The Surprising Secret To Making Successful Organizational Change

Leading ChangeNever believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.
                                                                     Margaret Mead 

“The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”
                                                                     Blaise Paschal

The clock already has begun ticking away toward the day when your organization announces it’s decided to pursue a major change.

In some e-mail, conference call or all-up meeting, you’ll soon learn that your company is about to re-organize reporting structures, significantly alter its strategic and cultural direction, or launch a new product line.

What you should know in advance of this communication is that the far majority of firms fail in their attempts at implementing major changes like these – simply because they’re unaware of the one ingredient that assures its success.  A Harvard professor has discovered what differentiates those who truly succeed when implementing change and his answer may surprise you.

In 1980, at age 33, John Kotter was given tenure and a full professorship at Harvard’s Business School, making him one of the youngest people in the history of the university to be so honored.  Around that same time, he became convinced that the rate of change in business had begun to rapidly accelerate from historic norms (largely because of technological breakthroughs) and wondered if companies would be skilled at responding.

What Kotter discovered is that, “on average, people were terrible at it.”  Through his research, he compiled 100 examples of organizations that had sought to transform themselves in some major way, and discovered 70% were failures.  “If you look at their aspirations and what they said they were going to do,” he told me recently, “it just didn’t happen.”

Grading the remaining firms, Kotter said “25% achieved something – but nothing close to their original aspirations.  Only 5% were really successful at implementing their original vision.”

Gifted at qualitative pattern analysis, Kotter began a deep dive into understanding the practices of the successful.  He later distilled all he learned in his book, Leading Change, named by Time Magazine as one of the “25 Most Influential Business and Management Books of All Time.”  And its in Kotter’s book, published in 1996, that we find what’s perhaps the earliest example of an academic stressing that leadership that ignores the hearts in people cannot possibly succeed.

“When we studied successful change projects of any kind, what we found is the small percentage that were particularly effective, they really did work much more than average not just to get people to think differently, but to feel differently.”   “In the words of someone a long time ago, you have to win over the minds and the hearts of people.”

Kotter believes that positive emotions have a profound impact on human motivation and yet few leaders ever consider ways of addressing employee feelings when seeking the full support of their employees.  It’s his observation that most organizations devote 90% of their energy to changing employee thinking (10% to feelings) while the most successful firms focus at least 60% on the heart (40% on intellect).

It’s been my own professional experience that many managers rely on fear as a tool for motivating support for the changes they seek to make.   According to Kotter, he’s never once seen this strategy succeed.  “Fear makes people self protective and fails to inspire creativity.  Fear is not sustainable as a motivating force and, for those reasons, it doesn’t work.”  He also added, “it’s not a small number of business leaders who try to implement big changes by what are basically sticks.”

Our key take away from Kotter’s work is that it’s rarely an appeal to an employee’s mind that will motivate them to embrace change and to contribute wholeheartedly to ensuring its success.   While Kotter stresses that there literally are hundreds of ways a leader can create experiences that affect employee’s feelings, here are three practices I’ve found to be exceptionally impactful:

  • Demonstrate To People That You Know Change Can Be Hard
    While it’s a law of nature that change is constant, the human reaction to it often is resistance.   By telling your team, collectively and individually, that you will be there to support them, and that you know change interferes with their routines and proficiencies, you’ll demonstrate your human understanding of their feelings.

  • Teach Employees The New Ways Before You Implement
    What makes people fear change most is the concern that they won’t be competent in the new world order.  When you invest in your employees’ development, and allow adequate time for it to sink in, you inherently give them the confidence to embrace the changes.  Implement before you’ve fully re-trained people and you’ll have a disaster on your hands.
  • Encourage People And Celebrate Small Wins
    Not everyone adapts to change at the same speed and some can be counted on the seriously resist.  Two ways to accelerate full adoption is to encourage every employee (especially your thorns) and to assure him or her that they’ll be able to successfully acclimate.  And every time you see people behaving in the desired way, make sure to acknowledge it in the most public way possible.

The next time you’re asked to lead a change with your team, remember the words of John Kotter, “The more you focus on hearts and not just on minds, the better it will work out.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.