I don't typically prefer the overused term "change management." Successful transformations must be led by ecosystems of leaders across the entire organization. However, diligent management is required to perform the functions that support a vision for change.
Most organizational change efforts take longer and cost more money than leaders and managers anticipate. In fact, research from McKinsey and Company shows that 70% of all transformations fail.
For many of the reasons I have written about in previous articles: A weak culture that isn't aligned with the mission, lack of participation and buy-in, under-communicating a powerful vision, over-communicating a poor vision, not enough training or resources, and so on. But one very critical roadblock standing in the way of bringing a change vision to fruition is what I call change battle fatigue.
Change battle fatigue is the result of many elements such as past failures plaguing the minds of employees and the sacrifices made during the arduous change process. When a transformation is poorly led, fatigue can set in quickly. And not only do 70% of organizational transformations fail, but that failure rate may even be increasing. According to 2008 research from IBM, the need to lead change is growing, but our ability to do it is shrinking. Hence why people often get discouraged and eventually give up. Even when companies make great strides during building a change culture and preparing for the change battle, fatigue can derail even the most valiant efforts for change.
When change efforts have failed in the past, people often grow cynical. They start to mutter under their breath, "Here we go again..." or "Here comes another flavor of the month..." or, as one middle manager once told me, "We're lying low until this fad blows over."
It's awfully hard for managers and staff to get motivated when they believe that the latest project from on high is going to die just like the last one - no matter what they do. Fear makes change intensely personal. People fear for their income. They worry about their families. They wonder what will happen to their careers. When people are afraid, they literally can't hear or think as well. It's much harder for them to take in important information when their minds are reeling. This can be a big distraction that undermines your team's ability to focus and stay productive... just when you need to them most.
As a former Navy SEAL, I can assure you that this is a fundamental reason why our training is so hard. Everything you do is live fire, live explosives. When you're moving dynamically through the kill house taking out targets, those aren't blanks we are shooting. One misstep and people can get shot. When you're in the desert or fields of Arkansas doing land warfare training, you're running and gunning for sixteen hours a day. It's hot, exhausting and loud as hell. And when you get tired, mistakes can happen. But the level of intensity serves a specific purpose. To prepare you for war. As the Navy SEAL Ethos says, "We train for war and fight to win."
You don't realize how well trained and prepared you are until your first gunfight. The training is designed to mitigate fear and fatigue so that you stay focused. So you maintain the ability to move, shoot and communicate effectively as a team - channeling the natural tendency towards fear into focused aggression.
We have been in the longest sustained conflict in U.S. history so you can imagine the level of battle fatigue many or our brave service members experience. But unlike many business organizations, the military has droves of new recruits coming in every day - energized and ready to take the fight to the enemy. Seasoned soldiers rotate back to civilian life and the new blood takes over.
Unfortunately, that kind of turnover can have a detrimental effect during a transformation effort, and to a company's culture in general. So how do the best leaders and managers mitigate change battle fatigue, keep fear at bay and keep the team engaged and energized?
By doing two things: identifying and celebrating early successes and creating cultural experiences that support the vision and keep the change train on track.
Here's an example.
Allison, a visionary emerging leader at a global packaging company has just been promoted to be the VP of Operations. She has also been appointed to be part of the transformation task force that is leading the strategy behind the company's new re-branding mission. The vision is to transform their internal and external brand perception from being "a boring old packaging company" into an innovative industry leader with the goal of attracting new customers and hot new talent. The strategy includes everything from a series of acquisitions and an overhaul in operations to completely reworking the look and feel of their branding. Basically, they were becoming a new company.
During one of the first task force meetings Allison attends she decides to observe, listen and learn. The transformation has only been underway for four months so there will be plenty of time to assert her influence over the process.
Eventually, she chimes in and asked about the overall plan, priorities and any initial milestones that have been identified as "low hanging fruit." The CFO, also a well-respected leader in the company, throws around some fairly ambiguous answers about the plan to hire a great creative agency and a few of the operational improvements that will streamline their packaging design center. None of them specific and none time bound.
"So who is accountable for each of these initiatives and how will they know when they have achieved some of these goals?" she asked?
It quickly became apparent that none of this had been clearly defined. The transformation the company was taking on was no small task by any means and it seemed that although they had the foresight to create a task force and influential senior leaders were fully involved, they didn't yet quite have a handle on how to tackle all of this. Bringing in consultants was being discussed but it would be extremely costly and the CEO didn't think the investment would be worth it.
"I know I've only been here a couple years, but does anyone mind if I explain the experiences I had at my last company? She asked.
"By all means. We are all ears!" said the CFO.
"Well, we were facing a very similar transformation that we knew was going to take at least four years. Realistically, we knew it was going to probably take longer. The senior leaders assembled a task force similar to this one that included senior leaders and a solid cross section of key people throughout the company. About a year into the effort, we had made some progress, but not as much as we had hoped. The change evangelists that were not part of the task force but actively promoting the effort throughout the ranks began to lose hope. The cynics gradually became more emboldened by the perceived failures." She said.
