Implementing change successfully: 5 tips to guide your planning

Implementing change successfully is hard. As you know, many change initiatives fail. These 5 tips will guide you to success, keep them in mind as you plan and lead your change initiative.

5 tips for implementing change successfully

1. Show people a better future

We’re hard-wired to seek safety and security, and that means we have a natural tendency to choose what we know, over what we don’t know.

Of course, there are many ways to overcome this. Communication is often cited as one of the critical factors. This is true but misses the point. Communication is useless until you’re clear what you’re communicating. Often, the focus is on why change is necessary: increased competition, changing markets, new regulations. That’s appealing to the rational side of the brain “look, we have to change, we’re being driven to do so by the market”. But that’s not motivating, it’s scary. It highlights that risks of failure: “if we don’t change, we’re going to get eaten up”.

Fundamentally, implementing change successfully is about engaging the heart, not just the mind. It’s important to give people a reason to change that they can feel in their bones, and which inspires them to go the hard yards.

The best way to do this is show them a better future and show them the steps they need to take to get there. You can build additional messaging around that, but this ‘better future’ must be the core message. And it has to be meaningful and relevant to the individuals you’re leading. Most change initiatives fail at this first step, they don’t communicate a meaningful and attainable ‘better future’. The result is that people cling to what they currently know and don’t change.

For more on helping your team through change, take a look at The House of Change.

2. Set goals, define a strategy, and understand the difference

Again, this is obvious. Set goals, define a strategy, and understand the difference. Yet so many companies define goals and call them a strategy.

Our strategy is to lead the premium segment of our market

This is a typical ‘goals confused as strategy’ statement. To lead the premium segment of your market is a goal. A strategy is how do we get there.

Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action. It assumes that goals are all you need. Richard Rumelt

In his book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Richard Rumelt defines three elements of strategy:

  1. A diagnosis: this defines the challenge you are facing as a business
  2. A guiding policy: this defines your overall approach to change
  3. Coherent action: a series of coordinated actions that delivery the guiding policy.

Most businesses don’t undertake an adequate diagnosis from which to develop strategy, they don’t clearly define the challenge that they’re facing. Then they hit a strategic inflection point and fail.

3. Create ‘dramatic moments’ in the journey

A CEO was driving change though his organization, a multinational. One small action within all the coordinated actions of the strategy was to ensure meetings were more effective. There had been a lack of discipline and focus in the business and making meetings more effective was one of the visible illustrations of change.

You can imagine many change programs aiming to implement this kind of improvement. What made his successful?

He took it upon himself to walk into meetings unannounced. He’d ask everyone to carry on, then take a chair at the back of the room. After a few minutes he’d ask to see the meeting agenda. If there was no agenda, he’d stop the meeting and tell the meeting leader to start again, once they had an agenda. If there was an agenda, he’d wait a while, then ask to see a list of participants. If there was someone on the participant list who wasn’t in the meeting, he’d go find that person and ask them why.

You can imagine the impact of these kinds of dramatic moments. Pretty soon word spread around the business. Stories were told. Before long, every meeting had an agenda, every participant was in every meeting.

This is the power of creating ‘dramatic moments’ when implementing change.

I know all this because the company was Prudential Insurance, and I didn’t have a meeting agenda.

4. When implementing change successfully, resist the next bright, shiny object

This is how we define a bright, shiny object:

Something that is widely appealing or attention-grabbing for its superficial characteristics, but which is usually not useful, substantial, or long lasting.

There are times when it’s going to be hard, when there will be doubts. There are times when it will be tempting to grab hold of the next ‘bright, shiny object’ rather than sticking to the strategy you’ve defined.

This is only natural, strategic change is tough. But it’s important to resist the easy, superficially appealing options.

To learn more, take a look at this light-hearted but practical article from Entrepreneur, Do you have shiny object syndrome?

5. Don’t ‘transform’, play the infinite game

Transformation is a tired word, and likely, your team are tired of hearing it! How many times have you heard “We’re going through a transformation” and felt that tug of despair?

Also, I have a couple of very specific issues with the word.

First, it suggests a start and an end to the change. That’s simply not the nature of change anymore.

Second, transformation suggests a complete change, and as you’re implementing change it’s important to be clear about what’s not changing too. For example, your purpose as an organization, your values, your team. Making it clear what you’re not changing helps to anchor and focus what is changing.

This brings us to the infinite game. I’m not always a huge fan of Simon Sinek, but this is a great piece of work.

He distinguishes between finite games (with a finite mindset) and infinite games (and an infinite mindset).

In infinite games:

  • Players come and go
  • Rules change
  • There’s no end point
  • There’s no winner
  • The goal is to keep playing

This is obviously the nature of business, but many business leaders are playing the infinite game with a very finite mindset: focused on the next quarter, the annual results. This narrow focus is counterproductive. It may secure the next quarter, but it dooms the company to fail over the long term.

To implement change successfully, make sure you’re playing the infinite game, with the mindset to match.

Here’s a 6-minute book summary:

For more, take a look at the videos on Simon Sinek’s site.

Implementing change successfully

To implement change successfully, be guided by these 5 tips:

  1. Show people a better future
  2. Set goals, define a strategy, and understand the difference
  3. Create ‘dramatic moments’ in the journey
  4. When implementing change, resist the next bright, shiny object
  5. Don’t ‘transform’, play the infinite game

It’s easy to get dragged down into the details of change. As you implement your change program take a little time each week to make sure you’re getting these fundamentals right. They will guide you to success.