Ripples in a body of water

By Phillip Thompson
Change may be constant, as the saying goes, but that doesn’t mean change is always easy.

When an organization decides to make a change — or is forced to change, as happens after some presidential election cycles — the two elements most important to success are people and communication. Without buy in, no real change can take place. In order for change to occur, communication must occur across every level of an organization so that every employee understands the essence of the change, the necessity for it, and the benefits to be realized by making the change.

Silhouette image of business people walking over gearsIn the military, tacticians and leaders at every level are taught the Principles of War: a set of maxims proven over time to be essential to the successful prosecution of warfare. Likewise, there are best-practice principles for change management that have been developed over the years, most notably by John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and world-renowned change expert.

Kotter has studied organizations that have taken on transformative initiatives. According to his 8 Steps to Accelerate Change in 2015, the fundamental reasons behind most transformations are the need to increase revenues and/or profits or decrease costs, the need to become more effective or more efficient, or both.

One of the earliest and most common questions in a change or transformation initiative is “What’s in it for me?” Few people want to see their entire work life upended — unless the payoff at the end represents a great benefit, either personally or professionally.

The first step in Kotter’s eight is to create a sense of urgency. This is far more easily said than done, given that most people’s natural inclination toward change is resistance. To overcome this instinct, leaders and employees must work together from the outset to define what change will mean — not just a statement of the “as is” and the “to be” states of the organization. Change must be defined in terms of its necessity, the consequences of not changing/adapting/transforming, and the benefits of the change to both the individual and the organization.

Leadership has a responsibility to identify and describe a “big opportunity” that will appeal to individuals’ heads and hearts, and use this statement to build a coalition, but there must be timely and transparent communication across the enterprise. This serves to inform the workforce, obtain stakeholder buy-in (“what’s in it for me?”) and foster a sense of open-mindedness and willingness among the work force.

In Kotter’s estimation, 75 percent of an organization’s leadership must buy into the change for it to succeed. This, of course, requires a great deal of “heavy lifting” up front. As with many enterprise-wide initiatives, taking the time to lay a solid groundwork, even if it’s difficult and time-consuming, pays dividends later.