She goes on to explain that they eventually decided to pump the breaks and do a quick analysis of what wasn't working. After doing so, the task force realize that they were making more headway than even they realized. If this was the case, that meant not many people in the company could possibly know what the quick wins were either.
Because during the planning process they had failed to identify and even manufacture specific early milestones that could be achieve and celebrated at the six and twelve month marks. Nobody had specific ownership over early stage wins that could be leveraged to tell their story of progress. Additionally, even though the company was going through a complete operational and cultural overhaul, no cultural experiences had changed to match the new vision.
"Wait, what do you mean by cultural experiences?" one team member asked Allison.
"It can be almost anything from company meetings and internal communications strategies to offsite events and the seating plan. Any experience that either supports the desired culture and vision or detracts from it." She answered.
The task force unanimously decided then and there that they had a lot more work to do before moving ahead. This was going to be a long change battle and they needed to be prepared. Early victories needed to be identified and communicated broadly across the organization and new cultural experiences needed to match their vision for being an innovative industry leader.
Stories like this are not uncommon and why so many transformations fail in the long run. Without celebrating quick wins and creating or changing cultural experiences that support the vision, people have a very hard time continuing to believe in the mission. Then fatigue and fear set in.
The Purpose Behind Identifying and Celebrating Early Successes
Identifying early milestones and quick wins starts during the mission planning process. If these projects are not clearly defined, time bound and owned by specific people the chances of being able to celebrate early successes diminishes. It starts with asking simple questions such as:
What are our top priorities for the first twelve to twenty-four months of this transformation? What projects - that will show measurable progress - can we plan to complete at the six and twelve month mark? Or even earlier? Who is going to own these projects? Who is accountable, responsible and informed? What will our internal communications strategy be when we do accomplish these goals?
For example, if one of the early milestones to create greater efficiencies is to roll out a new collaboration software, break that project down into micro-projects that have specific due dates. Designate a budget. Research. Cost analysis. Tool selection. Implementation and training. Then celebrate these wins with aligned communication from the top as well as telling stories about the accomplishments. Acknowledge the people who made it happen. Then put specific metrics in place for measuring the tool's effectiveness. Look at the data and report progress.
These are tangible and measurable steps towards showing transformation progress. This goes back to the difference in roles between leaders and managers. Leaders are keeping an eye on the vision and ensuing alignment on how to get there while managers are making sure these types of projects get done.
So what are the purposes behind identifying and celebrating early successes?
First, doing so validates the vision for transformation and gives the task force and evangelists ammo for supporting their argument, keepi ng the powers that be on board and shutting down the naysayers.
Second, it provides the needed momentum to lesson battle change fatigue and keeps the team energized. When people see and hear about progress and understand exactly how that progress supports forward motion towards success, they will remain emotionally connected to the cause.
Third, like any project management process, the early milestones can provide valuable data about what's working and how the plan might need to be adjusted.
The Purpose Behind Creating Cultural Experiences that Support the Vision
This starts with the culture-driven transformation model I've written about previously. When performing the Culture Diagnostic Analysis, identify what aspects of the culture support the vision, detract from the vision or add no real effect either way. Then you need to decide what needs to stop, start continue.
For example, I was speaking with the CEO of a large manufacturing company that had a renewed vision for improving accountability and collaboration to support plans for rapid expansion. Their R&D division would play a pivotal role is the successful completion of the transformation. But when you visit their offices, all you see is an ocean of cubicles with high walls and a series of small conference rooms around the exterior of the space. Everyone sits at their desks with headphones on doing their work. While this office set-up is quite common and works fine for many companies, it doesn't seem to fit well with a vision for accountability and collaboration.
I asked him if there was interest and budget in transforming the space into something that screamed collaboration. Reluctantly, they decided create a budget and hire a local office space design firm. I gave him some suggestions based on what we had done at one of my companies. The result was amazing.
They removed all of the old cubicles replacing them with a network of work stations that created an ecosystem for formal and informal collaboration. People could actually see and talk to each other without using Google Chat to communicate with a person two cubes over. All of the exterior conference rooms had large glass windows--collaboration became more visible. There was even a large war room surrounded by glass walls right in the center of the large space. In one corner was a comfortable living room space with couches, bean bags, a picnic table and flat screen TV. The TV was used for live streaming between other offices. The walls were repainted and covered with snippets from the new culture and vision statements. It was amazing.
By doing this, the company was creating new cultural experiences that specifically supported the vision for improved collaboration. It didn't take much interpretation for everyone in the office to understand why this was done. You could feel the new vibe.
Identifying and celebrating early successes and creating cultural experiences that support the vision will help mitigate fatigue and fear and keep the team energized.