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5 Ways to Navigate Organizational Change

Few workplace activities are more maddening, complex, frustrating, valuable, and potentially massively rewarding than getting a group of people to change their behavior.

One of the most common questions we receive from leaders is how to successfully navigate organizational change. There are many excellent books, strategies, and methodologies for doing this, of course. These five below will get you started on the path of meaningful change:

1. Demonstrate the Problem

All things being equal, people and organizations tend to default to the, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mentality. This is especially true in an age of constant inputs from multiple stakeholders, devices, and inboxes.

While it’s possible to start some change by simply getting compliance from people, you are far more likely to have success if you move away from compliance and instead work for enthusiastic cooperation.

In his book, Leading Change, Harvard professor emeritus John Kotter states:

Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo.

To overcome these forces, Kotter and others recommend that you make substantial efforts to demonstrate the urgency of the problem that organizational change could address.

A discipline of effective managers is to demonstrate the problem with strong evidence. It’s simply not enough for a change agent to claim, “This change will help us,” or, “Making these changes is a good idea.” It’s critical that you cite factual evidence that is respected by many people in the organization.

Here are seven strategies from Dale Carnegie that will help you leverage credible evidence to demonstrate the problem. If you do this successfully, you’ll overcome complacency, a key step that will start change.

2. Form a Supportive Team

Even when the problem is demonstrated successfully, it’s rare for a leader to be able to influence major organizational behavior on their own. It’s essential to identify a supportive team that will help champion the change effort and take ownership for the change.

Pick people who are influential in the organization in different ways. A part-time employee might not have the position power to affect change, but may have the personality to get people excited. A subject matter expert on the team may be quieter, yet incredibly motivating to others who trust their opinion.

Dale Carnegie said:

Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

For change to happen, not only do others need to feel the idea is theirs, but they must take ownership of it too.

It’s imperative at this stage that the change effort stop being the leader’s project and transition to become the supportive team’s project. If people are still referring to it as your initiative, it’s unlikely you have much success in the next steps.

3. Over Communicate

A common mistake made by leaders is the assumption that they’ve successfully communicated the need and vision for change when, often, they have not. William H. Whyte said:

The great enemy of communication, is the illusion of it.

It’s rarely enough to make a mention of a new initiative at one staff meeting or simply send out an email or two. Real behavior change takes time — and regular reminders and reinforcements about the actions the organization needs to take are critical.

“How much is too much?” is a common question we hear. It’s virtually impossible to over communicate about organizational change. Ironically, leaders who do this effectively often weary of communicating the same message, again and again.

If you find yourself experiencing this kind of fatigue, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When other than start repeating word-for-word exactly what you’ve been saying, you’re on the right track for sure.

4. Highlight Early Wins

Many organizational changes do receive a lot of initial attention and may be successful initially. After a few early wins, it’s easy to move onto more pressing priorities and assume the change has been made and on the right track.

Just because change is on the right track doesn’t mean it will stay there. Many people can recall points in their careers where an organization they were part of got really excited about change (and had some initial successes) only to revert back to the old way of doing things within a few months.

When early wins happen, make every reasonable effort to highlight the result to the entire organization and recognize the people who made it happen. Dale Carnegie’s recognition process is one way to do this, but most organizations have many formal and informal ways to recognize people. Use them.

The level of enthusiasm you show for early wins will immediately set the tone for others who are on the fence about the change and waiting for the early indicators of whether they should take this initiative seriously.

Dale Carnegie said:

Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.

If you show genuine enthusiasm for early wins, you vastly improve your odds that these aren’t the only wins you’ll see.

5. Believe Naysayers

Effective politicians learn very quickly that the best way to get elected is to focus on two groups: their champion supporters (for fundraising) and the swing voters (the difference-makers in many elections). Even in “landslide” wins, it’s not unusual for 30-40% of people to have voted for someone else.

You’re likely not running a political campaign, but you are trying to influence people’s behavior. That’s hard, and you’re best to focus your initial time and energy on the people most supportive of the change and those who will likely support it if you can demonstrate early wins.

If someone in your organization seems unedited or even opposed to the change, take time to listen of course, but don’t put tons of energy into trying to change their mind up front. Wait until the change is well under way until you work hard to engage their cooperation.

Obviously you need to confront and address someone who is not completing job requirements or someone actively working against you. However, more often naysayers are engaged with the organization, but just don’t yet see the need for the change.

If you do you job well, a lot of naysayers will come around in the long-run to be supporters. In the short-run, focus on your supportive team and generating early wins, so you have the opportunity to influence naysayers later.

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