Over the last several months, we’ve communicated a lot about doing things differently, taking a step back, and truly understanding the reasons behind our actions/goals (i.e., our why). We also appreciate that these steps are typically much easier said than done. As with many aspects of our lives – especially when we’re navigating uncertainty, managing multiple priorities, running on empty, and/or stuck in a rut, it feels easier to just keep going and stay on the perpetual hamster wheel. Even (and often, especially) when we need it the most, making meaningful changes seems to be the hardest.

While Alan Deutschman popularized the phrase ‘change or die’ in the realm of business, the phrase has been used at least as early as 1964. It’s also a key phrase in the health and medical world, particularly with heart disease patients. Indeed, every aspect of the natural world undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts which, in some cases, involves a sort of death before renewal – and every stage relies upon the last, as well as the next.

If it’s so natural, why then, is it so hard for organizations to change? And what can/should leaders do about it?

Why is change so hard?

  • As with habits and our day-to-day routines, our brains are hardwired to doing the things we do on a regular basis
  • Humans don’t like uncertainty, and we’ve certainly had our fair share of it, as of late
  • Leaders/managers aren’t always bought-in or committed to the change, and/or not willing or held accountable to doing the associated work/championing
  • Lack of a clear plan with timelines, milestones, reasonable contingencies, etc. – with someone at the helm executing it (e.g., a project manager)
  • There’s often an expectation that it has to be seamless
  • Communication is challenging at the best of times, and change requires a lot of it
  • People across the organization haven’t been brought along, or engaged in the process… the why needs to drive it
  • People are often already at their limit, and change can feel like more work

While all of the factors above are inter-related, the stand-out factor for change management success comes down to leadership. More specifically, it’s about the ability of those in top leadership positions to steer, inspire, and effectively hold those accountable for executing the change.

The key characteristics/steps for successful change

  • Clearly defining the future vision – the ultimate why and the big picture
  • Bringing people alongside – building a strong, collaborative change team where individual strengths (and limits to those strengths) are known, discussed, and relied upon
  • Communication – more than most think is necessary, at all levels, in all forms
  • Checking in and gauging where people are at before, during, and after implementation
  • Working within a realistic timeline, while also addressing contingencies and/or pivoting as necessary with the inevitable obstacles that arise
  • Fully understanding that there will be bumps along the way, and that it won’t be easy
  • Staying motivated through the process and inspiring motivation/passion in others
  • Knowing when is and is not a good time, when to slow things down, speed things up
  • Knowing limits (e.g., if the intent is to increase customer retention, you also need to retain your people and ensure they don’t burn out, which means not pushing them too hard in the change process)
  • Overall awareness that emotions drive behaviour and impact people, and knowing how to manage/work with those emotions (i.e., emotional intelligence)

Finally, whether bought into the change or not, managers typically want to take care of their people and will often be a sounding board; let them vent, agree with concerns, and even participate in complaining, etc. Exceptional change leaders understand this and coach their managers to listen to/hear their teams while also presenting a unified front. The more you and they are all clear on the underlying why and vision, the easier this becomes. If you’re clear that the direction is the right one and members of your team are vocally and/or clearly not aligned, that should be addressed first – which may require some difficult decisions.

Ultimately, it’s clear that change isn’t easy. But it is a crucial and inevitable aspect of all things, including organizations and their people. For that reason, it’s equally crucial that leaders and the managers they hold accountable must understand and have the skills/characteristics necessary to lead and execute change in their workplaces.