Approximately 70% of all change efforts fail (1). The actual percentage will vary depending on the scope of the change and whether it is initiated in times of crisis (dramatic change) or develops in a more orderly fashion (systematic change). While the scope of your change initiatives may range from complex organizational change to simple implementation of new office policies, the fact remains that unless you follow the few fundamentals described here, your team will probably suffer the negative consequences of failed change seen below (2):
The Negative Consequences of Failed Change
Decreased trust in leaders
Less money for other priorities
Subtle sabotage of the change effort
Less commitment to future change initiatives
Do you detect any of these side effects of failed change in your environment? If your answer is yes, this blog is for you. Although entire books are dedicated to implementation of change (e.g., J.P. Kotter and D.S. Cohen, The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.), I focus on gaining buy to change thrust upon by senior management. This is the type of change most leaders experience. Even if you are a senior executive that initiates major change in your organization, gaining buy-in is the critical first step to an entire successful change effort.
The American Management Association surveyed 5,100 business leaders around the world and found that the reason most employees don’t buy-in to change is that the leaders focus too much on the change initiative itself and not enough on the process that will get employees to change their behavior. (3) Therefore, when major change is announced in your organization, your job as a leader is to gain commitment at the individual level (i.e., your direct reports). This buy-in is the precursor to the behaviors that support the change effort because the reality is… organizations don’t change, people do. If your people won’t change, your organization can’t change.
The eXpansive Leadership Method (XLM), seen below, can help frame the process you employ to gain commitment to the change effort. We’ll focus on the first step in this blog.
The Four-Step Process to Gaining Buy-In To Change
I. Monitor Closely.
Several years ago, legendary businessman Warren Buffett recommended that Xerox’s new CEO Anne Mulcahy spend the first three months of her tenure assessing the environment. He suggested that she meet with customers and front-line employees before deciding how to implement any changes. She followed his advice and has done an excellent job in turning that company around.
Contrast her approach with a high-tech organization going through a major change initiative. Employees were asked to submit questions prior to an all-hands-meeting conducted by the CEO a few weeks after a new change had been announced. The CEO began the meeting by showing one question that actually challenged the need for the new initiative. Instead of choosing responsibly (fourth competency of the commanding style in the XLM) and using the opportunity to restate his case for the change, the CEO went ballistic, admonishing the anonymous writer that his attitude that was not going to be tolerated. The collective wind went out of the sails of all the employees. The executive who relayed this story to me said that the initiative is barely limping along because of the resistance of the “silent majority.”
Pushback is merely feedback in need of information
Warren Buffett and Anne Mulcahy understood what the high-tech CEO did not -- that the first phase of a gaining buy-in to change is understanding what is happening in the environment. (4) The environment includes your competitive situation, market position, financial performance, and your employees’ state of mind. It’s easier to lead people to a destination if you have to know where they are coming from. A journey begins on common ground.
The best leaders stay in touch during times of change. Generals George Patton and George Washington were always on the front lines. Abraham Lincoln visited the troops on the battlefield frequently. Queen Elizabeth I met constantly with her council of advisors, individually and collectively. Leaders who access their rational thinking style, monitor the environment closely (the fourth competency of the rational style in the XLM). They find multiple ways to survey the landscape in which new initiatives are launched.
Here are several tips to help you monitor closely whenever a major change hits you and your team:
A. Listen to hallway, water cooler, and cafeteria conversations during the early stages of the change initiative. Sometimes “buy-in can be a simple matter of being heard.” (5)
B. Solicit e-mails from individuals on the front lines and in the sales organization.
C. Ask your front-line supervisors to survey their employees regarding the impact of the change on them.
D. Increase your management by walking around (i.e., MBWA).
E. Meet with your direct reports more frequently.
F. Conduct all-hands-meetings and small focus groups where all questions are perceived as opportunities to understand where people are coming from.
G. Survey customers and the competitive landscape regarding why change is needed.
H. Send team members to visit with customers who see the need for change.
Adapt these eight tips to monitor your environment closely when any change initiative is thrust upon you and your team members. They will help you gage the readiness of your team members to change the required behaviors, as well as provide you with the data needed to make a compelling case for change.
What are you doing to gain buy-in?
1. Devos, G.; Buelens, M.; Bouckenooghe, D.; Contribution of Content, Context, and Process to Understanding Openness to Organizational Change: Two Experimental Simulation Studies. The Journal of Social Psychology 12/1/2007.
2. Harvey Robbins and Michael Finely in Why Change Doesn't Work (Texere Pub., 2001.
3. Dan Cohen, Building Strategic Agility, American Management Association - MWORLD, 2006, page 12 - 15.
4. John P. Kotter, Leading Change - Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, January 2007, 96 -- 117.
5. Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford, Decoding Resistance to Change, Harvard Business Review, April 2009, 99 – 103.