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Sustainable Change: Making It Happen

The secrets to creating sustainable change

By William Valutis

Change. Sometimes it’s as natural as breathing. Other times it’s as elusive as the Holy Grail. Whether it comes easily or reluctantly, change is a fundamental requirement for success in today’s volatile and unpredictable business world. Doubters need only look back at the previous eighteen months for a clear reminder of the volatility of these times and of how quickly explosive growth and insatiable demand for employees can give way to economic recession, high unemployment rates and war.

As an executive, you know all too well the financial and emotional impact of this swing. I’m sure many floors have been paced and many ceiling tiles analyzed in the dead of night as you wrestle with what changes are needed to return your company to consistent growth and predictable profits. And, I’m sure you have also wrestled with the difficulties that typically arise when an organization attempts to implement change. Even the most brilliant change initiatives prove worthless when they’re not implemented in a way that sustains the desired impact or result.

More than a ‘Quick’ Fix

The difference between episodic change and sustainable change is as great as the difference between a pee-wee hockey player and an Olympic gold medalist. Episodic change includes classic examples such as the “program of the month” change, the “get fixed quick” solution provided by the latest bestseller, and/or the large-scale change efforts that never seem to take hold. The ideas seem great, but in reality they rarely deliver the desired outcomes.

On the other hand, sustainable change is an intervention that truly takes root in an organization. When achieved, sustainable change helps an organization move from making conscious “efforts to change” to establishing a new, accepted “way of doing business.” Furthermore, sustainable change can feed on itself thus creating the continuous improvements most have given up on as an academic dream.

How can you capture sustainable change in your business? Believe it or not, it is quite attainable if efforts are made to put five fundamental prerequisites in place prior to launching a program for change. By doing so, the odds that your efforts will achieve the desired impact increase substantially.

A Model for Sustainable Change

The model for sustainable change that follows challenges you, the executive, to work on preparing, creating and maintaining an environment that supports and nurtures change. Without this, even the best idea for change will likely die a slow but steady death. To that end, the prerequisites to achieving sustainable change require that you first:

  1. Build Awareness.
    If the organization is not aware of your desires, goals and intentions it is virtually impossible for employees to contribute their fullest to the change efforts. Ensuring all are fully aware of your planned change program empowers them to determine and act (individually or collectively) in ways that best impact progress. In essence you unlock others’ potential for contribution and forward thinking because they fully understand the situation, the goal and the plan for “closing the gap.” As you plan a change effort or contemplate introducing a new element into your organization, ask the following questions:

    • Do my employees know why we are going to launch this effort to change?
    • Do they understand what the change effort entails and what their role is?
    • Do they know what would make it a success, or conversely cause it to fail?
    • Are they aware of why we need to do this and what my thinking is?
    • Has my communication clearly defined the “end,” the “beginning,” and the “means” to get there?
  2. Check for Motivation/Desire.
    Once you are sure your employees understand and are aware of the need to change, the goal of the change and the plan to change, you need to see if they have the motivation and desire to act. All the awareness in the world means nothing if there is not the motivation to do something about it. While an owner’s motivation is rarely an issue, getting employees to feel the same (or even some) passion can be a different matter. Consequently, you must prepare adequate and sustainable motivation before (and during) your efforts to change. While books can be (and have been) written on motivation, for the purposes of this article we ask that you consider just a handful of questions:

    • Do my employees care?
    • Are their consequences positive (“what’s in it for me?”) or negative?
    • Is their desire self-sustaining? If not, how can we keep it going?
    • Do my internal systems support my intentions (pay systems, performance management, incentives, etc.)?
  3. Assess Abilities.
    A fully aware workforce with the desire to change and transform will still fail if they do not have the requisite skills and abilities to help implement your plans. A simple example is the executive who launches a major initiative into new markets without first training her sales force in the art of remote selling. Ask yourself:

    • Can my employees do what I will expect of them?
    • Is the raw talent available?
    • Are they trainable or will I need to find new people with the skill set I need?

    In checking for abilities, be sure you don’t mistake a lack of desire as a lack of ability. Too many companies turn to training when the real issue is apathy!

  4. Create Opportunities.
    Do the employees have the opportunity to get involved and move the efforts forward? Do they have appropriate influence in the change effort and supporting processes? Is initiative on their part welcomed (and if it is, are they aware of that fact!)? These are just a handful of questions to consider when examining the fourth prerequisite for sustainable change. Be sure you have not inadvertently strapped the hands of the people who will be responsible for the success of the change effort. Be sure opportunities are there for success. This can include the opportunities necessary for launching the change, but also for interacting with you. Be sure to allow time for coaching and mentoring as you go forward.Prepare to Provide Feedback.Efforts to change will be new and expectations high. Providing timely and regular feedback on efforts is a critical prerequisite for sustaining change. Ask yourself:

    • How will I communicate the results and/or impact of our efforts?
    • Is/will feedback (be) perceived as accurate and valuable?
    • Have I established a clear connection between results and rewards? Is there adequate accountability within my organization?

Again, these elements, when confronted and addressed, assure that there is adequate feedback (and related consequences) within your company to sustain the change effort over time. A critical aspect of this fifth prerequisite is its role in further increasing awareness among the individuals and the organization. Think of it as a “feedback loop” that reconnects us to the awareness element of the model. By doing so, you continue cycling through the prerequisites ensuring that they adjust to changing circumstance.

Prerequisites For Sustainable Change

  • Awareness of issues, expectations, perceptions, need for change, etc.
  • Motivation/Desire to address issues, self-development and change
  • Skills & Abilities involved in performance, development and leadership
  • Opportunity to stretch and try new behavior, skills and abilities
  • Feedback (and consequences) regarding all, but especially new developments, behaviors and performance

Making the Model Work

The prerequisites presented above are far from being a quick fix to the complex issue of introducing and sustaining organizational change. They are, however, a practical model that can direct your thinking and help you identify and remove roadblocks to progress. I challenge you to practice examining situations (or employees) that are not achieving the change you desire.

Ask yourself “Why?” Cycle through the prerequisites to find the answer. For example, “Are they aware …?”; “Do they care…?”; “Can they do it…”; “Have I given them a chance…?”; “Are they getting the feedback needed to manage themselves…?” These questions focus your analysis of the situation and lead to targeted efforts to get the results you desire.

Remember, sustainable change is real. Achieve it and you’ll possess a powerful tool for creating greatness within your company.

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