How to Successfully Lead Change

Major change typically carries with it high risk.  You can mitigate that risk by managing the change.  Here are key tactics learned from years of successful change projects.


1.  Ongoing communications and involvement.  
  • Put together a comprehensive program including regular status updates, celebrations of successes, creating short-term wins, providing immediate recognition of accomplishments, making symbolic actions such as a memorial service for the old system. 
  • At one client, where employees were very change resistant, we identified a series of successful changes the company had accomplished in the past and created a timeline with pictures to illustrate that, contrary to perceptions, the company is quite good at change.  It effectively shifted the thinking. 
  • Regular communication should focus on three key items:
  1. Where we said we'd be with the project
  2. Where we are
  3. What you can expect next.

2.  Build clear executive sponsorship.  

  • Sponsorship is critical to successful change programs.  Sponsors needs to be monitored and held accountable for their impact on the success of the project. 
  • Weak sponsors need to be educated or replaced - they are that important. 
  • Strong sponsors reflect ten or more key characteristics, five of which are:
  1. Being dissatisfied with the current situation
  2. Having very clear goals for the transformation
  3. Believing there is a real need for change
  4. Publicly communicating the organization's commitment to change
  5. Being aware of the prices that will have to be paid in order for the change to succeed.

3.  Use talented resources to implement the change and build the needed skills.  

  • Whether those resources come from internal or external sources, they need to be dedicated to the transformation effort and available whenever needed.  Many clients have found that a "war room" or dedicated office space for managing the project improves communication and coordination.

4. Senior managers and change leaders at all levels must have an understanding of how change affects people.  

  • In particular, they need to learn how to handle resistance when it occurs (it will). 
  • Provide a "Change 101" program to introduce the predictable stages of change, tell them the roles they will play to manage change, and build a common vocabulary.  Managers must model the new desired behaviors required for the change to be successful.

5.  A change plan that provides an overview of the project.  

  • Make sure that project phases are easy to understand, not technical jargon understandable only to IT, or abstract HR speak.  Add a timeline.  At the beginning of the project, managers and supervisors will typically get more anxious about the change than employees.  You need their support, so tell them what to expect, how the change will be supported so they can talk confidently to their employees.

6.  Develop a compelling narrative about the change, how it fits in the company's history, and why this is one of the most exciting times in the company's history.  

  • Give it emotion, not just facts; make it easy for people to feel connected, excited and energized.  Usually a transformation does mark a significant time.  Put it in perspective for people and help them feel a part of important history. 
  • A government client used this to approach to give momentum to a major change as well as to provide a common identify to a wide range of employees in different locations and areas including highway, sewer, library, parks, finance, assessor's office, and others.

7.  Reinforce change by using performance measures and incentives.  

  • An additional reason to use incentives is as a retention tool.  If the transformation depends on the knowledge and skill of key players, it would be particularly damaging to lose them during the project.

8.  Make sure that your frontline staff feels ownership for the changes.  

  • Frontline typically refers to staff that interfaces directly with customers, such as branch employees in a bank.  But frontline can also apply to manufacturing employees - those who build what customers use.  In either case, they are vital to the transformation's success, and you'll want to keep them engaged and feeling responsibility for implementation. 
  • A bank client ran ongoing training and demonstration sessions for the last four months of the transformation project just to ensure that each and every branch employee knew how their daily routines would be affected and had many opportunities to "test drive" the system and offer suggestions. 
  • A manufacturing client focused heavily on building self-directed work teams and training them in lean manufacturing techniques for continuous improvement.  In both cases front line employees were engaged and became excited about their new roles, and in each case, performance metrics improved.