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John Kotter wrote the bible for change management in 1996, Leading Change. He noted “the amount of significant, often traumatic change” in organizations had grown tremendously in the previous two decades and too many transformation efforts were producing disappointing results.

The Harvard Business School professor’s diagnosis revealed eight common errors, generating “waste and anguish.” His eight-step program for major change was intended to avoid such trauma: Establish a sense of urgency, create a guiding coalition, develop a vision and strategy, communicate the change vision, empower broad-based action, generate short-term wins, consolidate gains and produce more change, and anchor the new approaches in the culture.

Even if you haven’t read Prof. Kotter, you and your organization have been following some or much of that script. And for the most part, it isn’t working. Two decades later, the amount of change seems to be escalating, and waste, anguish and failed change projects again remain common. McKinsey & Co. suggested a few years ago that about three-quarters of organizational transformation efforts fail.

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I have leaned toward poor communications as the reason. In his book, Prof. Kotter argued that change visions are under-communicated by a factor of at least 10. He calculated that typically the communications plan involved 13,400 words or numbers – the equivalent of a 30-minute speech, one hour-long meeting, one 600-word article in the firm’s magazine, and one 2,000-word memo. Even then, before today’s age of distraction, that wasn’t enough. “Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employees’ hearts and minds are never captured,” he declared.

In 2008, he issued a new book, A Sense of Urgency, arguing the most important element in his schema was developing a sense of urgency – not just for the change at hand, but for change in general. So perhaps we have been falling down there. In 2012, with Dan Cohen, he tackled The Heart of Change: “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” Perhaps that has been our problem.

But I like consultant Greg Satell’s incisive analysis in a recent article on his website. He starts by citing insufficient preparation for resistance: “Much as any competitive strategy that doesn’t anticipate the response from competitors is doomed to failure, any transformation strategy that doesn’t take into account those who oppose change is unlikely to succeed.”

The assumption is that the vision and specific steps that leaders have conceived are brilliant and others will eagerly embrace them. But in fact, people can be bitter, think the ideas are wrong-headed, and want to deflect or destroy the initiative. In his research, he found, however, when resistance is anticipated and taken into account, transformations can be very successful. So expect resistance and build a plan to overcome it.

He suggests that aggressively communicating the need for change and building a sense of urgency can backfire. “While communication efforts can and often do excite many about the prospect for transformation, they also alert the opposition to step up their efforts to undermine change,” he writes.

Instead, focus on mapping the terrain upon which the battle for change will be fought. Figure out who are the active and passive supporters of your change, who is neutral, and who is actively opposed. Mobilize the most enthusiastic supporters to start influencing the other groups to shift their opinions. “You probably won’t ever convince the active opposition, but you can isolate and neutralize them,” he says. Also, reach out to stakeholder groups – internal and external – that can help you build change, an echo of Prof. Kotter’s coalition for change.

He also questions the need to achieve some quick, short-term wins to demonstrate that the change initiative makes sense and build momentum. “The truth is that these types of objectives are often not meaningful to many, if not most, key stakeholders. In fact, they can often signal to those skeptical of change that the initiative is not serious,” he warns.

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His research found successful transformations identified a “keystone change” that had a clear and tangible goal, involved multiple stakeholders, and paved the way for greater change down the road. “Because these require the involvement of multiple stakeholders, they are never quick or easy,” he stresses.

Finally, he observes that every revolution inspires its own counter-revolution. So even if you are succeeding, don’t get overconfident; expect the resistance to return. He says you need from the start to “survive victory,” which requires rooting your efforts not in specific goals or objectives, but in common values.

It’s worth considering his insights as you prepare your next change initiative.

Quick hits

  • Stop pretending to have all the answers, advises leadership blogger Ron Edmondson. That will allow your team to fill the gaps. Similarly, don’t try to control every outcome. It doesn’t work; it limits others; and it’s not right.
  • Electronic word-of-mouth can be critical in a product launch. Research found that it is more likely to occur if people feel excitement for a product and that it was not too risky to recommend – poor quality or great expense, Matt Palmquist reports.
  • HR consultant Suzanne Lucas urges you to stop trying to list every requirement for a job in the posting since such long lists may discourage female applicants. A Hewlett-Packard study found men apply for a job when they meet 60 per cent of the criteria but women apply only when they meet 100 per cent of the qualifications.

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