The top ten essential ingredients for successful change

To deliver change successfully, people must understand what needs to be achieved and why – and the organisation, at all levels, must be prepared, equipped, aligned and motivated to follow it through to completion. Let’s have a closer look at the ten essential steps to achieving this…

1) A Change Catalyst to drive delivery

The ingredient most often overlooked in change initiatives, a Change Catalyst is someone whose role it is to guide the organisation – to help the leadership stay focused, to enable communication and to ensure the necessary business outcomes are delivered.

A business person, not a project manager, they must thoroughly understand all the drivers of the business, as well as possessing the emotional intelligence to empathise with people at all levels of the organisation.

2) Clarity about what you are trying to achieve and why

The desired business outcomes must be clear, realistic and measurable. You need to paint a picture of the future for your staff and provide them with a narrative concerning what the future will look like – and ensure this vision of the future is credible, motivational, and relevant to everyone.

And the reasons for the change must be genuine. You may not be able to provide the ‘real’ reason for the change, but the ‘right’ reason needs to be sincere, believable and something that people want to get behind.

3) Detailed understanding of the implications of the change

If you want your desired outcomes to be delivered, you will have to understand who and what will be affected by the proposed changes. Every change comes with its own set of consequences; implications for the team, the department, the organisation and the individuals involved. As many as possible of these implications should be explored in advance, as some of them will be so significant that the strategy itself may need to be altered.

4) A laser-like focus on the outcomes

Successful change initiatives have a laser-like focus, to the point of obsession, on ‘outcomes’ – clarifying them, continually referring to them in progress reports and communications, pausing to check whether they are still valid or desirable . . . and finally delivering them.

The change programme that obsesses over process, thereby taking its eye off what it is setting out to achieve, is guaranteed to fail. Adapt the process to deliver the outcomes – never the other way around. 

5) A change process that includes a ‘pause for reflection’

Once a project has set its planned objectives and they have been signed off by the appropriate governance body, it is ‘full steam ahead’. Once the project is in mid-stride, it is difficult to stop it – as asking the working group to pause is tantamount to implying that they may be doing a poor job. Formalising a ‘pause for objective reflection’ gives everyone involved the opportunity to check whether the intended outcomes are still desirable, whether they are still viable or whether they need adapting in any way. It allows leaders to acknowledge that circumstances change.

6) Clear governance and thorough planning

Good governance is simply clarity on the roles required, who is accountable for what (the decision-makers), who is responsible for what (those actually doing the work) and how decisions are made. Lack of clarity on who is accountable can result in decisions being delayed or made by people without the authority to do so.

The importance of planning cannot be over-estimated. The first step of any change plan is to ensure clarity of what the initiative is setting out to achieve and why; ensuring the outcomes are clear, realistic and measurable; and that your people understand and embrace what the future will look like. The next step is to establish the most appropriate governance structure, ensuring clarity of roles and remits, processes, milestones and the schedule.

7) Genuine engagement with people at all levels of the organisation

By ‘genuine engagement’, I mean the full gamut of (a) communications and (b) stakeholder engagement. I use the word ‘genuine’ deliberately. Your communications may be ‘professional’ but if your employees don’t believe they are genuine, they will have very little impact. In fact, they will be damaging to your cause. Disingenuous communications can be worse than none at all. Similarly, superficial engagement with stakeholders is disrespectful, counter-productive and a waste of everyone’s time. Genuine engagement involves listening and acting upon the insight you receive.

8) Identification of the emotional triggers

People only genuinely change if they want to. So, in order to help them to want to change, you need to help them find their trigger, and a purely rational trigger will be inadequate. ‘Change or you will be fired’ is a strong motivator – but not enough for anyone genuinely to embrace new ways of working. ‘Change and you will learn new skills and help the company move into new areas, but, even more importantly, it will make you even more employable’ is the sort of emotional motivation that may enthuse people to put their heart and soul into a new way of doing things.

9) A strong, committed, aligned and unwavering leadership team

Successful change requires strong leadership. But more than that, it requires leaders who genuinely and actively embrace the change – and are seen to do so. It requires a leadership team whose members are all aligned and working together to achieve the desired outcomes; outcomes that every one of them genuinely cares about delivering. Any chink in this armour, any gap in the alignment, any hint of disagreement, any sign of hesitation and the change effort will begin to crumble – quickly.

10) A change-ready culture

Creation of a culture that embraces, encourages and rewards change is our final key ingredient for success. People need help if they are to embrace change willingly. Help to overcome their fear of the unknown, their fear of failure and/or their fear of being blamed. And to enable this on an organisation-wide scale requires the establishment of an environment where people eagerly look for improvements in the way things are done, are allowed to question the status quo, are encouraged to learn from failure and are open to new processes, procedures and structures.

It requires the establishment of a change-ready culture.

This is an edited extract from The Change Catalyst: Secrets to Successful and Sustainable Business Change by Campbell Macpherson (Wiley, 2017).