considered, does it make logical sense and does it “feel” right.

If at every stage of your change all involved can answer positively those questions then your change is likely to succeed as everyone commits to making it work at every stage of the journey. 

Good luck on your journey !  

Additional useful insights and resources from Mercer, PWC and CIPD.