The Challenge of Building Support for Change
A high percentage of major changes in organizations fail because leaders don’t create the support they need to make those projects succeed. Lots of time and effort and little to show for it.
This seems odd since there are many fine books and training programs and copious consultant advice focused on leading change.
But when I look at plans that people have developed for all sorts of projects—merger integration, IT projects, reorganizations, and quality and productivity improvement efforts—one big thing stands out: Those plans usually look pretty good.
So, if we’ve got good resources, and we’re able to develop decent plans, what’s going on?
There’s No Energy
What’s going on is that often there isn’t enough energy to get things accomplished. If you truly want to build support—where people get interested, are willing to try things out, or are excited to take on leadership roles—you will need lot of energy. And energy can work two ways. It can work for you or against you. Support or resistance. (By the way, indifference is just a quiet form of resistance.)
What Drains Energy?
Three things drain people’s batteries.
- Level 1: They don’t get it.
People either understand what you’re talking about—or they don’t. Level 1 is based on information.
- Level 2: They don’t like it.
People either are excited about your idea, or they are afraid. Often people buy in or resist change based on their personal and emotional reactions to what’s going on.
- Level 3: They don’t like you!
People either have trust and confidence in you, or they don’t. If they don’t believe you are going to do the right thing or follow through on what you’ve promised, it doesn’t make much difference if they understand everything (Level 1) or like it (Level 2). Their lack of trust (Level 3) will trump everything else.
Let’s say that people get what you are talking about, like what you have to say, and trust you. That’s great, but I’ve seen many leaders inadvertently stop all that positive energy. Strong support only can stay alive if that energy is flowing continually.
But you put everything at risk when you think of support (or energy) as a series of occasional events. For instance, let’s say that you hold an all-hands meeting to introduce a change. A few weeks later, you schedule a teleconference to talk about next steps. Then a couple of months after that, you hold a follow-up meeting. Energy starts, then it stops. It starts again, and then it stops.
This stop-start approach fails to keep the power on, day after day.
Once energy drops, it is hard to recharge.
When I was a kid, my sister and I would wait impatiently at the top of the stairs until our parents told us that Santa had come. The moment we got the news, we raced downstairs and ripped into our presents. Quite often there was one amazing present that we couldn’t wait to get our hands on. When we got to that box, we tore it to shreds and quickly put this amazing new gift together. We turned it on, but it didn’t work. Using our limited vocabularies, we cursed at it. We hit the side of it. Nothing worked.
Then we saw a little notice written on a piece of that tattered box that read: Batteries not included.
And it got worse. In the little town where we lived, nothing was open on Christmas Day. In fact, nothing would be open until 9:00 the next morning. 24 hours is a lifetime in kid-time. The next morning, Laraine and I went to the store, but our excitement just wasn’t the same.
I see that happening a lot in organizations. Think about a big meeting that really engaged people, got them excited and optimistic about what was going to come next. And then nothing happened for weeks.
Leaders need to look at their plans and see where they are going to need energy. A hint: you are probably going to need energy at every step along the way.
I think all organizational change plans should come with the warning: Batteries Not Included.™
How do you keep the flow of energy moving?
You need to pay attention to the human part of change every day. Benchmarking is a good thing to do. Quarterly progress reports are good too. But when it comes to support, you need to pay attention to it every day. Ask yourselves:
Will today’s activities keep energy moving in the right direction?
There are four major stages in the life of a change. Each of these stages has its own challenges and opportunities when it comes to building positive energy.
Stage 1: Making a Compelling Case for Change
This is more than just giving people information. Making a case means that you’re providing facts and figures (Level 1), as well offering the emotional punch that lets them know that this challenge or opportunity is critical right now (Level 2). And, case for change will need to be delivered by people whom the stakeholders trust (Level 3). In other words, all three levels of support need to be working for you.
Often, leaders never even think about this stage or take it seriously. I conducted a study on organizational change and found that projects that failed to make a case for change tended to fail (or run way over time and budget) far more often than those new initiatives that made sure people saw and felt a sense of urgency.
Stage 2: Getting Started on the Right Foot
This is the stage that often gets the most attention. You set goals, create timelines, identify deliverables, and develop detailed plans. When this stage is handled well, cynicism tends to fade away, people roll up their sleeves and work hard. Lots of people leave the meeting with optimism.
Unfortunately, two big mistakes can occur at this stage:
- Leaders make all the decisions. Only a handful of people are involved in coming up with the ideas and plans. They assume that they know best and that it will save them time if they make the big decisions.
- Organizations may hold high-energy and inclusive planning meetings, but then fail to build on that enthusiasm.
Stage 3: Implementing the Change
This stage focuses on the details of turning plans into actions. It can involve pilot tests, tweaking, and going back to the drawing board. This stage is critical, and it deserves as much attention as the first two stages.
However, two big things happen at this stage that can drain the batteries.
- Leaders hand off these tasks to others and then move on to other pressing challenges. When leaders do that, it invites rumors. It’s like there is a virtual Tweetstorm that lets everyone know that this project is no longer a high priority. And when people get this message, they put the project on the backburner too.
- A lot of people see Implementing Change as the boring part of a project. Instead of delegating (which is a good thing), leaders pass off this work to others with little oversight or enthusiasm.
Stage 4: Getting Real Value from the Change
You might think that paying attention to getting value would be an important part of the change process. Sadly, this stage is often ignored.
Two big problems:
- Once the project has been rolled out, the change pretty much ends. That’s like assuming that your marriage is going to go well since the wedding was such a success. It takes attention and work to make marriages and other significant changes work effectively.
- There is no feedback loop to measure value. Often, feedback is limited to deliverables: Did everyone get training? Has the new software been loaded onto everyone’s computer? Those are important measures during implementation, but they fail to address the most important question: Are things better as a result of all this work?
A Final Tip
If you believe that energy or support really is important, then I urge you to pay attention to it every day. Build this task into your plans. Say you’re going to hold a meeting with some key stakeholders this afternoon.
Ask yourselves: What will we need people to do after they attend this meeting? For example, Will we need them to complete some task? Offer us feedback? Volunteer to take on leadership roles? And how will we know that we’ve accomplished that objective?
Just asking those two questions and adapting your approach based on what you learn may be all that you need to do differently.
I hope this was helpful, and I wish you well with change.
Resources Related to Batteries Not Included™
Here are a few resources that I developed to help leaders build support for change—and they’re all free.
- Why Resistance Matters. This is a short article that describes the three levels of support and resistance I talk about in this paper. These levels are strong foundation pieces for all of my work with clients.
- The Magic List. If you need help figuring out the extent to which people are going to support or resist you, take a look at my short e-book titled The Magic List. I think that creating “the list” is essential if you want to earn the support of others on projects.
- The Energy Bar™. This is an easy tool that can help you begin to work effectively with support and resistance.