Leading Change

In his book “Execution, The Discipline of Getting Things Done,” Larry Bossidy, retired chairman of Honeywell, provides a powerful reminder for leaders of change when he warns, “[N]ever launch an initiative unless you are personally committed to it and prepared to see it through until it’s embedded in the DNA of the organization.”

But how does a leader know when it is appropriate to be personally committed? What does it take to be certain that the both the leader and the organization can successfully execute a change project? These are critical questions because there is a lot at stake. An appalling 75 percent of all change initiatives fail. Since we spend $300 billion on change initiatives globally, that translates to $225 billion of wasted money, fruitless effort, loss of focus and organizational frustration. Here is some of the best wisdom taken from the work of successful change leaders.

  • Keep planning focused on the business value to be delivered, and separate it from the project itself. Looking at the reasons given for failure from project staff, it is evident that a leader can anticipate and plan for most of the resistance encountered. Unfortunately, when we have a great idea, it is too easy to be naive about what it will really require to execute. Too often, the idea alone generates an order to get started. This is especially true in “hit the beach” cultures. Unfortunately, this approach does not build sufficient consensus to sustain the change when resistance comes up — and it always does. A rigorous planning process will allow a sponsor to really understand the risk and reward on the table before she kicks off a project.
  • Beware of fudge factor planning. Years ago, I was director of business development for John Naisbitt, author of “Megatrends” and “Reinventing the Corporation.” John used to talk with passion about the power of a services-based economy, allowing those without access to vast capital to use technology and an idea to launch a business. What John did not talk about was that in the absence of the hard physics involved with manufacturing, it is easy to cut corners when we are estimating work effort. Nothing is more damaging and wasteful than a project launched with optimism that hits the wall because it is understaffed, underfunded or working under an unreasonable deadline. A well-built plan allows the program sponsor to say yes with full commitment or say no with full understanding.
  • Actively create and sustain consensus among leaders of stakeholder organizations. Do not fall into the trap of believing that if you change it they will come. Sustaining new behavior requires constant reinforcement — and even if you manage all of the people whose behaviors and decisions you want to change, you will need this alliance. Rarely can change be ordered.
  • Remember, actions speak louder than words. Be visible to the project team, to the constituent groups, to those wrestling with the issues and to those whose resistance to the change is high. Abraham Lincoln relieved Gen. John Fremont of his command for being too distant, saying: “His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.”

Even in a small company, employees and customers will watch how much attention and resource you put behind a change project with much more interest than what you say.

There is significant research on why change projects succeed or fail, but there are no absolute answers. A fully informed executive sponsor who is disciplined about planning and willing to be a proactive, visible champion is the single most trustworthy barometer of what will happen with a new change initiative.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 26, 2004.