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What to do if a change starts to fail

How can change be sustained? How can you prevent people from slipping into old ways of working? In this video we look at ways change can be protected.
If there are signs that a transformation is failing, there are a number of strategies leaders and managers can consider for turning the situation around. First of all, there needs to be clarity about the aim and the outcome. So for organisational change, ensure a clear link is made between the planned change and the shared vision for the future– the organisation’s purpose, core values, and strategic plan. Is it clear what your organisation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are, and how the change effort will influence them? Can the outcomes and benefits of the change be measured? Which changes will have the greatest impact with the least risk? Is too much trying to be changed all at once? Are there unrealistic timescales?
Having considered these questions, you may need to rethink the aims or plan more realistic timeframes, for example. It’s also important to consider if there is enough support and readiness for the change. We’ve talked about the importance of identifying all the stakeholders in the project and anticipating what their initial position may be to the change. If you find there is opposition or a lack of commitment, think about how best to engage your stakeholders and then revisit your communications plan. Recently I was working with a Japanese pharmaceutical company, and we had a central team and some country teams.
And one of the things that was quite interesting was the central team were trying to build relationships with key stakeholders out in the countries who were actually very resistant to what it was that they were trying to do. And that team decided quite bravely to tackle it head on, and they brought me in to facilitate the workshops. So what they did was, they got their resistant stakeholders together and we spent two days together, really working through, you know, what was that resistance really about? How could those two groups of people work together in much more of a win-win way?
And really down to the level of how do we put together a very practical action plan that we can take forward? Because I think often, you know, with resistant stakeholders, people often shy away from even engaging with them, whereas one of the best ways of dealing with them can be just to say, just to get out there and tackle it head-on and really listen and understand what’s going on. Similarly, is the organisation ready for the change? Does it have the capabilities needed? Often I’ve worked in organisations and we might be looking at a cultural change, and, you know, we define what the culture that organisation might look and feel like.
But then what happens is, you then need to talk and get your HR people engaged and involved, because unless you align the change of the organisation into the HR policies and procedures, then that change is not going to be sustainable in the longer term. And what I mean by that, things like the recruitment processes, you know, how do we select people? How do we run our proposed appraisals? How do we put our personal development plans together? How do we reward people? You know, it’s like the pieces of the jigsaw, and all of those pieces of the jigsaw have to fit together.
But what I’ve noticed over the years is the organisations that have been most successful have really understood that, and once they’ve defined and designed the change, then they have aligned it to the HR– to the people, policies, and processes if you like. The organisations that have been least successful are the ones that have– they’ve designed the changes that are needed, but they haven’t done anything to reinforce them. And so it’s no great surprise that those changes have been diluted and they’ve never really fully achieved the benefits.
It’s also vital to ensure that key players are performing and that there’s clarity about the key roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the change. I think it’s definitely important in order to prevent people from falling back into old habits after change is implemented– to make sure that they’re job-ready for the new environment. And this may involve education and training, hand-holding, providing clear guidelines around how the new environment would operate. And this is definitely something that leadership teams can play a huge role on in terms of making sure that the people who are involved in this new environment are job-ready.
Are roles and responsibilities clear? Are people clear on what is expected? And are they empowered to act accordingly? Do you have the right people in the right roles? I think there’s quite a dilemma sometimes for leaders, because you can have people in the organisation who are extremely able– so they might be a really high performer, and yet not necessarily bought into the change process. I mean, I was working in an organisation very recently and it was quite clear that one of the directors, who is extremely well thought of, very high performer, but when we started to talk about some of the behaviours that needed to change around the organisation, that they were very resistant.
And you know, I was having a conversation with the leader of that team afterwards and just asking them how they might get around this particular individual, and I think sometimes that’s a difficult choice for leaders. You know, if you’ve got people like that in the organisation, they can be very influential over a period of time and start to dilute, you know, the effectiveness of the change programme. Does the implementation plan need review? Careful planning and monitoring are essential. That plan is to include how you’re going to achieve things and by when, because people can struggle to cope with the ongoing nature of change and the complexity of it.
So the clearer you can be about what you want to achieve and by when, regardless of the fact that may change as you go, you can always tell people that we’ve had to change this and why. And then the plan is to go beyond just the implementation of the change, but on to a way in which to monitor and review the implementation of the change, because there is a risk that things won’t be sustained beyond the completion of the plan, but also that some of the things you might suggest may not work. So we need a way to– you need to be open to reviewing those and changing them if you need to.
Milestones need to be defined clearly and problems anticipated and acted upon swiftly. There may be opposition to changes in terms of, for example, the pace or direction, and therefore the manager will need the ongoing support of leaders to secure stakeholders’ commitment and additional resources. It could also be that as a leader or manager, you need to accept certain setbacks because the situation changes and it requires a different response.
I think it’s also important that whatever plans they put in place, however long they think it might take, it’s important to understand that it’ll probably be longer than that. That’s just the reality of change. Things will change as you go through the process and you need to be able to adapt as you go and to cope with those changes as they happen. Is there enough focus on gaining emotional commitment to the change? As we have seen, feelings must be taken into consideration throughout the change process. Every opportunity to communicate with employees and other stakeholders should reflect this. The power of the unofficial network in organisations should not be underestimated, because a whispering campaign against change can seriously undermine its success.
Review the communication strategy. Communication planning and implementation are key to turning around a failing change. Leaders and managers need to be consistent and transparent, even when the news is bad, because it is better for employee motivation to be honest. Bad news should be balanced, of course, with some hope. For example, here is the problem, and here is how we are going to fix it. Otherwise, there is a risk that people will be left with the impression that the change is bound to fail. Identify and address the mistakes and avoid blaming others. There needs to be clear accountability for the sustainability of change. However, managers need to ensure that there is coordination of effort and that everyone shares successes and challenges.
Recognise productive failure. The failure of an intended change may be due to its inappropriateness. In this situation, it is important to learn from the experience and accept a rethink is needed. And I think you also need to be open to the fact that some of the things you might try to introduce as a change, that people struggle to adopt as a new habit, is because it’s not actually working. So you need to be open to reviewing that and listen to the expertise that individuals bring in their own individual roles and think about how they can contribute to– coming up with a different or a better solution.
If change does fail and is irretrievable, then it is important to take time to learn from the failure and apply the lessons learned to future changes.

Hopefully you found the last step useful in considering what risks could materialise during a change initiative. We’re now going to consider what to do if those risks do indeed happen and turn into issues. Change can appear to be easy to create, plan and even to produce templates and checklists for. But what happens when problems start to occur, as they inevitably will? How can one mistake be prevented from turning into a major failure of the whole change effort?

Sustaining a change programme requires courage – sometimes the courage to admit that it was the wrong plan or that there should be a change of direction. At other times it is a question of perseverance, of keeping going even when the going is tough.

In this video you’ll hear the perspectives again from Lindsay, Steven and Kamales on aspects of this. They touch on areas of training, encouraging feedback and recognising when the change itself needs to be reviewed.

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Leading and Managing People-Centred Change

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